Social Media and the Arab Spring
In 2011, the world witnessed unprecedented events that unfolded in the Middle East and North Africa that resulted to the overthrowing of the despotic Arab regimes. From the toppling of the autocratic governments of Tunisia and Egypt to the unrests in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, the social media has acted as an important platform for the protesters. The social media has also been instrumental in providing support for the for the rebel troops battling Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. The protests started in Tunisia when Mohammed Bouaziz, a small groceries store holder torched himself and died due to the hardship that he was facing, and the fact that the government was trying to take away the only source of livelihood that he had.
Social media played an important role by bringing together different groups together to debate the issue and air their views. Due to the ban on street protests, it provided a forum to enable people to exchange their views. Different elements of the social media were used for different purposes. The internet was useful for dissemination of information and gathering of news. The social media contributed greatly to the coordination and of different groups and individuals. On the other hand, mobile phones were used primarily in taking videos of the protest scenes that occurred and the crackdown from the authorities. In general, these social media acted in a manner that enabled the protesters to bypass the traditional forms of media like the television and newspapers that are normally controlled by the government.
The fast internet speeds enabled the protesters to exchange information among protesters and enabled them to organize themselves during the protests. The social media provided information on where to get food and water, where to get blankets and providing locations for the protests meetings. It also provided other useful strategies to the protesters like how to evade the security forces and disarm tear gas thrown at them.
In Egypt, the revolution was initiated much earlier long before 2011 with the rise of the dissident bloggers that created political blogs. These bloggers became important symbols of the resistance to the autocratic regimes they created political blogs through the social media sites that had massive appeal to the general population. These sites set the stage for the population to use the Internet as the main weapon of choice against Hosni Mubarak’s government. There was a standoff at the Tahir square between the security forces and the citizens.
The social media, especially Youtube and Facebook provided the necessary channels for the protesters to air their views to the global community. Aljazeera was in the forefront of reporting events as they unfolded in the various countries. This is because various regimes had locked out mainstream media corporations from covering the protests. As such, the traditional media that were controlled by the governments like television and the newspapers could not be counted on by the protesters to tell what was really happening on the ground. Aljazeera played an important role by its ability to use social media as a legitimate reporting tool.
The use of the social media like YouTube and Facebook was very important in providing transparency in journalism. The government-run media that tried to deny the brutal crackdown that was taking place were countered by real-time videos in YouTube and Facebook. This contrast provided further evidence that the governments were trying to cover crimes against humanity. Twitter blogs also provided minute-by-minute account of what was taking place during the protests thus providing a picture of what was happening on the ground.
Aljazeera relied critically on the social media to cover events that happened in Tahir square in a manner that did not allow the government deny. This created a lot of pressure on the Egyptian government due to surging demand for answers from the global community. In essence, world leaders were asking for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. Therefore, it can be argued that the social media played a crucial role in maintaining an important link to the rest of the world, which helped to maintain pressure against the autocratic regimes of the Africa and the Middle East.
The social media’s popularity with the youth has also been an important fact in the mobilization of the youth for a common political course. Traditional sources of media like the newspapers do not appeal to the youth and as such, did not have the power to mobilize the youth who were the most active in the protests. The youth, who were active participants wanted to be part of the change and they did not want history to unfold without their involvement. The citizen journalist factor can, therefore, be said to have been made possible by the availability of the social media tools.
However, there are those critics who argue that the role of the social media was overstated in the Arab Spring. They argue that smartphones and laptops cannot march to the protests scenes and that most credit should be given to protesters who took the initiative to start and maintain the protests against the despotic regimes. However, what is clear is that the social media provided the platform for organization, coordinating and mobilizing different groups in unprecedented manner. The internet and the videos from the mobile phones were integrated into the social networking sites to provide graphic details of the brutal crackdown of security forces. This created an international condemnation that piled pressure on the regimes to come to terms with the reality that was unfolding.