Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square
Can Facebook win a revolution? The power of social media has been a hotly debated topic after the Arab Spring brought about regime change in multiple states. The 2009 Green Revolution in Iran may have been the first modern political insurrection to be chronicled on Twitter, but it did not bring down a government. Egypt’s Tahrir Square protest movement did just that. Some previous research has analyzed the use of social media at a more general level throughout the Arab world in early 2011, but the exact nature of the relationship between social networks and revolution is still being examined.
A 2012 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published in the Journal of Communication, “Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square,” analyzed more than 1,000 interviews with protestors shortly after President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. The surveys asked more than 90 questions relating to issues such as how people first heard about the protests, and the interplay between protest activity and both social media usage and traditional media influence. The authors caution that the surveys were gathered during a “tumultuous, violent time” and do not necessarily constitute a representative sample of all Tahrir Square protestors.
The study’s findings include:
- Three-quarters of the Tahrir Square protestors interviewed were male. The female protestors tended to be younger, better educated and were more likely to have Internet access on their phone and at their home than the men.
- Of those interviewed, 52% had a Facebook profile and almost all used it for communication about the protests; only 16% had a Twitter account.
- Nearly half of participants (48.4%) first heard about the protests from face-to-face communications. “Traditional mass media were far less important for [informing] people about the protest than were more interpersonal means of communication (face-to-face, telephone, or Facebook).”
- Nearly half of participants (48.2%) engaged in citizen journalism, sharing video or photos of the protests. “The leading platform for producing and disseminating visuals was Facebook, used by about fully a quarter of the sample (25%), and phones were a distant second, used by 15%. These were not mutually exclusive options; many who used their phones also used Facebook (72% of those who used their phone also used Facebook), presumably uploading videos and pictures taken on their phones to Facebook. About 5% of the sample used Twitter.”
- The vast majority of protestors actively used email, but relatively few of them used it to communicate about the protests. By contrast, few people first heard about the protests by text, but nearly half used texting to share information.
The authors conclude: “In the case of protests in Egypt, it appears that social networks, often mediated through the new online platforms in the emergent networked public sphere, played a crucial role. The high level of production and dissemination of multimedia content, undertaken by about half the sample, shows that it became difficult to suppress information about protests. Approximately half of our respondents were actively documenting and sharing images of the protests. If that proportion was applied to even the most conservative estimates of total participation in the Tahrir Square demonstrations, it becomes apparent that at least tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people were documenting the protests — and were, de facto, functioning as citizen journalists.”
Tags: human rights, development, social media, Africa
Read the study-related Economist article titled "How Luther Went Viral."
- What key insights do the study and article furnish in terms of understanding how communications media can influence events? What has changed? What has stayed the same? What key ideas should reporters keep in mind as they report on the evolving nature of communications?
Read the full Journal of Communication study "Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square."
- 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?