The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring are two of the best examples of how social media can have an impact on revolution. Neither of these successful revolutions had a clear leader, or central political party. In fact, both of these uprisings can be thought of simply as the will of the people to be heard. In their article Revolutionizing Revolutions:Virtual Collective Consciousness and the Arab Spring, Yousri Marzouki and Olivier Oullier are quoted as writing,
“Facebook was the main channel that facilitated and accelerated the Tunisian revolution as repeatedly reported in the news and by many observers. Twitter, too, played a crucial role during the Egyptian revolution. Hence, it is very likely that without these social networking platforms, these revolutions would certainly have evolved more slowly, if at all and would have never reached the global opinion.”
They remark that Twitter and Facebook were catalysts in the uprisings, and that they allowed not only a speedy exchange of information, but “unprecedented waves of spread.” In short, the revolutions became globalized information because of Twitter and Facebook, instead of merely local phenomena. A Pacific Standard article states that,
“During the heady days of protests in Cairo, one activist succinctly tweeted about why digital media was so important to the organization of political unrest. “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world,” she said. The protesters openly acknowledge the role of digital media as a fundamental infrastructure for their work.”
The understanding of the differing functionality and purpose of those social media platforms was key to understanding the uprisings. In fact, UN Ambassador Susan Rice said, “The power of this technology, the power of social networking to channel and champion public sentiment, has been more evident in the past few weeks than ever before.” What we can take away from the Arab Spring in relation to social media is the fundamental change in how information is spread, and how that information can get people motivated in ways that other forms of journalism cannot.
Twitter was one of the dominate ways that information about the Arab Spring was relayed from person to person. In many of the countries involved, communication can be difficult, particularly in times of civil unrest. Twitter allowed people to reach a large audience, in real time, about what was happening where they were. This new ability to communicate not only instantly and globally, but to an incredibly large audience, was previously relegated to news agencies and other mass media conglomerates. Twitter revolutionized revolution, by giving anyone a global platform for their thoughts and ideas, and in doing so connected these otherwise disparate ethnic and nationalistic groups, into a support network that spanned around the globe.
During my interview with Tony, I asked him how he kept up with the uprisings as they were happening, and as expected, he said he relied mostly on Twitter. “Twitter is such a ubiquitous program now, that it’s easy to get information just moments after it happens. For me, that was vital as I was always keeping tabs on family and friends back in Lebanon. Phone calls and email exchanges are far less convenient than texts and tweets.” There is little doubt that Twitter gave those outside the conflict zones, unparalleled and unprecedented access to the revolutions of the Arab Spring.
Twitter became a focal point of the revolutionaries. A place to broadcast their victories, a place to spread outrage about their oppression, and a place to form a community of like-minded individuals. I would also argue that Twitter was useful in gaining the support of the West, countries like the USA who might not otherwise have given a high level of support to the revolutions. The usage of Twitter in the Arab Spring signaled a significant change in the way that information was spread from a conflict area, in much the same way that TV had done the same thing in Vietnam.
“Our people had had enough, and finally, they had taken action.” When my friend Tony said this sentence, these words struck me as the foundation of what the Arab Spring Project was about. Tony, a US citizen born and raised in Lebanon, still has family spread across the region and maintains close ties to his homeland. A Christian born in a land dominated by Muslims, he is an example that this was not a religious uprising, but an uprising of the oppressed against authoritarian governments. So what was the Arab Spring? Although there had been uprisings before 2010, the Arab Spring was a term coined by author Marc Lynch, in an article he wrong for Foreign Policy, an American political journal, to describe a series of events, protests, and uprisings in the southern and eastern Mediterranean.
On December 17th, 2010 when a street vendor in Tunisia, Tarek al-Tayeb, set himself on fire in protest of the deplorable treatment he had received at the hands of public officials and police. Within hours of his death, protests began in Sidi Bouzid, quickly growing surrounding areas and the capital, culminating in the flight of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the resignation of the prime minister. Within weeks, people in other countries began to resist authority as well, and one man’s act of defiance became the start of a wide spread revolution.
Although protests are still ongoing in some countries, at a minimum there has been significant upheaval throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa. Five governments overthrown, major protests resulting in governmental changes in several countries and at least two civil wars are the results, thus far, of the Arab Spring.