Expert Commentary

The Arab Spring and the Internet: Research roundup

2013 roundup of recent studies and papers that bring a scholarly, data-driven lens to questions around the Arab Spring and its roots.

Claims about the Internet’s impact on the political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa abound in popular discourse and news reports. Yet there is a fierce and still unresolved debate about what role social and digital media played in catalyzing and sustaining the “Arab Spring.” Of course, the outcome of many of the national struggles — particularly those in Egypt and Syria — are still deeply uncertain years after the rebellions began to unfold. And the ultimate outcomes may color how initial events are interpreted in the longer view of history.

A 2013 study in Journalism, “Framing Bouazizi: ‘White Lies’, Hybrid Network, and Collective/connective Action in the 2010-11 Tunisian Uprising,” looks at the roots of the first successful popular rebellion, in Tunisia. The suicide of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi is widely seen as having sparked the rebellion that brought down the Tunisian government and then spread to Egypt, Libya and beyond. The study, by Merlyna Lim of Arizona State University, looks at why Bouazizi’s death and the demonstrations that followed weren’t as easily dismissed by the authorities as earlier events had been: In particular, his suicide was filmed and facts were adjusted to frame the death in a way that appealed to a broad range of Tunisians.

A 2012 report from the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, “Social Networking Popular Across Globe: Arab Publics Most Likely to Express Political Views Online,” looks at the distinct online dynamics of nations in the region: “In Egypt and Tunisia, two nations at the heart of the Arab Spring, more than 6 in 10 social networkers share their views about politics online. In contrast, across 20 of the nations surveyed, a median of only 34% post their political opinions. Similarly, in Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan, more than 7 in 10 share views on community issues, compared with a cross-national median of just 46%.”

For comparative perspective on Asia and Africa, see a 2012 study from Ohio State University and the University of Washington published in the Journal of Communication, “Internet Use and Democratic Demands: A Multinational, Multilevel Model of Internet Use and Citizen Attitudes about Democracy.” For those wanting to understand how the Western press interacted with and amplified certain dynamics, this paper offers interesting perspective: “Sourcing the Arab Spring: A Case Study of Andy Carvin’s Sources During the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions.”

The following are studies that bring a scholarly lens to questions around the Arab Spring and its roots. Special credit goes to George Washington University’s Henry Farrell, whose article in the Annual Review of Political Science, “The Consequences of the Internet for Politics,” usefully highlights some of the papers. An even more comprehensive list of scholarly papers and resources relating to communications, media and the Arab Spring has been compiled by Patrick McCurdy of the University of Ottawa, David Brake of the University of Bedfordshire and Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


“Framing Bouazizi: ‘White Lies’, Hybrid Network, and Collective/connective Action in the 2010-11 Tunisian Uprising”
Lim, Merlyna. Journalism, October 2013, Vol. 14, No. 7, 921-941. doi: 10.1177/1464884913478359.

Abstract: “By delving into the detailed account of the Tunisian uprising, this article offers an explanation that sets the 2010 uprising apart from its precursors. The 2010 uprising was successful because activists successfully managed to bridge geographical and class divides as well as to converge offline and online activisms. Such connection and convergence were made possible, first, through the availability of dramatic visual evidence that turned a local incident into a spectacle. Second, by successful frame alignment with a master narrative that culturally and politically resonated with the entire population. Third, by activating a hybrid network made of the connective structures to facilitate collective action — among Tunisians who shared collective identities and collective frames — and connective action — among individuals who sought more personalized paths to contribute to the movement through digital media.”


“Mediated Martyrs of the Arab Spring: New Media, Civil Religion, and Narrative in Tunisia and Egypt”
Halverson, Jeffry R.; Ruston, Scott W.; Trethewey, Angela. Journal of Communication, February 2013. doi: 10.1111/jcom.12017.

Abstract: “This article analyzes the emergence of nationalist martyr narratives and their dissemination via new media as forces for social mobilization and political change. Situating them in the religio-historical contexts of North Africa, we trace martyr narratives in Tunisia and Egypt back to pre-Islamic periods and compare them to the contemporary stories of Mohamed Bouazizi and Khaled Saeed. This reveals the impact of new media on the region, evident in “virtual reliquaries,” and the role that martyr narratives play as catalysts in social mobilization. The trajectory of the martyr narrative from the traditional religious context to the state-driven concept of civil religion allows for the political dimension of narratives resident within the religious context to surface in the contemporary discursive moment.”


“Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square”
Tufekci, Zeynep; Wilson, Christopher. Journal of Communication, March 2012, 62: 363-379. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2012.01629.x.

Findings: “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.”


“Social Media as a Government Propaganda Tool in Post-revolutionary Egypt”
El-Khalili, Sarah. First Monday, March 2013, Vol. 18, No. 3.

Abstract: “Egypt’s netizens succeeded in mobilizing for the Revolution of 25 January using social media. The revolution which started as an event on the social networking site took the world by storm when Egyptians succeeded in overthrowing a dictator who ruled the country for almost three decades. For the past few years in Egypt, social media became a powerful tool used by citizens to uncover corruption, mobilize for protests, and act as real watchdog over the mainstream media and the government. Although social media have mostly been used by citizens as a platform for public opinion expression and mobilization, they have become important propaganda tools used by governments. In the case of Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which ruled Egypt for a transitional period of 16 months after Mubarak stepped down, realized the need to speak the same language of the Egyptian youth, to communicate with them electronically, as well as to issue counter-revolutionary propaganda. This paper will mainly focus on SCAF’s propaganda on the social networking Web site Facebook and the different propaganda techniques used in post-revolutionary Egypt.”


“Blogs and Bullets II: New Media and Conflict After the Arab Spring
Aday, Sean; Farrell, Henry; Lynch, Marc; Sides, John; Freelon, Deen. U.S. Institute for Peace, 2012.

Abstract: “An extraordinary wave of popular protest swept the Arab world in 2011. Massive popular mobilization brought down long-ruling leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, helped spark bloody struggles in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and fundamentally reshaped the nature of politics in the region. New media — at least that which uses linkages — did not appear to play a significant role in either in-country collective action or regional diffusion during this period. This lack of impact does not mean that social media — or digital media generally — were unimportant. Nor does it preclude the possibility that other new media technologies were significant in these contexts, or even that different Twitter or link data would show dif­ferent results. But it does mean that at least in terms of media that use links (especially Twitter), data do not provide strong support for claims of significant new media impact on Arab Spring political protests.”


“Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics”
Aday, Sean; Farrell, Henry; Lynch, Marc; Sides, John; Kelly, John; Zuckerman, Ethan. U.S. Institute of Peace, 2010.

Findings: “Although there is reason to believe the Iranian case exposes the potential benefits of new media, other evidence — such as the Iranian regime’s use of the same social network tools to harass, identify, and imprison protesters — suggests that, like any media, the Internet is not a ‘magic bullet.’ At best, it may be a ‘rusty bullet.’ Indeed, it is plausible that traditional media sources were equally if not more important…. Scholars and policymakers should adopt a more nuanced view of new media’s role in democratization and social change, one that recognizes that new media can have both positive and negative effects.”


“Social Media and the Arab Spring: Politics Comes First”
Wolfsfeld, Gadi; Segev, Elad; Sheafer, Tamir. The International Journal of Press/Politics, January 2013. doi: 10.1177/1940161212471716.

Summary: The researchers use the Arab Spring as a kind of “case study” and examine social media data from 20 countries. They conclude that the effectiveness of collective action and protest through social media is highly dependent on political context. In some ways, they are trying to cut through a polarized and simplified debate between “cyber-enthusiasts” and the “cyber-skeptics.” Although they don’t deny that social media were important for Arab protestors, the researchers compare cross-national data and show high rates of Internet penetration did not always lead to greater levels of protest. Another research takeaway is that a “significant increase in the use of the new media is much more likely to follow a significant amount of protest activity than to precede it.”


“Clicks, Cabs and Coffee Houses: Social Media and Oppositional Movements in Egypt, 2004-2011″
Lim, Merlyna. Journal of Communication, April 2012, Vol. 62, Issue 2, 231-248. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2012.01628.x.

Findings: “Social media provided space and tools for the formation and the expansion of networks that the authoritarian government could not easily control. It did so by sustaining both longstanding networks of labor opposition, by facilitating new connections among middle-class youth opposed to the regime, and by supporting the circulation of stories about regime repression and police brutality. Social media functioned to broker connections between previously disconnected groups, to spread shared grievances beyond the small community of activist leaders, and to globalize the reach and appeal of the domestic movement for democratic change. In achieving these goals, the activities had to overcome limitations of particular technologies, identifying right issues, and crafting the shared repertoires of contention. They also had to frame the issues by transforming abstract, complex concerns into a simpler, more tangible narrative that resonated with everyday experience… Social media helped a popular movement for political change to expand the sphere of participation, especially by reaching the country’s unemployed and disaffected urban youth.”


“The Revolutions Were Tweeted: Information Flows during the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions”
Lotan, Gilad; Graeff, Erhardt; Ananny, Mike; Gaffney, Devin; Pearce, Ian; boyd, danah. International Journal of Communication, 2011.

Findings: “The differences in information flows between Egypt and Tunisia suggest that Twitter reveals differences in how each country behaves as a media system. Since our study was bounded within the use of Twitter, we cannot make broader claims about the two countries, but we can note that the following things appear to be true on Twitter: Mainstream media and individual activist tweets appeared to generate many more responses in Egypt than in Tunisia; non-media orgs appeared to generate many more responses in Egypt than in Tunisia; journalists appeared to have equally large information flows in both countries; and bloggers in Tunisia had greater information spread than those in Egypt.”


“After Egypt: The Limits and Promise of Online Challenges to the Authoritarian Arab State”
Lynch, Marc. Perspectives on Politics, June 2011, Issue 02, 301-310. doi: 10.1017/S1537592711000910.

Findings: “While protestors effectively used social media in their struggles, it is surprisingly difficult to demonstrate rigorously that these new media directly caused any of the outcomes with which they have been associated. And while social-media-based forms of political organization may be effective at mobilizing and channeling leaderless challenges to authoritarian states, since they do not have the usual array of party elites available for repression or co-optation, at the same time these political tools have major weaknesses when the time comes for negotiating the terms of democratic transition … and especially for dealing with the enormous challenges of governing in the wake of a change of regime.”


“Civil Movements: Facebook and Twitter in the Arab Spring”
Dubai School of Government, Arab Social Media Report, May 2011, Vol. 1, No. 2.

Findings: “The number of Facebook users has risen significantly in most Arab countries, most notably so in the countries where protests have taken place from January through March, 2011. The growth rate during the protests doubled or more than doubled compared to the same period a year earlier in all Arab countries except Libya…. In Tunisia and Egypt, more than 80% of the usage of Facebook during the civil movement and events in early 2011 was either to raise awareness, share information or organize actions related to the movement and events.”


“The Upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia: The Role of Digital Media”
Howard, Philip N.; Hussain, Muzammil M. Journal of Democracy, July 2011, Vol. 22, No. 3.

Findings: “During the ‘Arab Spring’ young tech-savvy activists led uprisings in a dozen countries across North Africa and the Middle East. At first, digital media allowed democratization movements to develop new tactics for catching dictators off guard. Eventually, authoritarian governments worked social media into their own counter-insurgency strategies. What have we learned about the role of digital media in modern protest? Digital media helped to turn individualized, localized, and community-specific dissent into structured movements with a collective consciousness about both shared grievances and opportunities for action.”


Keywords: Middle East, research roundup, Facebook, Twitter, Tahrir Square

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