How the Internet helped – not initiated – the Arab Spring

The ability to rise up and demonstrate is not a new idea, but can be taken to greater depths with improved communication. By looking at the Arab Spring and the various protests that were had, we can see how Shirky’s basic claims about new media allowing for collective action hold true mainly because they were used in the right condition where the technology aided, not initiated, the protests.

The Arab Spring was remarkable in a few ways, namely the different methods used by Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in organizing the demonstrators. Tufecki and Wilson note that the Internet in Egypt was “quickly utilized for dissent by liberals, minorities, religious groups, and others opposed to Mubarak regime” (364). They found that in spite of nearly half of those sampled hearing about the Tahrir Square demonstrations through face-to-face communication, that social media did increase the odds of a person attending the protests on the first day. Howard points out that the people in Tunisia used sites like YouTube and Facebook to communicate in ways that the state could not control (36). Awareness was raised through sharing images which allowed critics to move from virtual to public spaces. As a result, online campaigns formed and allowed for organized protests on the streets. Authorities in Libya tried to stifle digital conversation about domestic political change (Howard, 39). However that digital conversation was able to flourish under guises such as Muslim online-dating sites.

Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody discusses the role of social media in society. Shirky defines part of collective action as a tool that allows us to have more influence than anyone could have alone. He expands on the notion of collective action being the ultimate human imperative and how the organization involved makes us social creatures at our core. Shirky’s basic argument is that new media makes collective action easier because it lowers the cost and challenges of forming groups, leads to more civic participation, and finally leads to a more vigorous civil society. Ultimately, collective action allows for more potential for challenging the government.

In her article, Demystifying the Arab Spring, Lisa Anderson points out that the Internet and social media were not the main cause. She briefly details the turmoil of each country before the protests: Tunisia demonstrations as a result of neglected rural areas, Egypt’s demonstrations spurred from the government’s deteriorating ability to provide basic services, and Libya needing to recover from years of fake scarcity in commodities. Each country fulfilled Shirky’s basic definition for collective action because of their basic need to organize as a group. Because of this need, each country was able to use social media in a way that catered to it’s own needs (and restrictions) in order to confront the government. The Arab Spring was able to become such an event because of the ability to communicate easier than ever before.

It is interesting to think about what would have happened if these countries did not have the ability to communicate online. Do you think that we would have seen the same outcome?

Danica Whitfield

Aside | This entry was posted in Fall 2012, Week 13, Winter 2012. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How the Internet helped – not initiated – the Arab Spring

  1. bdisant611 says:

    I agree with your thesis that perhaps too much emphasis was put on the social media aspect of the Arab Spring. Decades of corruption, abuse and torture have led to frustration that has cultivated a revolutionary spirit. However, social media allowed collective action to take place at an extremely accelerated rate. You mention that Anderson points to the turmoil and problems of each country before the protests. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter aided in the collective belief that these were the central problems of each nation and that action needed to be taken. Protests eventually would have taken place in these nations regardless, but collective action occurring in all these nations in such a condensed period is an anomaly. Social medias ability to spread ideas rapidly appears to be the central cause of the Arab Spring phenomenon.

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