The Role of Social Media in the Arab Spring

In The Role of Digital Media, Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain discuss the impacts of social media on the uprisings in the Middle East. Echoing Shirky, they believe that new technology has facilitated the democratization of underdeveloped countries. Digital tools have been crucial in helping to “building networks, creating social capital, and organizing political action with a speed and on a scale never seen before” (Howard & Hussain, 36). The authors argue that social media played an instrumental role because it was able to elicit foreign help in the uprisings, inspire other countries to rebel, spread information about how to carry out successful rebellions, make it impossible to shut down, facilitate collective action among individualized communities, and make it harder to locate activists. They even argue that “such media were singularly powerful in spreading protest messages, driving coverage by mainstream broadcasters, connecting frustrated citizens with one another, and helping them to realize that they could take a shared action regarding shared grievances” (Howard & Hussain, 41). Though Howard and Hussain do not underestimate the influence of social media, they attribute too much power to it. In fact, social media may not be different than previous ways of collective action.

Jamieson argues that social media is in fact an evolutionary process as opposed to a revolutionary process. Though he looks particularly at political campaigns, his same concept applies to the Arab Spring. He argues that campaigns slowly moved from having symbols, to meeting people in person through transportation, to using the radio to speak to the people, then to the television. The story with the Arab Spring is a similar one. The use of social media is not an evolutionary change that somehow was able to cause democratic revolutions. What happened prior to social media is that people distributed information from pamphlets to cassette tapes to distributing it online. However, these changes are evolutionary—it wasn’t that as soon as the internet was popularized, people now found ways to talk to other people. Granted, it might have made the process easier, but the story still remains the same. The same can be said about meeting up to carry out collective action. Though the means to reach people may have changed, people have always been interacting with other people through their networks and sharing messages. Just because you take this network online does not mean that social media essentially caused the Arab Spring.

Do you think that social media is as powerful as Howard and Husssain says it is? If so, how did previous, successful, revolutions occur without the use of the Internet?

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1 Response to The Role of Social Media in the Arab Spring

  1. nverduin says:

    I agree with Howard and Hussain when they argue that digital tools have been influential in “building networks, creating social capital, and organizing political action with a speed and on a scale never seen before”. However, I do not believe social media to be the sole catalyst in these demonstrations and revolutions. I think to argue that social media has made revolutionary change you must explain other countries, like Bahrain and Jordan, which have used social media and have not been successful in their revolutions. There are other factors that lead to a successful revolution, and in the grand scheme of things, social media seems like only a contributor to communication abilities rather than a large influential force in the organization and implementation of the demonstrations. I think social media makes communication and awareness easier to spread, but I the other factors such as the countries economic conditions, relationship to the military, and who the main group of protestors are make more of a difference.

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