News coverage of the “Arab Spring” has often focused on the potential role of social media in facilitating the Middle East’s ongoing political upheaval. Tools such as such as Facebook and Twitter, it has been suggested, helped citizens communicate and organize when governments were persistently unresponsive to their requests, and may have played a central role in the still-unfolding events.
A 2011 study by the Dubai School of Government, “Civil Movements: The Impact of Facebook and Twitter” (PDF), analyzes access and usage of these two major social media tools based on data collected from 22 Arab nations as well as Iran, Israel and Turkey during the first three months of 2011.
The study’s findings include:
“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.
Citizens in Egypt, Yeman, Bahrain, Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Palestine used Facebook to share calls to protest, with specific dates.
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 estimated number of tweets generated by the region’s approximately 1.15 million active Twitter users in the first quarter of 2011 was 22,750,000. This corresponds to 252,000 tweets per day or approximately three per second.
During the first quarter of 2011, the most popular Twitter topics (as indicated by #hashtags) in the Arab region “were #egypt (with 1.4 million mentions in the tweets generated during this period) #jan25 (with 1.2. million mentions), #libya (with 990,000 mentions), #bahrain (640,000 mentions), and protest (620,000).”
While Facebook usage has grown rapidly in the Middle East, overall the penetration rates are quite low. For example, only 5.5% of Egyptians and 4.3% of Libyans had access to Facebook, where the initial call for protest was declared (on January 25 and February 17, respectively). In contrast, 32% of Bahrain’s population had access to social media when its February 14, 2011, call to protest was posted online. Consequently, “it can be argued that for many protestors these tools were not central.”
The researchers conclude that while these data points are not necessarily causal, “the report provides empirical evidence suggesting that the growth of social media in the region and the shift in usage trends have played a critical role in mobilization, empowerment, shaping opinions, and influencing change.”