Expert Commentary

New media and conflict after the Arab Spring

2012 study by the United States Institute of Peace on the role of Twitter in the Arab Spring uprisings, including those in Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.

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 — 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

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