The power of social media is that it allows people to experience current events on a personal level at a speed never before possible. Social media alone did not create the movements observed in the Arab Spring, but access to interactive platforms affected their narratives and influenced political concessions.
Estimated Time to Read: 14 minutes
By Nick Blas
In the early days of December 2010, pundits, analysts, and world leaders alike failed to anticipate the political and social upheaval that was about to unfold. The Arab Spring brought change with such speed and sheer magnitude that it called into question many of the preconceived notions of both the strength of old-guard regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and many contemporary ideas of political scientists. Within a short period, in multiple countries throughout the region, the people overthrew the regime or forced political concessions. Prior to the uprisings, many social movement theories neglected the impact of social media technologies on protest movements and commonly relegated them to fashions of the younger generation.
Analysts saw protests through a framework of physical collective action to achieve a goal, but they neglected to consider the potential impact of the cyber realm on the process of social mobilization. Early analysis often missed the effect of information spread through the internet on local anti-establishment movements. During the Arab Spring, protest organizers used social media to collect and focus grievances against the government and to overcome the inherent hesitancy of individuals to participate in a protest movement. Social media alone did not create the social movements observed in the Arab Spring, but access to interactive media affected the movements’ narrative and framing, which dictated success or failure of the various civil efforts to force political concessions.
Social Media and Social Movement Theory
Social movement theory provides the lenses needed to assess how social media affected the Arab Spring. Michael Billig defines a social movement as a collective, organized, sustained, and inherently non-institutional challenge to authority. Social movements differ from many similar politically active groups such as an interest group or political party, and endure through adverse events far beyond a passing trend. A social movement often begins with an informal network of people who want to change politics and society. Social movements try to gain influence over the state and its bureaucratic apparatus. Activists seek as much support as possible to influence these social changes. Therefore, they attempt to mobilize members for their causes from other associations which make up the fabric of civil society such as labor unions, soccer clubs, business societies, charitable groups, or religious organizations.
Civil society consists of associations outside the state apparatus that enable collective participation. These associations aggregate community interests to achieve a common purpose, often toward a political, religious, or cultural objective. Examples of civil societies include religious organizations, labor unions, and professional associations. Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott further defined civil society as “a dense network of non-government associations and groups established for the autonomous pursuit of diverse socioeconomic interests and prepared to rebuff state efforts to take control of these activities.” These various groups and individuals create a fabric of life within a given area apart from the state context. They represent an independent “will,” a composite representing different sectors of the populace.
This collective will, when put into action, can create social change, but it requires motivating individuals to take action. The process of social movements provides the mechanism to drive any public transformation. Charles Tilly defined social movements as a series of sustained contentious performances, public displays, and campaigns by which ordinary people make collective claims on the interests of others. Tilly’s explanation emphasizes ordinary people overcoming the social, economic, and personal barriers to engage in collective action. A combination of opportunity and threat can serve as a catalyst propelling protest movements to gain significant ground against the government, and demonstrate the depth and magnitude of popular support for their cause.
Social media, at the outset, provides some significant capabilities to a potential movement by lowering the barrier to entry into a protest movement. The advent of social media enabled citizens to play a more active civic role, and it has stimulated the desire for greater transparency in government dealings. Generally, common citizens do not conduct in-depth studies of the social issues they face in their communities, and traditional media historically plays a large part in developing a shared understanding. Social media holds power by enabling people to experience current events on a personal level at a speed never before possible. Movements require people to adopt the publicized ideals and promote petitions for social change; they cannot simply distribute a message. A successful social movement must call for action in a way that reaches people on an emotional level.
Social media provides a burgeoning capability that enables people to feel connected to and identify with the concerns of others. Participation in a protest movement carries an underlying cost in the risk of family opposition or professional backlash, on top of the opportunity cost of the time spent volunteering. Protestors must sacrifice time from other activities, often to the detriment of their ability to engage in normal life-related activities. The personal cost deters most people from engaging in civil action. This formidable barrier to entry requires activists to engage with potential protestors on a personal level. The potential protestors need to identify with the movement’s framing of the social issue or grievance. When an individual deems the framed issue as a relevant concern based on their pre-established beliefs, the benefits of participation will outweigh the costs. Social media can provide that experience.
As social media continues to connect groups and individuals on an emotional level, the internet also enables the globalization of local social movements. Local groups who once operated in isolation within the borders of their state can now connect with the diaspora of expatriates and can seek assistance from activist groups who are not constrained by the government. Outside parties can take a more direct hand in events and influence the outcomes of protests. The internet has made the world more interconnected, and activists can influence people despite the traditional boundaries of the state. Specifically, people identify strongly with others even across vast physical distances. Social media allows expatriates and groups to re-engage former associates who still live in the affected country. This external influence on local protests through social media often becomes a contributing factor to the longevity of the movement because these outside parties have no incentive to negotiate with the existing government.
Additionally, social media allows for the sharing of protest experiences and best practices. Much like the effect that diaspora elements have on the longevity of a protest, outside organizations can help train inexperienced groups within a given country. International activist groups can use the internet to prepare local protest leaders. Thus local civil society groups can expand their protest repertoire and make a leap in their ability to organize, motivate, and employ resources. Groups tend to protest in ways they understand and trust, but the sharing of best practices augments their existing experience in protest tactics. International activist groups have increased the effectiveness of less proficient protest movements by propagating knowledge and practical skills.
Paradoxically, while social media has the ability to create connections, it also can degrade the personal element experienced with participation in social activism. Many social scientists have started using the terms “clicktivists” or “slacktivism” to denote the tendency for people to participate in a social issue for a short period, but fail to engage or fully commit to a long-term sacrificial struggle. The lack of sustained social media interest reinforces the necessity for civil society organizations to actively organize before the start of a movement.
Social media news has a short shelf-life; in a moment the internet mob can move on to the next big topic. Social media can incite strong feelings, even extreme anger, but these emotions do not sustain social movements in the long run. In juxtaposition, through participation in civil organizations, people can build trust and relationships that coalesce over an extended period to ensure group cohesion. This networking is especially vital in highly personalistic societies where people expect to act based on trust and group cohesion. Movements established solely around social networking over the internet struggle to develop the same strength and will likely surrender to institutional demands. To be truly effective, a social movement needs the ability to create sustained action.
Citizens reporting on fast-moving, complicated events often provide conflicting accounts, which make it difficult for their readers on social media to discern the truth. The free flow of information found in social media comes at a price. While social media has broken the monopoly on the flow of information, once controlled by traditional media outlets, it does not provide any way for readers to confirm the claims reported. Accountability for deception or error comes only from reputation over time. In crisis or urgent conditions, this causes over-reactions and rapid swings of public sentiment. The vetting of facts does not occur at the same level. Now anyone can post information without the editing or checking that institutional media once used. The cost has come in the form of confused messaging, misguided intents, and sometimes outright lies. The questionable trustworthiness of information on social networks causes issues such as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias occurs when individuals seek out information compatible with their preexisting beliefs. Social media sometimes enhances confirmation bias by creating feeds of like-minded thinkers. When a social media post fits into what a reader already wants to believe, they usually don’t question the veracity.
Social Media in a MENA Context
In today’s connected world, internet access through mobile devices has enabled ordinary citizens far greater access to information than any other period in history. In 2010, as the political unrest in the Arab world started to boil, The Oxford Internet Institute reported that an estimated two billion people across the globe enjoyed persistent internet access. Specifically, sixty percent of MENA’s population had at least intermittent internet access during this period, but these numbers do not consider the fact that in many Arab countries, multiple people will share internet devices. The shared nature of these devices increases the possible number of people with access. However, the saturation of internet access does not automatically correlate with the ability to mobilize a successful social movement. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Lebanon, and Kuwait had some of the highest levels of social media penetration, and yet experienced only small levels of unrest during the Arab Spring time period.
In the sea of the Arab Spring, social media provided a means for assorted civil groups to collaborate. The networks of activists with a common purpose survived the governments’ efforts to disrupt and suppress their activity. By forming a collective protest narrative, different groups shared their experiences and organized joint protests. The formation of a cohesive civil resistance, the “frame” explaining and justifying collective activity, provided a crucial unifying element in holding groups together in a shared commitment. Social media enabled activists to quickly shape the dominant discourse of Arab resistance to the old regimes. This clear, emotionally powerful narrative justifying resistance ensured a wide base of support on the streets.
People in the MENA region, on average, have some of the highest rates of technology adoption, and correspondingly have some of the highest rates of government censorship. Government censorship of the internet, before and during the Arab Spring, followed the historical pattern of repression of civil action groups, where the state adopts strong-arm tactics to limit or disband physical organizations. This type of repression did not work against internet activists. As information spread and groups formed in the digital realm, group dynamics in the physical realm correspondingly mirrored social media organization patterns. The broader movements in each country lacked a hierarchical structure, and instead a cooperative network developed around anger against the government. Very quickly small local groups not only networked with each other, but also connected with seemingly unassociated groups throughout the world, like the Occupy movement in the United States.
From the start of the Arab Spring, governments lost their monopolies on the control of information as internet-savvy youth promoted their message via social media. This flow of information enabled even groups with long-standing disputes with each other to set aside their differences and coalesce behind a common platform. Aristotle explained this aspect of persuasion as the use of sensus communis, or in today’s vernacular, the use of common sense to influence a group through a communal interest. As in the previous explanation of social framing, information released on social media shaped the narrative by using a commonly understood picture that harkened to a shared ethos among the differing organizations.
While social media helped activists propagate a resistance narrative, this did not automatically create a corporeal means for organization. Already existing civil groups effectively filled this role, with a prime example being Islamic organizations. Social movements need places to meet and connect. In the MENA region, people instinctively go to the closest mosque or teahouse. The mosque and Islamic institutions provided activists the physical and social space to organize resistance against the old regimes. Religion has long been a dominant space for organization and development of social movements. Many of these Islamic groups provided the precursor elements necessary for social mobilization, and the internet provided the tools for these groups to break the status-quo. Social media informed the wider movement, but it also became a space for the revolution in its own right. Social media, as a space, enhanced the speed of the wider movement, but at times cyber activists saw their objectives overtaken by existing physical movements that did not need them once the flames had been stoked.
Despite some aspects of shared cultural norms, MENA countries have many distinct differences. From Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, each country provides a different backdrop to analyze a cross-section of the Arab Spring and highlight possible trends. This analysis emphasizes six salient factors.
First, people organize in ways that they know and understand. Social media can assist in social mobilization, but ultimately the context and cultural assumptions shape the development of protests. Without the group connections and loyalties developed through participation in civil society organizations to mobilize action on the ground, calls for protests online have little ability to take root. Of those countries that experienced an Arab Spring, Tunisia had the most elements in its favor for a successful regime change. Tunisia had a long history of activism against Ben Ali, where an active civil society in conjunction with a motivated and educated middle class helped lead to a popular uprising. Egypt similarly had a long history of activism, but Hosni Mubarak arguably had greater capabilities to limit and isolate the relevant element of civil society during his tenure.
Second, anger alone does not sustain mobilized action, but solidarity and shared identity do enable social mobilization by creating an “us versus them” framework. Anger and frustration only provide limited motivation for a small minority to participate in a protest. Group identity and shared grievance is a much stronger motivator. Social media enabled both anger and a sense of identity during the Arab Spring. Tensions rose as cyber protesters spread videos and reports of government abuse. More importantly, these same viral internet posts helped connect people with different backgrounds. Arab Spring protest leaders went against the traditional demographics of previous uprisings, and this new leadership mixture helped gather people of differing backgrounds. Solidarity helped overcome risk-to-reward calculus of the established middle class and rising elites. Ultimately, Tunisia and Egypt demonstrated that global social media allows local and international organizations to coordinate effort on a single focus and construct dynamic and flexible networks.
Third, the citizen journalism aspect of social media can reinforce like-minded thinking, which often polarizes issues. Social media does this through the algorithms utilized to track individual preferences. Once an individual shows a propensity towards a particular stance on an issue, their news feeds tend to be dominated by suggested articles with the same view. Furthermore, closed group social media platforms tend to facilitate exclusionary thinking where people associate with individuals who have the same beliefs. Finally, the multiple cases of “fake news,” raise concerns about social engineering. The viral nature of social media has the ability to disseminate false reporting to the point where the information gains credibility because of the number of people it has reached. Regardless of the truth behind a post, perceived validity can galvanize a social movement just like a factual report. In the case of the Arab Spring, later investigations documented examples of bloggers claiming they were on site when they were actually never there. When false social media claims meet an individual’s threshold of plausibility, those claims then become supporting evidence for the social movement. In the context of the Tunisia and Egypt uprisings, this factor led to the observation that volume became more important than truth.
Fourth, governmental repression of social media increases the cost of collective action while at the same time providing a possible additional grievance. The degree to which these groups shifted tactics to employ violence represents a response to the government applying force: indiscriminate attempts at repression induced more violent reactions. The process of suppression helped confirm the image of governmental institutions as an “absolute enemy,” thereby justifying violence by the protestors. This creates a cycle of reciprocal vilification as the actions of the other side become symbols justifying greater violence. Both sides internalize a self-image of righteousness, which facilitates a shift in an individual’s willingness to commit a violent act. The strength of this psychological change can affect the willingness of a group to use violence, and invariably caused differing manifestations within the Arab Spring. Conflict strengthens identity even in a virtual environment.
Fifth, the quantity of social media activity gave a skewed concept of how many people shared a liberal democratic ideal. The internet-savvy, young, secular, and liberal activists that played such a large part in shaping the original protest narrative quickly lost their status and influence once the fires of protest subsided. Old guard leaders of large civil society organizations quickly replaced these idealists. Islamist institutions like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia gained political influence. The initial absence of these Islamist groups from the early parts of the Arab Spring did not preclude them from winning stunning political victories in subsequent elections. Numbers are important. Replacing a government requires either large numbers or armed groups, and the internet pro-democracy movements did not have the numbers to maintain relevance once the regime was overthrown.
Sixth, social movements do not completely disappear or end. They have a way of returning. The Arab Spring has roots in earlier protest movements. The uprisings of 2011 were a successful rebranding of previous movements, but in a larger context they only achieved marginal gains. In some respects, governments slid back into greater corruption and oppression, which commonly occurs in large social movements. One 2012 tweet, two years after the start of the Jasmin Revolution, explains this concept best: “Two years of #arabspring, 200 more to go for any real change to take root #bouazizi #sidibouzid.”
Because physical, human relationships provide the essential power of organizations, including states, some analysts dismiss social media’s impact on the Arab Spring in the long-term, big picture. However, formulating effective policies in the current world still requires understanding the nuanced interaction between social media and mobilization. Contemporary social mobilization strategy relies on activism through multiple media formats. The continued spread of devices with internet access accentuates the importance of understanding the effects of this medium. Correspondingly, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, many governments inside the region and around the world have sought to establish policies to restrict the use of or control social media content. However, the uprisings have shown the error of this strategy. The internet has opened a Pandora’s Box of information, and it cannot be closed. A blocked site only means networked activists will search for ways around those restrictions, and will often move their content to servers located in more hospitable countries. In light of the way in which the internet allows information to metastasize, policy makers should remember that social media is agnostic regarding content. The rapid distribution of information can cause short periods of societal change, producing a temporary surge of stimulus, but established governments have a similar ability to utilize the medium and establish a balance of power.
Nick Blas is an Intelligence Officer in the United States Air Force. He is a 2004 graduate of the Air Force Academy and has a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Currently, he is completing his first year as a Fellow at the Air Command and Staff College where he will be an instructor in the International Securities department.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.