The Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution or Media Exaggeration?
By Jasper Rook Williams
Dissertation submitted as partial fulfilment for the degree of Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and English.
The purpose of this thesis is to determine whether or not social media is responsible for the 2011 revolutions that took place in the Arab Spring, or if it is just one of many tools used by activists that has been blown out of proportion by the western media. Chapter 1 will be my methodology, discussing the research I have carried out and explaining the pros and cons of my methods and content. In Chapter 2 I will be looking at newspaper articles, theorists, statistics and interviews I have conducted to discover the extent of social medias role throughout the revolutions. Chapter 3 will explore other reasons that may have caused the media to focus on social medias role as it did in the way that it did.
My two interviewees for agreeing to take part, and my parents for their continued support.
Table of Contents:
|Chapter 1 – Methodology1.1 – Newspapers1.2 – Academic Theorists1.3 – Forms of Social Media1.4 – Statistics1.5 – Interviews||22334|
|Chapter 2 – Accuracy of the Arab Spring Newspaper Coverage2.1 – What Caused the Domino Effect to Occur in the Arab Spring?2.2 – Was Social Media Used to Organise Protests in the Arab Spring?2.3 – Internet Censorship Across the Arab Spring2.4 – The Role of Social Media in Spreading Information outside of the Region and the Effect it Had||4614
|Chapter 3 – Why Did the Guardian and Observer Newspapers Focus on Social Media?||17|
|Chapter 4 – Conclusion||18|
The Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution or Media Exaggeration?
After the revolutions in the Arab Spring started to be covered by the media, the vast majority chose to highlight the use of social media sites, citing how they were used to inform and organise protestors across the region (Robertson 2013: 325). There are a number of factors that have led people to believe this was a social media revolution. One of them was the unprecedented use of the medium across the region whilst the protests were taking place. There is no doubt that social media was being used during the Arab Spring revolutions; what needs to be determined is how much it was being used and how effective its use was.
Another factor that could have further strengthened the view that social media played an integral part in the revolutions was the censorship of traditional media that was common across the region (Aday et al 2013: 12) (Eaton 2013: 7) Due to these state-run media outlets only allowing news that was pro regime, many onlookers saw social media as one of the only places for activists to talk freely and share information and assumed the revolution must be taking place online.
For the Arab Spring to be considered a social media revolution there will need to have been evidence of social media fulfilling roles that were once carried out via other techniques. With social media’s primary asset being the ease and speed in which users can communicate, you would expect to see this strength being used to its fullest: spreading pro revolutionary material, organising protests and keeping the masses up to date with the latest actions and events. More important than its content however is its user base. For social media to be able to take credit for the revolution people need to have been paying attention to it. There could be the most useful revolutionary tool in history being kept up to date by a dedicated team around the clock but, if nobody is paying attention to it, then it did not start or organize a revolution. For the Arab Spring to be a social media revolution it needs to have consistently been the most influential tool used by rebels throughout the protests across the region.
The methodology in Chapter 1 will explain my research, going in to why I chose the sources I did, the reasons behind all of information I have included, and weighing up each of their individual strengths and weaknesses. The contents of this dissertation is made up of information sourced from UK newspapers the Guardian and the Observer, various theorists from journals and books, statistics again from journals compiled via a variety of methods, and interviews I conducted with a citizen who was a student in Cairo at the time of the protests and journalist Esra Dogramaci, ex employee of Al-Jazeera English’s social/new media team throughout the Arab Spring.
Chapter 2 will look at the extent of social medias role in the Arab Spring. I will look at news articles and then analyse their version of events by aligning them with academic theories, accounts from the prior mentioned interviewees, and data sets compiled from the Arab Spring. By gaining insight from all of these sources I should be able to gain a broad and clear insight into the events that took place and successfully distinguish whether or not social media played enough of a role for these revolutions to be classed as social media revolutions.
Chapter 3 will explore other reasons as to why newspapers focused so much on social media’s role. Was it because it was the defining factor of the Arab Spring? Or were there other reasons for the extensive coverage of this one aspect? Theories of journalists not having enough time to fully understand the story they were reporting as well as accusations of lazy journalism have been pin pointed as possible reasons for the focus on the medium.
Chapter 1: Methodology
When studying how western news looked at the issues, I decided to refine my search to just two newspapers: the Guardian and the Observer. This is partly down to the fact that they are the only national papers in the UK owned by a trust (Guardian 2011) as opposed to one or two individuals. For example media mogul Rupert Murdoch owns of at least 28 news outlets across the globe (News Corp 2014). As a result of this the chance of bias in the publications content is reduced, thus helping to give a clearer description of events. Complete impartiality, however, is impossible and this has been taken into account as well. Another reason I chose these publications is due to the papers being more liberal in their political views than newspapers like the Daily Mail. This typically means it is keener on social and economic parity than, say, the editor and readership of The Telegraph. Examples of this desire for parity and the upholding of what is right have been demonstrated by their long-standing history of investigatory journalism including the phone hacking and sleaze scandals. Considering the story is about the empowerment and liberation of people against an oppressive regime, it is a story that they would arguably follow with more interest than others. Their partnership with WikiLeaks in 2011 was also a strong factor, as WikiLeaks have also been linked with helping trigger the revolutions themselves.
In regard to the articles I included, firstly I felt they gave a good timeline of events that took place in the Arab Spring. Starting with their report on the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, credited by some as what started the revolutions, and continuing with the following of the protests as the spread throughout the region. Secondly I feel the chosen articles give an accurate representation of the papers coverage as a whole. To ensure this I made a conscious effort for the majority of my articles to be written by in house journalists as opposed to any guest writers as I felt this would best represent the journalists and papers position and views on the subject. Any articles written by or about somebody else’s points of view have been included to demonstrate the existence of contrasting opinions on the matter that were being mostly ignored by the publications in house writers.
1.2: Academic Theorists
Away from the highly pressurized environment of journalism where online clicks and the demands of a readership dictates the story you report, and the angle from which you do so, are the authors of academic publications. With their work having to be referenced and subsequently reviewed by their peers, there is a much lower chance of sensationalized and unfounded theories going by unnoticed to be consumed by the masses. When looking for theorists on the topic I made sure to include a spread of opinions, ranging from those who believed social media was a decisive factor, to those who actually felt it had the potential to be a hindrance to the revolution. Due to the supposedly unique circumstances of the Arab Spring I made sure that the majority of the theories I did include were based upon the use of social media in the Arab Spring, and were not conclusions drawn from other of social media being used during an uprising. The theories that I did include that were not directly related to the Arab Spring were formed when analyzing the capabilities of social media as a platform, and not social media in conjunction with a set of specific circumstances.
1.3: Forms of Social Media
When looking at social media in the Arab Spring I decided to narrow my analysis down to just two sites; Facebook and Twitter. I chose Facebook as, at the time, it was the largest social networking site in the world with 845 million active users by the end of the 2011 (Yahoo 2013). Twitter, although statistically dwarfed by Facebook, was the third most visited social media site in the world behind the video-sharing site YouTube with 100 million active users in September 2011 (Guardian 2011). Another reason I chose Facebook and Twitter over other forms of social media are the sites emphasis on communication. Whereas other social media sites like YouTube and Flickr are focused on one form of media (videos and pictures respectively) with social media aspects like commenting and subscribing to an individual also involved, Facebook and Twitter main function is to enable conversation, with pictures and video there to help increase interaction as opposed to being the topic of it.
The statistics I have used to help substantiate theorist’s claims, as well as to draw my own conclusions, came from three separate journals. ‘Digital Media in the Egyptian Revolution: Descriptive Analysis from the Tahrir Data Sets’ includes three data sets, each having compiled its respective data via different techniques. From this journal I have only used one of three data sets, compiled via the web service ‘TwapperKeeper’ that tracks and archives Twitter hashtags (Chronicle 2011). By searching TwapperKeeper for the use of ‘#jan25’, the most used hashtag of the Egyptian revolution, (Wilson, C. et al 2011: 1251) between the dates of January 21st to February 11th, 675,713 tweets were accounted for from 106,563 unique users. The hashtag was thought to have been regularly used to help organize Twitter discussion (Wilson, C. et al 2011: 1251)
The strengths of this data set are that it enables you too see what the hashtag was used for, who was using it, and where those using it were in the world. This helps give insight into not only how much social media was being used, but also what it was being used for since it would be safe to assume that somebody in the USA for example would not be using it to organize a protest in Cairo. There are weaknesses however. The fact that it only focuses on the use of social media in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt means, although it may be possible for some parallels to be drawn, any conclusions I draw from this data set cannot be used in relation to any other parts of the Arab Spring with any certainty. The data set also misses out any protest-related tweets from Tahrir Square that did not use the #jan25 hashtag and, due to the dynamic nature of the situations those posting may have been in, could have been fairly regularly (Wilson, C. et al 2011: 1251).
The data set from the journal ‘Watching From Afar: Media Consumption Patterns Around the Arab Spring’ is made up of statistics from Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, compiled by statistics made up from the most used URL shortening service on Twitter, Bit.ly, (Read Write 2010) between mid-January and early April 2011. To ensure the Bit.ly links were related to the Arab Spring revolutions the only links included were ones attached to tweets with the relevant hashtags used. In this case it is ‘#sidibouzid’ for Tunisia, ‘#jan25’ for Egypt, ‘#feb14’ for Bahrain and ‘#feb17’ for Libya.
The benefit of this data set is that it tells you who is tweeting and consuming the content, and then where the people posting and consuming the content are from. With it also including Tunisia, Bahrain, and Libya, as well as Egypt, it gives me a broader view of social media usage across the Arab Spring than the set previously mentioned. A weakness however is that it only counts tweets with a Bit.ly link attached, and this potentially changes the contents of the tweets that are counted. For example this data set is less likely to include tweets from people in the midst of a protest, as during these dynamic situations, they are less likely to be posting or consuming Bit.ly links that could be linked to articles or other more in depth content.
The third data set is from the journal ‘Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations from Tahrir Square’ (Tufekci et al 2012). Unlike the other two this was compiled via the completion of 1,200 questionnaires on 24th of February 2011, of which 1,050 were deemed valid. This data set gives good insight into how much social media was used in comparison to other forms of media, for example television and newspapers. A potential issue with this data set however is how representative it is of the population. The journal which compiled the data noted that it was being compiled during a “tumultuous, violent time” but it was said that those conducting the interviews believed those they interviewed looked of a similar sort to those they witnessed taking part in the demonstrations. The other limitation is that, like the first data set mentioned, it again relates exclusively to Tahrir Square in Egypt, Cairo. This again brings up the issues of the set not being representative of the whole region and the same issues with drawing parallels between one country and the others still exists with this set.
For my interviews I chose a member of the media and a protestor, to help form a comparison between how the two saw the uprisings. As a journalist it is possible that their desire for a story will make them look for aspects and angles that are not there, just as somebody caught up in a protest may miss details that somebody from the outside, looking in, may not miss.
Chapter 2: Accuracy of the Arab Spring Newspaper Coverage
This chapter will look to determine the accuracy of the Guardian and Observers coverage of the Arab Spring, and discover whether or not this was a social media revolution. For the purpose of this chapter the Arab Spring will be broken down into three sections: What caused the domino effect that crossed the Arab Spring (2.1), whether social media was used as a method of organizing protests (2.2), whether or not Internet censorship effected the use of social media (2.3) and finally The Role of Social Media in Spreading Information outside of the Region and the Effect it had (2.4).
2.1: What Caused the Domino Effect to Occur in the Arab Spring?
The events of the Tunisian uprising caught the media in the UK so off guard that, in the case of the Guardian and Observer at least, they themselves did not have an article telling the story of the act that they attributed to sparking the Arab Spring revolutions. The article linked to the Guardians timeline of events in the Arab Spring, (Guardian 2011) telling the story of Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide, is actually an article by news agency Reuters (Reuters 2010). In later articles, however, the paper does claim that Bouazizi’s suicide triggered the Tunisian protests (Guardian 2010), with a further article suggesting the event helped kick off the Arab Spring revolution, sending “shockwaves across north Africa” with a copycat suicide imitating that of Bouazizi’s; an Algerian man burned himself to death (Guardian 2011). Although touched upon in the Reuters story the Guardian, in another article, goes on to point out social media’s role in the Tunisian revolution. Under the heading ‘Tweetin’ bout a revolution’ the writer calls Twitter the “first port of call for information”, citing restrictions on what Arab media is allowed to say, and authorities curtailing reporting on the ground, as what pushed the discussion online (Guardian 2011). Another Guardian article said social media and the Internet as a whole has helped make revolutions more likely. It claims Facebook and Twitter spreads truth quickly and on it propaganda becomes “flammable” (Guardian 2011).
Despite the self confessed lack of content at this stage of the revolutions (Guardian 2011) just these three articles give the impression that the Tunisian revolution is starting to spread across the region, and that social media is playing a lead role in this simply because nobody else is sufficiently reporting the story. Theorists Phillip Seib agrees that social media possesses the power to have this kind of effect. Writing before the Arab Spring in 2007 he stated that, in the future, new media would be able to cause transnational trends in politics and, as a result, reduce the number of isolated incidents of democratic change. He also foresaw protestors being able to detour around government obstructions put in place to restrict and control the flow of information. (Seib 2007: 2) Reports from the Arab Spring in the Guardian and Observer newspapers give the impression that both of these predictions have arguably come to be accurate. He did however go on to say one medium alone could not cause change and that it must be used in conjunction with other social and political institutions (Seib 2007: 9)
An example of a medium that social media was used in conjunction with were satellite TV channels such as Al-Jazeera. This is an aspect of media coverage that the Guardian went in to very little detail about, saying the station were covering the story unlike the majority of Arab media (Guardian 2011) but going on to say very little else. This single minded approach was not found amongst theorists however with some who were studying the Arab Spring to agree with Seib that social media could not do it alone. Howard also claimed social media was just one portion of the new forms of political communication that developed in North Africa and the Middle East (Howard 2010) and satellite TV was considered by some as a place where dissent and politically sensitive views could be displayed (Tufekci et al 2012: 2). The medium was credited with helping form a new kind of public sphere helping Arabs and Muslims to develop political identities (Nisbet et al 2010: 349) and the channel Al-Jazeera was at the forefront of this with the network displaying contentious public politics rather than a single point of view. This encouraged Arabs to argue, disagree, and question the status quo (Lynch 2006: 2).
Al-Jazeera did not achieve this alone, however, with social media being shown to have played a role here as well. The channel used sites like Facebook to find videos of the protests and then broadcasted them (Tufekci et al 2012: 2). Cottle attributed social media, along with more traditional forms, to the role of communicating, coordinating and channelling the rising tide of opposition due to social media exposing issues and events, and channels like Al-Jazeera distributing, the images. The platform helped bypass state controlled media and circumvent censorship to allow “images and ideas of mass defiance” to spread across the Arab Spring and beyond via satellite TV, despite some countries banning or severely restricting foreign correspondents’ access. Although people using this medium for protest communications were not necessarily using social media, the media they were consuming was.
Esra Dogramaci agreed that it was diffictul for journalists to get in to Egypt and said it meant that the best way to report on the story was to instead get content out of the country. She recalled sifting through hundreds of pieces of user generated content (UGC) and, although a lot of it was not suitable to be broadcast or fake, there was content that was found on social media that would not have been available anywhere else. She also believed Al-Jazeera Arabic was able to cover the story in a way that was not accessible to western media due to much of it being free with online streaming, therefore making it more accessible. The individuals broadcasting on the channel were also from the region and therefore knew the undercurrent reasons for the revolutions far better than western journalists who came over.
This point of view was mirrored by the Cairo resident I interviewed, who believed what started the revolutions was the fact that the majority of leaders within the region had been in power for more than 30 years and that the countries were more like kingdoms than republics, holding what he described as “illusion elections”. Interestingly he did not see Tunisia as the start of the domino effect but instead pointed to the fall of Saddam Hussein as what encouraged people to start having revolutions. He alludes to him having had a kind of hold over the region before he was killed: “after he falls everything became easy and this helped other people from other countries to start their revolution”. Instead of the suicide from Tunisia that papers reported, this protestor paints this as a much slower and more drawn out process that our media was either not aware of, or did not appreciate.
By looking at the twitter statistics after the suicide of Bouazizi it is apparent that the most widely used language was Arabic. These stats span from 18th December 2010, the day after Bouazizi’s death, to the 1st January 2011. The next period spanning from 2nd to the 15th January 2011 shows that English is now the main language being used, and this coincided with dates that other countries within the Arab Spring first begin to revolt. This boost in the use of English could be indicative of growing attention from international press, and within sixteen days of this potential boost in foreign interest both Algeria and Egypt experienced their first acts of unrest (Guardian 2011) (Reuters 2010). This information presents evidence that social media arguably did achieve manage to spread news of their actions outside of Tunisia to the rest of the region. This allowed TV broadcaster Al-Jazeera to show the images of the revolution to different and potentially wider audiences than what social media would have been able to achieve on its own as Cottle and Seib suggested (The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East p.1354). Wilson and Dunn’s research also shows social media content on TV boosted the contents exposure, showing the majority of those using satellite TV for information did so due to having no access to any other forms of media (Wilson et al 2011: 1255). The Bouzizi imitations that occurred in other countries (Guardian 2011) can be seen as evidence of cross border information flow.
In regards to statistics, with Bouazizi’s suicide regarded by some as what started the Arab Spring, you would to see an increase in the creation and consumption of social medaito increase around the time after his suicide, to indicate social media spreading the news and causing the domino effect. With his actions credited for starting the wave of revolutions that swept across the region you would expect to see a large amount of Tunisia based social media consumed outside its borders in neighbouring Arab countries. This would provide further evidence of social media’s suggested role in causing the domino effect that took place (Aday et al 2013: 7). Unfortunately one of the data sets available chosen starts on June 1st meaning it does not allow us to see it social media increased after Bouazizi’s suicide on December 17th. Figure 4 however does show Tunisia as having the worst regional engagement of all out of Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia from the 1st onwards. Is this because Tunisia’s ‘moment’ had already past by the 1st? Or is the idea that Tunisia spread the revolution via social media a myth?
Not all theorists believe social media can be credited with causing the spread of revolutions that we saw however. Khondker says the most important factor, and the one that caused the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, were the revolutionary conditions present and the inability of the regimes to control the uprisings (Khondker 2011: 687). Fisher agrees with this assessment stating that, despite the powerful role technology played, the driving force were the years of built up frustration over the lack of rights and the inability to confront the venal and corrupt ruling elite (Fisher 2011: 150).
Despite these views to the contrary, however, the general consensus appears to be that social media did in fact play a big part in helping the revolutions spread and causing the domino effect that swept across the region. What also appears to be true though is that, apart from the newspapers, theorists and statistics point to satellite TV’s role as being equally important. It did need help from social media for it to become as informative as it was, but it helped reach an audience that social media on its own would not have been able to achieve.
2.2: Was Social Media Used to Organize Protests in the Arab Spring?
From the outside looking in we were fed many reports strengthening the view that this was a social media revolution, and telling us how protestors used the medium. With it now clear that social media did help to spread word of the revolution, although maybe not on its own as the Guardian and the Observer suggested, what else was it reported as being used for? In order for the Arab Springs to be considered the first social media revolution its impact cannot stop at helping spark the uprisings. Even with a country united against the regime an uncoordinated revolution would be much more manageable and ultimately defeated than one all pulling in the same direction. For this to occur there had to have been a method of communication amongst the rebels. For this, social media in this day and age is the obvious choice, but with many of the dictatorships controlling the Internet, was it used?
A Guardian article suggested that social media makes the organization of non-hierarchal movements much more achievable due to its horizontal nature, and points out that as a result, it is able to achieve much more spontaneity than the slower moving hierarchal systems. This means that the regimes, although better organized, struggled to keep up with the highly mobilized force it created (Guardian 2011). This sounds like a plausible idea but in the article this theory is not backed up by any type of reference to other work or fact. Another article in the Guardian stated that social media was a driving force behind a large number of the demonstrations, but again it does not go on to say how it does this or give any examples of demonstrations that had been coordinated in this way (Guardian 2011). It is in fact very hard to find an article by the Guardian or Observer that actually explains how social media is used to coordinate a protest. Beyond the obvious (videos, pictures, rallying messages) there is very little, from news papers at least, that backs up the idea that these were revolutions being managed, promoted and organized on social media.
The one article that did give insight and backed up its claims that Twitter was used to coordinate protests was a transcript the Guardian created covering the tweets sent by users taking part in the events of Tahrir Square on 2nd February. These tweets from bloggers and activists in Cairo do demonstrate how Twitter was used during a pivotal moment in the revolution, keeping their existing followers up to date with what is going on, as well as a much wider audience acessed via various the hashtags they used, including “#jan25”, “#Egypt” and “Mubarak”. They helped anyone who was interested to follow the story with tweets like: “Here r the latest updates: The govt is countermobilizing against us now. There are several pro-Mubarak protests taking place in Cairo now.” Other tweets were simple calls to arms, with one user writing: “Everyone in Cairo who wants Mubarak out and stands for justice come to Tahrir NOW!” (Guardian 2011)
Excluding this one exception it appears that there is a lack of evidence to substantiate the newspaper claims and, as a result, you could be excused for assuming there is an element of guess work taking place, and maybe there was. Theorist Cottle however also recognized social media as a powerful stand alone tool when organizing and communicating mass protests and attributed the highly effective way in which the tool was used to the fact that 65% of the Middle East at the time was under the age of 30. (Cottle 2011: 198). Similarly Radsch, back in 2008, wrote that the spreading of the Internet and platforms like Twitter and Facebook helped change how people communicated in Egypt (Arab Media & Society 2008). To back up claims that the Arab Springs were social media revolutions, however, the platform cannot just be used but would have had to be one of the main places in which dissent and politically sensitive subjects were openly discussed. Zuckerman argues that this in fact was the case due to people using it as the site was not targeted for censorship. He thinks that, due to the websites being non-political platforms considered only used for trivial matters, they would avoid being targeted and shut down by regimes (My heart’s in Accra 2008).Although speaking exclusively of events in Tahrir Square Wilson and Dunn also agreed with the Guardian and Observers views, saying they considered the use of social media in Egypt as “deliberate and well considered” (Wilson et al 2011: 1250) when used by those coordinating protest communications.
The data set made up of 1050 interviewees who protested in the Tahrir Square demonstrations produced insight into what media was used during the demonstrations. Of those asked, 51% said they used Facebook for protest communication, and 13% used Twitter. That means 64% of 1050 people used social media and, if you consider blogs to be a form of social media, then it is in fact 76% people. That is a substantial number of people using social media but when compared to the other methods listed it was only the third biggest method of communication in Tahrir Square, behind phone (82%) and satellite TV (92%). What these numbers show is that, although still behind phone and satellite TV, Radsch was right in 2008 when she claimed the Internet had changed communication in Egypt (Arab Media & Society 2008). With the Internet still being such a new technology there percentages this high show how this new medium has been embraced and utilized by the population. Also, taking into account Wilson and Dunn’s observation that some of the content used on satellite TV originally came from social media and it looks as though social media had a very large role in providing information on goings on in Egypt at least. This level of social media exposure on a protest can also only mean people who do not know about it already would hear about it, and potentially come to join in. Although this is not a particularly grand or intricate form of coordination, it would nonetheless result in the coordination of protestors.
When analysing the statistics of online activity before a protest organised online you would expect it to cause a visible increase in social media usage just before, and then throughout, the event. Figures 1 and 2 appear to show this as well it showing social media usage increasing massively, and episodically, when big events are occurring or have occurred (Henry Farrell Figure 1). These graphs back up Wilson and Dunn’s view that use of social media to this end as was “deliberate and considered” (Wilson et al 2011: 1250) and the Guardian article showing tweets from Tahrir Square do also backs this up. What the Guardian article does not show is how effective the tweets were in actually rallying the protestors and raising awareness. It is clear people found out one way or another, due to the number of people who congregated in Tahrir Square, but without statistics to show how many people saw and interacted with this information you cannot say if it was Twitter that got them there. The increased consumption of social media around the times of protests displayed in figure 1 does appear to show that they did have an effect but figure 2 does tell another side of the story. Also, when looking at where those influxes of clicks were coming from it is apparent that the majority, at least in Egypt’s case, were coming from outside of the region (figure 2). Also, with this data measuring usage via the number of bit.ly links clicked through Twitter, it is unlikely that a link would be used to inform people of what was going on right at that moment. This, combined with the high amount of clicks coming from outside the region, gives cause to believe that they may have not been efforts to coordinate but were instead links to articles and other more detailed texts, telling stories of the day’s events.
Al-Jazeera journalist Esra Dogramaci also agreed with the newspapers claims of coordination happening online, saying social media played a big role in terms of how people found out about the marches and protests set to take place: “one of the ways that people found out about this right at the beginning was because of all the groups on social media organizing”. When I asked if she thought it was a primary method for people across the Arab Spring to stay informed however, she explained that not everyone in the region is connected to these platforms and as a result cannot use social media as a method of staying informed. She also agreed with Radsch’s theory of social media being overlooked due to the typically trivial nature of the content on the site (Arab Media & Society 2008), pointing out that the Internet was a “social space that’s not subject to conventional control” and, as a result, is a lot harder to block. To expand her point she compared a protestor uploading images or writing commentary at an Internet Café to people protesting in the streets saying that, with the latter, they would simply send the police or military, but with the former there is no standard response for the governments.
The Cairo resident I interviewed had also witnessed Facebook and Twitter activity organizing marches, mirroring Esra’s confirmation of social media being used throughout the revolutions as a method of organization, but he appeared to look at them with a degree of suspicion that has not been mentioned elsewhere: “I did not take the whole details from social media”. He went on to iterate the importance of analysing the situations yourself, suggesting that not everything online could be trusted.
It appears that social media was used for coordinating protests but the presence of opposition to the idea suggests that, although useful, it may not have been the main contributing factor it needs to be. Despite evidence suggesting that their assumptions of social media’s role in organising protests is correct, the lack of evidence in the Guardian and Observer’s articles does poses the question as to why news outlets continued to push the idea of it being the main contributing factor if they themselves were unable or unwilling to support the idea with facts. In fact the most informed articles written by the Guardian’s own journalists denounced that idea that social media was even necessary, or at least looked to dispel the idea that it was social media alone that was responsible for the whole affair (Guardian 2011). A similar message was delivered in an article titled: ‘Facebook and Twitter are just places revolutionaries go’. The piece attacked the popular notion of “Tweets were sent. Dictators were toppled. Internet = democracy”.
The pattern continued when the papers published the views of leading figures on the issue. A speech they reported by Hilary Clinton’s advisor Alec Ross said calling the Egyptian uprising a ‘Facebook revolution’ was a “bridge too far” (Guardian 22/06/11). A feature interview in the Telegraph with author Hisham Matar who was raised in Egypt and Libya shared this view, and said he got irritated by the amount of coverage the idea has received saying it only became so widely reported because it was fashionable to talk about Facebook and Twitter. (Telegraph 2011) It appears that the idea that this was the first social media revolution arises when the article is not expected to back the claim up, but disparaged when the article’s focus is to confront the issue. As a result of this Matar’s comments about it only being so popular because it is fashionable becomes a very valid point.
Despite the papers coverage of this supposed role of social media’s being filled with sweeping statements, they again appear to be correct in their assumptions, although again they are guilty of simplifying the issue. Theorists, interviewees and, to a slightly lesser extent, statistics all found social media to have played an effective role helping organise protests across the Arab Spring but it must be noted that the majority of the evidence of this came out of Egypt thus hampering how representative the findings were.
2.3: Internet Censorship Across the Arab Spring
The issue of Internet censorship appeared to be one that was ignored by the Guardian and the Observer when writing about the Arab Spring and social media’s role in the revolutions, but it is a factor that could degrade how plausible the idea is. When speaking of the Arab Spring the countries involved are more often than not addressed as a collective and, as a result, a lot of the factors that are unique to each of them are lost. It is highly probable that there is more evidence suggesting a social media revolution has taken place in some countries than it is others. When looking at the geographical distribution of power users in the Arab Spring (Figure 3) you notice a large disparity between the countries in the region. Egypt dominates the rest of the region as home to 35% of the power users where as the rest of the region has a combined percentage of just 13%.
As these countries are behind the western world in terms of lacking IT resources and computer literacy (Abdulla 2007: 35), Internet access is a factor as not all of the countries involved had similar access percentages. Of the four countries we are looking at Bahrain had the highest Internet usage with 77% of individuals using the Internet. Tunisia was second with 41.44%, Egypt third at 39.83% and Libya fourth with 14% of individuals using the Internet (ITU 2014). When combining these statistics with those on figure 4 you can get a much better idea of what countries were far more engaged in social media than others. The best comparison to be made is between Bahrain and Egypt. With 37.17% more of Bahrain’s population having access to the Internet than Egypt you would expect participation within Bahrain to be higher. The opposite is the case however, with Egypt generating double the amount of clicks on content to do with their country (14%) than Bahrain generated on content about their own (7%). From this you can see that social media activism was a much bigger part of the Egyptian revolution. With Libya only having 14% of their population connected to the internet it seems highly unlikely that there was enough involvement online for their revolution to be one caused by social media and, compared to Egypt, Tunisia’s interaction is unimpressive as well.
During the Arab Spring the countries involved also all went through varying degrees of reactive Internet censorship put in place in response to reports of activism taking place online. The duration of these Internet blackouts of course is important as without the Internet the idea that the Arab Spring was a social media revolution would be implausible. Tunisia, credited by many in the media for kick starting the Arab Spring revolutions via the Internet, were victims of extensive censorship from their government via laws, regulations, and surveillance controlling what was posted (OpenNet Initiative 2009). Facebook was supposedly crucial to Tunisian’s during the revolution as a means of posting videos, because the government had blocked the majority of other hosting sites. It later became apparent that the Tunisian government had begun to hack individual’s accounts to delete pro protest Facebook pages that they had created (The Atlantic 2011). Bahrain, as well as having censorship, actually took physical action against bloggers who they felt were spreading anti government propaganda during the uprising. This included two photographers who were arrested for taking pictures of demonstrators and putting them on Facebook (Reporters Without Borders 2011), and a blogger who was arrested for promoting hatred on towards the government and promoting sectarianism (BBC 2012).
Egypt and Libya were the only countries to experience an Internet shutdown. Egypt was the first on 27th January (Renesys 27/01/2011) and it remained shut until 2nd February (Renesys 02/01/2011). Also, whilst Egypt did not censor the Internet, some bloggers were arrested for their activities online (Tufekci et al 2012: 2). Libya’s shutdown occurred on 18th February but only lasted 6.8 hours before coming on again on the 19th. It was turned off again at 22.00 for another 8.3 hours until the 20th. It then happened a final time on 3rd March for 3.7 days.
Reports of this kind of Internet censorship justify the viewpoints of theorists Khondker and Mozorov who do not see the Internet simply as a place purely for pro-democratic conversation and organization (Khondker 2011: 687) (Mozorov 2011: xiv).. It is highly likely that the level of censorship across the Arab Spring, particularly in places like Bahrain, may have had a hand in actively deterring activists from using social media as a method of communicating and organizing revolutionary content.
The fact that censorship and complete shutdowns were taking place in reaction to the protests, however, does suggest that leaders of these countries believed in, and feared the power of, the Internet and social media. The Internet shutdown in Egypt was an acknowledgement of the power of Facebook groups like “We are all Khalid Said” which had successfully organised a protest online (Mirage in the Desert? Reporting the ‘Arab Spring’.Fisher A P.152). During the Internet shut down in Egypt technology savvy-protesters were also able to continue putting out content, although at a slower rate than before (Tufekci et al 2012: 2). However it does still dent the theory that these were social media revolutions, especially as Egypt experienced the largest blackout. As the country that looked most likely to have experienced a social media revolution the fact they were actually without social media in the build up to one of their revolutions most pivotal events does detract from this theory.
The Cairo student believed that the Internet blackout that Egypt faced between 27th January and 2nd February was a bad idea for a regime trying to get people back onto their side. Also it was not only protestors who were using the Internet in Egypt. Other forms of Internet censorship like the news of bloggers being arrested for posting anti-establishment also appeared to have an impact with him admitting it would make him think twice before posting and he was aware of it stopping others.
On the whole it has to be admitted that censorship in the Arab Spring did hamper how effective social media was. The blackouts experienced in Egypt especially proved that social media was not needed for the revolution to be a success as it continued on for a week without any input from social media at all. As mentioned about however, the fact regimes felt threatened enough by the power of social media to go as far as shutting down the Internet does speak volumes as to how effective it was at times.
2.4: The Role of Social Media in Spreading Information outside of the Region and the Effect it had.
The Guardian article that spoke of the journalist watching the Tunisian revolution take place on Twitter showed that people outside of the Arab Spring were also finding out about the revolutions through social media (Guardian 12/01/2011) and, although not specifically mentioned in the chosen articles, some theorists argue that social media telling the rest of the world and raising awareness of their cause could also have had a positive effect on the revolutions in terms of morale amongst protestors.
Statistics taking into account the location of those interacting with tweets from the Arab Spring show that across the most relevant hashtags from Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, it was actually people living outside of the region who were generating the most clicks. This attention shows the power of the medium in generating attention from outside of the region and, combined with the visible presence of world media in their countries, could arguably have buoyed the mood of the protesters.
Stats compiled by the ‘International Journal of Communication’ also demonstrate Twitters power in sharing the story with the rest of the world. Analysing tweets from the ‘power users’ (the top 200 users of the Egyptian #jan25 hash tag) show only 35% of the tweets using ‘#jan25’ were coming from within Egypt. Another 13% came from the rest of the countries within the region, and the majority, 52%, came from North America, Europe, Australia and South America (Figure 3). Further proof that news of events in Egypt was being spread is the statistics displaying the location of the users with the most retweets. With Egypt clearly ahead, the situation would not have been lost on the country’s users. Due to the number of retweets of their tweets they recieved would be very aware of the amount of coverage their revolution was receiving from outside the region. The place where the rest of the world first heard about protests taking place in the Arab Spring was on Twitter, with traditional media following afterwards (Lotan et al 2011).
With Facebook and Twitter at the time being used by around a billion active users by people around the world (Yahoo 2013) (Guardian 2011) the impact of its users from outside of the Arab Spring cannot be ignored. Due to the known power and reach of the western world you can at least speculate that any news that people in the west were behind your cause would be reason for improved morale. Wilson and Dunn claimed that the international media attention made apparent via Twitter “made a considerable contribution to protest morale”, giving the impression to those involved that the world was watching. (Wilson et al 2011: 1270)
News that the majority of the tweets using these hashtags had come from outside of their respective countries, however, does damage the idea that they were there to be used as a form of communication. Much was made of how important hashtags were with coordinators reported to have debated over Twitter what hashtags to use for protest-related tweets (Wilson et al 2011: 1251). As the protests continued however they were increasingly used as a form of promotion by western media, looking to gain exposure for their content (Twitter 2011) (Twitter 2011). As a result of this the impact of people using the hashtag for its original purpose may have been lost due to how diluted the stream had become.
Esra Dogramaci admitted that the observed switch from Arabic to English of content being produced online would have had an effect on the number of international media picking up on the story. She did not think that the story needed social media to spread across the world as it did.
Again, although not directly brought up by the Guardian or Observer, the global audience this story reached did appear to be another factor that played a part in the Arab Spring revolutions, and social media played a big role. Not only did the platform help the rest of the world hear about what was happening in Tunisia before the media were telling them, but it also later made those protesting aware that the rest of the world was watching and supporting them. Esra Dogramaci is most likely correct in saying that the world would have found out about the revolutions without social media but those involved in the revolutions would have found it much harder to hear about our support.
Chapter two as a whole has shown us that, although social media did play a large part in each of the areas addressed, and they were accurate in some of their points and assumptions, the story of the Arab Spring revolutions was not as black and white as the newspapers made it out to be.
Chapter 3: Why did the Guardian and Observer Newspapers Focus on Social Media?
With it now evident that this was not a social media revolution, the question that now needs to be answered is why did the Guardian and Observer on the whole make it seem as if it was?
There is a theory that news is socially produced. What makes a story ‘news’ is subject to a number of rules and standards and the primary rule is it must be something that is ‘out of the ordinary’ (Hall: 53. Policing the Crisis). In regards to this rule, having a story that is the ‘first’ of something is definitely out of the ordinary. Combine that with an event of this magnitude and you have a story that will make it as ‘news’. Journalists then tend to exaggerate those factors that make it newsworthy. It is highly plausible that this is what has happened in western media and, by association, this cast doubts over the idea that the Arab Springs were the first social media revolution.
Hirst agrees with this idea, looking at the scenario from the point of view of the journalists who were in the region. Looking at it from the angle of someone looking for a story, he noticed that young activists using social media to organize a revolution was exactly the kind of story that would enliven the news narrative and connect with Western audiences (Hirst2012:2)Due to TV and newspaper websites there were also 24-hour news deadlines requiring continuous new content to be created, and this resulted in the “recycling and embellishing” of what had already been reported, further embedding the idea that this was a social media revolution (Hirst2012:3). It is possible that the idea of the Arab Spring being a social media revolution came to pass due to the demands on the journalists and was reinforced by the fact that, although journalism is “first rough draft of history” (Hirst2012:2), it is the only version many will ever know.
Esra Dogramaci said she did think the media had gone over the top but did not believe that journalists in the Arab Spring were looking for something ‘out of the ordinary’, as Hall suggested. She argued that they were instead just trying to explain what was going on and, due to the fact that this was “one of the first instances that you saw something like this happen at such a scale”, reporters turned to the platform as it was playing such a prominent role; it was and one of the first things they noticed. She put this focus down to the media just getting lazy; coming across breaking news stories last minute and either not having enough the time, or do not bothering to look find the context of the story and how it got to this point.
Another potential reason for this focus on social media is the issue of cost. John H. McManus argues that if a media company wants to maximize the profit made from their content then tasks such as ensuring all sides of the story are told, all facts are checked, conclusions are supported with evidence, and providing enough context for wide comprehension all take up more of a journalists time and as a result cost more money. As a result of this it is, McManus argues, the ‘interesting’ source or quote that replaces the ‘informative’ source or quote. In this case, the unusual and more interesting reasons for the Arab Spring taking place may have been replaced with what was considered the broader and more factually correct reason. (McManus 2002: 274) By covering the story from the angle of social media it meant that a lot of the content needed to write the news articles was available online, which made it easier for the journalists to write the stories without having to travel to location.
Conclusion: The Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution or Media Exaggeration?
Due to the roles played in the Arab Spring by other media outlets, it appears that the Arab Spring revolutions were not a social media revolution.
Firstly Al-Jazeera’s prominent role as another media outlet that informing another, bigger, audience did damage the idea that social media was the main source on information for those n the Arab Spring. As I mentioned in the Introduction, for it to be considered a social media revolution social media needed to have had the largest audience. In terms of organising the protests all evidence suggests that social media did an effective job at this also and, if there were to be an area of the revolutions that social media appeared to do a better job in than all other forms of media it was this one. The lack of data representative of the whole region however prevents me from saying that definitively.
Ceonsorship of the Internet in the region, an aspect ignored by the Guardian and the Observer, as I mentioned also damaged the idea of this being a social media revolution but another area that social media did excel is helping residents know the outside world was paying attention.
A conclusion to the whether or not it was a social media revolution was best put by Esra Dogramaci during my interview with her: “social media facilitated it [the social media revolution] but it wasn’t the reason for it. There was a lot of underlying currents if you look at the economic situation, the political situation, in Egypt and also the other Arab countries these were something that had been persisting for decades so you cant just come and say that social media was the ignition that sparked all of it but it facilitated it just like any other media would facilitate something.”
In regards to why the newspapers simplified the issue as they did, I think it is a combination of all of they before mentioned theories. With all journalists being different, and each holding themselves to different standards of work, factors such as apathy, negligence, demands of a 24 hour news service and desperation to tell a story from a unique and interesting angle can all play a part. It is also very likely that the aspirations of a journalist were hampered by what the newspaper group would allow. With print being a industry in decline due to having to compete with forms of new media, budgeting aspects would have almost certainly come in to play.
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Appendices – Graphs:
Figure 3 – The location of #jan25 power users (most active) (Wilson & Dunn, Digital Media in the Egyptian Revolution: Descriptive Analysis from the Tahrir Data Sets, P.1267, Figure 14, 2011)
|Location||% Of Power Users There|
|Middle East and Northern Africa (Exc. Egypt)||13%|
Figure 4 – Percentage of clicks on Bit.ly links, by location 01/01/11 – 04/01/11 (Figure 2, Page 11, 2013. Watching From Afar: Media Consumption Patterns Around the Arab Spring. Aday, Farrell, Freelon, Lynch, Sides & Dewar).
|Country (#Hashtag)||% From Within the Country||% From Within the Region||& From Outside the Region|
Appendices – Transcriptions
Interview With the Ciaro Student:
Jasper – Where were you during the Arab Spring?
Ciaro Student – Well at that moment I was studying in Egypt and I attended these protests. I went to Iraq and, I have some news from Syria from some friends.
J – So were you in Egypt from the start of the revolution till the end?
CS – No, no, I was not there for the whole course just there for less than six months.
J – OK. So did you get an impression of what started the revolution whilst you were there?
CS – People were in Persia and err, they were ruled by regimes for more than 30 years most of the Arab presidents ruled their countries for more than 30 years it was like a kingdom it was not a republic they were not being elected they was just an illusion elections.
J – So it wasn’t events necessarily that happened around Egypt that made people want to have this revolution it was a feeling within the country already?
CS – Well of course it affected since the first one… it started with Saddam Hussein then it moved to Tunisia then it moved to Libya it was like a circle after the fall of Saddam Hussein that encouraged people to start a revolution really because Saddam Hussein was… he was really, I don’t know how to say it, not strong but err…
J– He was kind of the leader of the leaders?
CS – Yeah, yeah, and err after he falls everything became easy and this helped other people from other countries to start their revolution.
J– So this wasn’t like something that was sparked by one thing and then spontaneously happened it was a long running, quite a slow process that maybe here we don’t appreciate.
B– Exactly, exactly.
J – So did you see any evidence of social media being used to organise protests within Egypt, like did you see people for example set up a Facebook event saying were going to do this or that.
CS – Well, I did not see them with my own eyes but I can analyse thing and yeah social media had a big effect on these revolutions.
J – So there wasn’t anything, like before the revolution in Egypt started were people taking notice of the tweets from lets say Tunisia and news from there and taking inspiration from it thinking well if they’re doing it we can do it?
CS – I can’t answer this I don’t know. I don’t have enough information.
J – Were people aware of what was going on else where through these platforms? Or was it through…
CS – Yeah, they were.
J – So was social media used as a way of spreading pro revolution propaganda? Was it a way of people, really rallying people to get in on the cause?
CS – As I said, yeah it helped too much but I don’t know if it helped or if it really affected because you have two sides, the opposition and the other side, and at some point the media were controlled by the government and then when the government falls they took their own way just to get profits and benefits.
J– So what you’re saying is even the stuff that was put on social media you think that was still government related and being put there on purpose?
CS – Yeah some of them yeah, of course.
J – So it was a contested area social media it wasn’t just used by revolutionaries or the government?
CS – no, no, everything was organised I think so yeah.
J – OK. So were there any events that you learnt of through social media like maybe marches or something like that did you hear of them through social media or word and mouth or other forms?
CS – Well yeah I was not at all of these events but I hear of some through social media but I did not take the whole details from social media I just knew what was going on. You have to read and analyse you can’t take everything from social media.
J – Satellite TV so Al–Jazeera and channels like that you say that as an extension of the pro regime control as well. The dictatorships you think they had an influence over channels like Al–Jazeera?
CS – You have the two strongest Arabic channels. At some point they were against each other one of them was serving, I don’t know who, but they were on the opposite side. I would say both of them made a big conflict. They helped of course but… I wouldn’t trust the news that I hear from social media, that’s it. Because you have both sides the opposition and the other one and yeah sure some people who do not support the opposition they will say whatever they want and they won’t agree with what an Al–Jazeera reporter and you have the same for the other channels. So if you’re not from there, if you did not attend, if you did not have any details of what is going on then you wont be able to know what is going on that… so yeah I would say, that’s it, I won’t say more.
J – So everything that you saw, whether it was online or on TV or anything like that, it was all treated with a degree of scepticism you are saying? Like you weren’t really sure… whatever you saw whether it seemed real or not you were always a bit wary.
CS – From my personal point of view yeah I was not sure of everything that’s why we have to read. How to say it, we have to go step by step for everything.
J – OK. A lot of people say, and we’ve already touched upon this, but the fact that people head of other revolutions going on elsewhere didn’t really have that much of an impact because the revolutionary conditions already needed to be existing within the country itself. Would you say that, in Egypt, all these people already wanted a revolution before this whole thing started happening.
CS – I don’t know I did not live in Egypt I’m not from Egypt but in Iraq it did not just happen suddenly it took a long process. You have too many countries around Iraq had too many conflicts and wars with the countries around and I would say it was just like, It was organised for the whole years to start this revolution.
J – So you’ve already said that social media was use by both sides. By those who wanted the revolution and by those who were against it and pro dictator in their respective countries yeah?
CS – yeah but in Iraq it was totally different. It was only for the government if you want to hear news you will take it from people.
J – Egypt were victim to a number of Internet blackouts during their revolution.
CS – The Internet is not for the opposition or anyone else so I would say it was a stupid move by the government to be honest because they should not do this if they want to get people on their own side. At the same time you have people who support the government and use the Internet as well so it was not from their own side.
J – Whilst it was down did people still manage to keep updating the their sites or social media. Did you see any evidence on that?
CS – Well I used to study at that moment I used to study in Egypt and yeah I saw lots of people they were organizing groups just to go to protest.
J – OK. So, in Egypt censorship wasn’t as bad as it was elsewhere but some bloggers who did write things that were against the regimes were being arrested. Do you think this would have put people off posting online and you yourself did hearing that put you off posting anything if you wanted too? Or was there an attitude of ‘we just have to do this’?
CS – Me personally I don’t know. I don’t know. You don’t know what could happen. Yeah lots of people died because of this, especially in Syria eventually and it stopped lots of people from posting and some of them left the country.
J – So would you say that there was no one thing that made this revolution happen, it was a combination of lots of different aspects?
CS – Yeah exactly that’s what I would say it’s not one thing. I don’t support the whole regimes in the Arabic countries. Its like illusionary elections are happening right now they are repeating the same things that used to be before so.
J – I’ve heard Egypt is having a bit of trouble at the moment aren’t they.
CS – Yeah they’ve changed two presidents and Iraq as well. Conflict in Libya, it did not fix anything. Nothings fixed.
Interview with Esra Dogramaci:
Jasper – So firstly, do you think the media went over board with their claims that this was a social media revolution?
Esra – I don’t necessarily think they would go overboard but I think it was one of the first instances that you saw something like this happen at such a scale so a lot of people who were trying to explain what was going on just turned to social media as it did play a prominent role in organising and also getting the word out and the reason for that is because of the absence of state broadcasters doing their job in Egypt or lets just say any other media doing their job in Egypt and then you have these other broadcasters like Al–Jazeera who had their own people on the ground trying to send a message out but also citizens came together and organised in a way that was just unprecedented in Egypt and they think we really have to keep that timeframe because since then you see a lot of that kind of thing happening but that was the starting point in January 2011 I would say so, yes I do think media did go a little bit overboard in trying to explain this as social media.
J – OK so you wouldn’t say that this was, you don’t agree with the bold statements that some people are saying that this was in fact a social media revolution you think there was more to it than that.
E – No absolutely not no and there’s a piece written by, what’s his name, the fella that works for the New York Times with the big curly hair.
J – I’m not sure I’m afraid.
E – Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell also talks about this and he wrote and article in, I think it was in the New Yorker round about the same time, so social media facilitated it but it wasn’t the reason for it. There was a lot of underlying currents if you look at the economic situation, the political situation, in Egypt and also the other Arab countries these were something that had been persisting for decades so you cant just come and say that social media was the ignition that sparked all of it but it facilitated it just like any other media would facilitate something.
J – OK. So with the extent that people did focus I on this aspect do you think that the media may have been looking for an unusual angle to sell the story from?
E – I don’t necessarily think it’s an unusual angle I just think media gets lazy and I say that because I can relate that to what happened in Turkey with Gezi (Park protests) so if I can jump into that example building a commercial complex and changing the way that ? lived in Turkey is not something new its been going on for the last 10–15 years and even the opposition parties who came out against protest last year they were the ones who signed through some of the agreements to say these things would happen and I think media, because things are so last minute and they come across breaking news they either don’t bother or they don’t have the time to go and have a look at what has been the track record what have been underlying tensions that have brought us to this moment.
J – OK so one of the things that was unusual that happened in the Arab Spring was the domino effect that happened from Tunisia and then it spread to Egypt and elsewhere do you think that was, and a lot of people say this more so than people who say this was a social media uprising, down to social media?
E – Like I was saying social media was just a tool and if you have a look at the timeline of these things going on I think that you see a lot of people who found confidence and found their voice and they thought: ‘we’re not going to put up with our conditions any longer’ and come on a protest and you see successful cases of it and you see unsuccessful cases of it I would say one unsuccessful case is Libya where they basically descended into the civil unpartisan war that went on and then the second of this example is Syria as well where people said ‘look at this wave that’s coming along’ and they tried it as well and it seemed to have backfired where you got this conflict that has persisted for years with hundred of thousands of people killed and you can also make the argument that Egypt has failed as well because you have a democratically elected government brought to power on the back of the protests there and then you’ve also got these massive movements in the other direction where you’ve got mass jailing’s, mass executions, again military men stepping into the scene so you can really argue what has changed and what hasn’t changed. A new version of the old coming again.
J – A lot of people have mentioned that they think social media and channels like Al–Jazeera wouldn’t have been so successful had it not been for one another, for example there was a lot of citizen journalism going on that Al–Jazeera then found and broadcast elsewhere. Do you think they helped each other?
E – So I can speak directly to this because that’s something I was directly involved with and again there’s no easy answer to any of these questions you’ve really go to dig down and see what were the elements that I guess made up the pie and Al–Jazeera at that time wasn’t broadcast everywhere and they have a live stream going on YouTube on LiveStation and that kind of thing so they were just broadcasting the whole time but when things were really picking up in Egypt they just switched over to keeping the cameras on Tahrir Square and showing everything that was going on but yes in the same way a lot of people couldn’t go into Egypt and report it the best way was lets get the content out and I remember having just hundreds and hundreds of pieces of, it’s not even citizen journalism because people were sending out weren’t necessarily journalists, but let’s say UGC would be a better word. You have hundreds of pieces of UGC content that were being sent out to these platforms that Al–Jazeera had then, I’m not sure if they have them now, called ? which is an Arabic platform and a lot of the stuff we would get would be fake a lot of them would be stuff you wouldn’t be able to broadcast but then you get all of these pictures coming out that you wouldn’t be able to see elsewhere and that was the way I think that coupled with these live streams and broadcast elements as well was a way of letting the world know what was going on. The other thing that Al–Jazeera has as an advantage is that the people who were covering the region were from the region so they’ve got that historical, political, economic context that they can add into what might seem like a breaking news story for organisations like CNN for example.
J – OK. I’ve read some things that suggested social media was also being used by people who were pro–regime as well and that it was not all pro revolution. It was much more of a contested site.
E – Yeah I remember at the time the Egyptian Army set up a Facebook page as well and then you also have, you wont necessarily have state apparatuses trying to claim a stake I the site but I pay attention to the things like, for example, this year the ? were trying too as well so they are very pro Assad and they basically go on these electronic campaigns to take down anybody who would say negative things or opposing things against him. You see them, you haven’t seen them around for a long time but I remember them taking down pages of Al–Jazeera they’ve gotten to BBC accounts and various other places else where so, yes, you have to pay attention to that but I think the amount coming form the other side overwhelms the state representation.
J – Did you see much organisation on social media? People spoke about Facebook groups and events was that rife?
E – Oh yeah I think that’s one of the way that, so I’m not a fluid Arabic speaker but I know that one of the ways that people found out about this right at the beginning was because of all of the groups on social media organising and there’s this famous case of Wael Ghonim who was the representative of Google in Egypt and he was I think working underneath a pseudonym…
J – Looking at statistics of social media consumption around the death of Bouazizi in Tunisia, from the second to the fifteenth of January the most widely used language on social media was English but before then it was Arabic. I was wondering if you thing there is a reason for action happening in other places like Egypt after the main language was Egypt or if you believe that was just a coincidence?
E – So I don’t know about the content because it is not in front of me I don’t see it so I really cant comment on it but I can tell you why I think that happened. So because again it happened in Turkey with Gezi and people find that once they start to translate things into English more international media will pick up on it and non–Arabic speakers will be able to pick up on it and they’ll get a lot more traction. As for the timing I don’t think that this is anything planned its just a domino effect essentially as people see these things happening and Tunisia and a fellow stepped down in Yemen and then it just keeps on going.
J – So you don’t think there’s a degree of people in Egypt then seeing that the rest of the world is involved and on their side and, not increases morale, but gives another incentive like ‘if it starts to go badly for us lets say the UN are looking over us’
E – I think people would be looking over anyway because everyone is across these things. Agencies, organisations like the UN and these organisations they all have these language capabilities available but I think by simply translating it to English they immediately make it available to a wider audience. The other point to keep in mind is you have to remember to ask our selves who are the people who are translating into English? Is that representative to the entire population and I would say that the answer is no so its usually people who are young middle class, middle income, upward and secular and moving into kind of elite territory so there the ones who know how to use the platforms, they’re the ones who have access to them and they’re the ones who have the literacy and fluency in English to be able to do it and does that represent the entire population of the country and the answer to that is no and the other thing is is what was happening in the big cities reflective of the country as well and again if you look at Cairo, Cairo I don’t remember what the population is of the top of my head I think its about 1/5th of Egypt’s population, you’re going to have to check that, but does that reflect the entire population or sentiment of the country? The answer would probably be no but they’re the ones who are pushing and driving this thing and then you have the elections that brought about the Muslim brotherhood which is not what the people who were protesting hoped for but they were pushing for the democratic president, they had the results of the democratic president and then you’ve seen what’s happened since then. I think those types of things are really important to keep in mind as well.
J – So do you think social media was used by the population of Egypt but also across the Arab Spring as a primary way of people keeping informed as to what’s going on.
E– It depends who, it depends who because you have to remember that not everyone is connected to these platforms the reality in the Arab part of the world is its still a feature phone dominated market and on feature phones you don’t really have that fast and that good an access to social media as the people who were sending these things out were definitely amplifying the voice of people who might no necessarily have access to these platforms.
J – There’s a theory that social media was overlooked by some of the regimes as a place for revolution as they saw it more of a trivial site where these kinds of things don’t happen. Do you think that could be the case?
E – Yeah I do agree with that so a lot of regimes in these countries, and again you should be really specific which ones you’re talking about, are military veschivis (?) they’re authoritarian regimes meaning its one person whose been in power for decades who’s come off families and autocracies (?) and these are the ways that these regimes are defined and all of a sudden you’ve got this social space that’s not subject to conventional control it’s a lot harder to block its accessible to a lot of people so in these areas internet cafes are huge and so that’s why it’s a lot more difficult to control because people going out on the streets what would they do they’d put the police or military on them but if you’re sitting in an internet café and just uploading pictures or writing commentary about what’s going on that’s a lot harder to control. So yes they weren’t hip? to the idea but then again I made this point that the Egyptian military opened a Facebook page.
J – So a lot of people also said satellite TV was also a very important aspect in helping keep the revolution going so how much of a role do you think stations like Al–Jazeera played in keeping people informed?
E – Well I’ve got to ask you about your question what you mean people say that they were important in amplifying? How?
J – Well it was a more widely used method of keeping people up to date with what was going on and also because it had aspects of social media as in it was taking the best of social media and putting in on there it generally reached a bigger audience and as a result of that it had a greater effect.
E – I can’t speak to anything about Al–Jazeera because that’s the one I was working for and we worked almost 4 weeks straight and something like 12 to 16 hour days and again its also really important to keep in mind the distinction between Al–Jazeera Arabic and Al–Jazeera English and Al–Jazeera Arabic caters to the Arab speaking world and their editorial line is going to be a little bit different to Al–Jazeera English’s and you really see that schism come in the last maybe year and 2 years but in terms of I don’t know how Id answer that question except to say they were there when not most other media was there and they were able to cover the story in a way that’s not readily accessible by other western media outlets and because a lot of its free, you could get that live streaming online, its much easier to access that media. Another thing happened during my time with Al–Jazeera English is that Egypt promoted the Al–Jazeera page the day I think that Mubarak I think was stepping down, they put a link up saying “Watch the events in Egypt unfold” or something like this and when you click on it it links to the Al–Jazeera live stream and so of course you’re going to get more traction so they were basically there because of circumstance so its an Arab satellite channel with people from the region who know the region and broadcasting across social media and online platforms when nobody else was really doing it so that’s what carried them through and I guess that’s what made them famous and that’s why there was so much attention attracted to it until everyone else caught up and came as well.
J – Do you think the fact that Internet, as you mentioned earlier, is slightly less available in the Arab world than it is here…
E – It’s slightly less what sorry?
J – Less available.
E – I didn’t say Internet is less available I was making the distinction between smart phones and feature phones.
J – Ah yes sorry. But as it is, the Internet in places like Egypt isn’t the same as it is in the western world access wise. Do you think this dents the idea that this could be a social media revolution?
E – Erm, yeah sure again you could take that argument and break it down to a number of levels. Not everybody is going to be out protesting is going to A have the internet, B have a smart phone and C speaks English to be able to upload and share this content but the people who were doing it in Arabic were definitely doing it in Arabic and, like the point I made before, social media was basically a tool that facilitated what was going on there and if you go back and have a look at other social movements, I think there’s an example in either Malaysia or the Philippines done by SMS a couple of years ago so Allan Fisher has written a paper on this, and so its whatever that tool is of that moment people are going to use it to propagate of facilitate what their feelings are.
J – Obviously you know more about Egypt but in your opinion, if you feel you know enough to give your opinion on this, some stats suggest people lumped together the Arab spring to say the whole area may have been a social media revolution where as I’m thinking more that Egypt looked much more likely to have experienced one than anyone else. Do you think that’s the case?
E – I disagree that it’s a social media revolution it was facilitated by social media but it wasn’t a social media revolution phones are not going to bring down anybody, it’s people going out and protesting and demanding them to be removed that’s going to bring down somebody, and if you happen to take a picture of what the military is doing and upload it, then you’ve just got more clout.
J – But if, and you’re right I agree with you that social media couldn’t be the one thing, but do you think it played a much bigger role in Egypt than it did in the rest of the region?
E – I think the best way to answer that question would be to go and look at the statistics at that time and these are all readily available you just need to do some digging. It would be to go and look at the different countries and have a look at what their social presence is worth: the number of tweets exchanged, Facebook messages exchanged, the size of the groups, how they’ve grown, the number of videos shot and uploaded to things like YouTube and even Al–Jazeera as well. You’ve got to remember that Egypt is also, I think it’s the most populist country in the Arab world so whatever Egypt does it’s going to be felt and noticed by the rest of the region as well.