New Media and Conflict After the Arab Spring
What role did social media play in the Arab Spring? Cyberskeptics and cyberoptimists alike debate the degree to which the 2010-2011 revolutions in Arab countries were powered by social platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
A 2012 study for the United States Institute of Peace, “Blogs and Bullets II: New Media and Conflict After the Arab Spring,” looks at how both tweets and links in Twitter posts were utilized during the Arab Spring uprisings in Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, and the extent of the medium’s influence in the country, the region and the world. The researchers, from George Washington University and American University, limited their investigations to one hashtag per country, links that used the link-shortening protocol bit.ly — which captures critical information about the time, location and identity of link clickers — and posts written in English between mid-January to early April, 2011.
The study’s findings include:
- “There is ample evidence of new media being used to organize and sustain protests during the Arab uprisings, though it is more difficult to demonstrate a unique causal role… [these media] do not fully explain why the protests happened when they did and why many ordinary citizens were willing to join in.”
- The links studied were mostly clicked by people outside the country of origin, not inside it; social media operated less as an organizing tool and more as a megaphone for broadcasting information. “This could be significant if it led to a boomerang effect that brought international pressure to bear on autocratic regimes or helped reduce a regime’s tendency to crack down violently on protests,” the authors write. “But even where international pressure fails, the increased and transformed attention has reshaped how the world views these cases.”
- In Egypt, the majority of participants joined the protest after the government had shut down access to the Internet, and only 13% of Tahrir Square protesters relied on Twitter, far less than television (92%) and word of mouth (93%). “The hundreds of thousands of people who made the Egyptian revolution by coming into the streets on January 25, 2011, did not learn about it through Twitter or Facebook. They saw it on Al-Jazeera, or out their windows.”
- The tweets analyzed did not appear to have any serious causal effect on the revolutions in progress. However, that could be a function of the study’s English-language sample or choice of technology: text messages were widely used but are not as easily analyzed.
The authors acknowledged that their findings are far from definitive due to methodological and linguistic constraints, and suggested that some Western analysts may have overestimated the impact of social media in Arab Spring. “It is highly unlikely that Twitter allowed Arab Spring protestors to organize protests if few such protestors actually used Twitter during the period in question.” While the effects of different media were difficult to tease out, the authors found that new media played an important, if not crucial, role.
Tags: social media, Middle East
Read the issue-related Huffington Post blog post titled "Revolutionizing Revolutions: Virtual Collective Consciousness and the Arab Spring."
- What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover issues related to understanding Twitter's influence during the Arab Spring?
Read the full study titled “Blogs and Bullets II: New Media and Conflict After the Arab Spring."
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?