Expert Commentary

Social media and participation in political protest: Observations from Tahrir Square

2012 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on the effects of social networks in the 2011 uprising in Egypt.

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: Middle East, Facebook

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