Citizens As Journalists During the Arab Spring

The impact of social media on the Arab Spring was undeniable. As totalitarian governments restricted personal communication between their citizens, social media gave citizens an outlet to express their discontent with the government and connect with others over their grievances. Facebook, Twitter, and cell phones were used to share photos and disseminate messages to vast audiences both within those countries and abroad. I would argue that the most notable impact of social media and technology on the Arab Spring was the way in which it facilitated the role of citizens as journalists. As discussed in Howard and Hussain’s “The Role of Digital Media” and Tufekci and Wilson’s “Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square”, the journalistic role of citizen witnesses was essential to the success of these revolutions. 

Social media and camera phones allowed people to immediately capture and spread photos and videos from the protests to their various networks. According to Tufekci and Wilson’s study, almost half of their participants claimed that they had produced and disseminated pictures or videos. The majority of these respondents acted using Facebook or their phones, while e-mail lagged as one of the least-used methods of communication. Furthermore, Howard and Hussain’s article claimed that people especially used social media and phones to show their own personal involvement in the protests. It is interesting that people were so likely to publicly display their own activities in the protests, despite the fact that such activity was of such a high risk under these totalitarian regimes. It seems as though social media and technology served as a buffer between the protestors and the government, allowing the protestors to more openly express themselves without fear of being persecuted. Technology gave citizens the autonomy to participate and record the protests freely and to a mass audience, which is of extreme importance. The various attempts of the government to suppress communication and social media use backfired, as citizens found ways around these restrictions and utilized social media with even greater comfort.

We have discussed the notion that social media often encourages “slactivism”. Do you think that the behavior of protestors in these revolutions was slactivist in that much action came in the form of sharing photos or sending texts? Or did social media and technology encourage activists to participate in the protests with greater freedom than ever? Also, when talking about politics, we have referred to e-mail as the most efficient mode of mass digital communication, however Tufekici and Wilson argue that this was not the case during these protests. Why do you think that is?

Posted in Winter 2012 | 3 Comments

The Role of SNS in the Arab Spring

In the articles for this week, we witness two very different perspectives on the role of social media in the Arab Spring. We see two very different perspective in the readings as Lisa Anderson argues that the three uprisings that comprise the Arab Spring (Libya, Egypt and Tunisia) would all have occurred without the digital media tools. Conversely, Howard and Hussein conclude that social media was determinant in the success of the Arab Spring movements. Although the exact role that social media, played is difficult to define, it seems difficult to deny that, at the very least, SNS promoted growing awareness and animosity towards the respective governments, propelling the movements towards reaching their tipping points.


Lisa Anderson argues that the social media was not the determining factor in the uprisings in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. She points to the successful revolutions in the Middle East prior to the inception of the Internet as evidence that social media cannot be credited for the successful revolution in 2011. According to Anderson, the revolution would have succeeded regarded because of the broader societal trends in Egypt. Howard and Hussein make a fundamentally opposite argument, concluding that social media played a critical role in the revolutions. It is nearly impossible to determine the exact impact of social media or whether the same outcome would have occurred if social media were not an available tool. Based on the heavily reliance on social media for gather support (both local and international), coordinating offline protests and maintaining far greater levels of anonymity than would have been possible offline, it is clear that social media played an integral role if its operationalization was not a determining factor.


As Shirky explains, “There is no such thing as an inherently good tool.” Instead, there are tools with specific affordances that can be positive tools in specific contexts and part of a larger strategic campaign. In this case, social media seemed to be an ideal tool as it was used for nearly every aspect of the revolutions. Unfortunately, that does not merit the conclusion that the digital tools ‘caused’ the revolution. While I personally think it is neglectful to claim that the revolutions could definitely have occurred without social media when there are so many societal factors that determine whether a revolution is possible and the best tools for coordinating the revolutionary efforts within the specific context.

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The Social Media Scaffolding for Activism

Against all apparent odds, small, corrupt elites remained in power for decades in countries such as Egypt, despite consistently dismal performance on most indicators of wealth and well-being. But these regimes of durable authoritarianism would come to a crumbling end-particularly in the case of Hosni Mubarek’s Egypt and Ben Ali’s Tunisia- in the events of the Arab Spring of 2011.

So what caused the change? I argue that social media lowered the cost of initiating and coordinating collective action, and in doing so, created new vulnerabilities for even the most durable of modern dictators. In the Wilson reading on ‘Observations from Tahrir Square,’ the Arab Spring highlights how a new system of political communication has evolved in North Africa and the Middle East. These factors include satellite TV channels such as Al-Jazeera that engaged in “reverse agenda-setting” by directing attention to topics which are at odds with the elites in the region, rapid diffusion of Internet and its social media platforms of Facebook and Twitter, and falling costs and expanding capabilities of mobile phones that have enriched dispersed communication with picture and video capabilities. This Wilson reading provides evidence that social media use was indeed associated with significantly higher odds of protest participation on that critical first day of January 25, 2011.

In my argument on how social media enabled the Arab Spring to reach once-unattainable heights, this phenomenon is evidenced in how social discontent now assumes organizational form online, and can be translated into workable strategies thereafter. The Howard reading aptly unfolds the digital media phases of the Arab Spring. The first was a preparation phase that involved activists using digital media in creative ways to find each other, build solidarity around shared grievances, and identify collective political goals. The second was an ignition phase involving an accident that the state-run media ignored, but which came to broad notice online and outraged the public. Then came the third phase, a period of street protests made possible, in part, by online networking and coordination.

Furthermore, the Howard reading brings up an interesting point that the Arab Spring protests seem to have transpired without recognizable leaders. Charismatic ideologues, labor-union officials, and religious spokespeople have been glaringly absent. Why do you think there was no major recognizable leader for the Arab Spring protestors? Do you think that this was a result of the protestors challenging hierarchy?

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Was Social Media an Important Factor in the Arab Spring Uprisings?

Beginning in 2011, massive public demonstrations began to appear throughout the Arab world, which are now collectively referred to as the Arab Spring. Quickly following the demonstrations, the notion that social networks played a key role in the uprisings became widely accepted. While authors like Lisa Anderson reject this emphasized importance of social media in the Arab Spring, Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain make a more convincing argument supporting the role that digital media played in the uprisings.

In Demystifying the Arab Spring: Parsing the Differences Between Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, Lisa Anderson argues that the critical issue regarding the Arab Spring is not the use of social media, rather how and why protesters involved in the uprisings used specific ambitions and techniques in their various local contexts. Anderson points out different revolts in Libya and Egypt that occurred in 1919, many years before the appearance of the Internet, inferring that protests have occurred in the past without social media and that the Arab Spring would have occurred with or without the presence of social media. Howard and Hussain, on the other hand, highlight the role of digital media in the Arab Spring in The Role of Digital Media and address the fact that the Middle East was one of the only regions of the world that missed the third wave of democratization. Howard and Hussain explain that by using the Internet, mobile phones and social media sites people interested in democracy were able to build strong networks, create social capital and organized political action in a way that would never been possible before the digital media age. Thus, digital media became the instrument that enabled social movements to from in the Arab World.

When contrasting Anderson’s rejection of the fact that the Arab Spring resulted from the Internet and social media with Hussain and Howard’s argument centralizing on the role that the social media played in the uprisings, it is interesting to consider a middle ground. While Anderson does not think the Arab Spring resulted from social media, it would be interesting to see if she acknowledged any importance of social media in the uprisings. How would the Arab Spring have occurred without the use of social media and the Internet? 

Posted in Winter 2012 | 3 Comments

Arab Spring and Social Media

The first article was Demystifying the Arab Spring by Lisa Anderson. She makes it clear that the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya should be viewed as unique and unrelated revolutions. After a short summary of the three uprising, she asserts that viewing these as distinct entities will be integral in their potential successes. Anderson concludes the article with a strong plea to Barack Obama and his administration to discard the notion of the Arab revolt and view the conditions of each country separately. It is interesting that she begins her piece by citing similar revolutions in 1919 in an attempt to discount the internet as a driving force behind the revolutions. While I agree that modern revolutions are possible without social media or the internet, I think she is too quick to discount their potential role in revolutions and their potential success. Phillip Howard directly contradicts the point of view that Anderson purposes. Howard argues that mobile phones, the internet, and social media is one of the few consistent narratives that can be seen in these Arab revolts. I think he makes an interesting summation when he says these technologies allow for people to build extensive networks, create social capital, and organize political action with speed. I very much agree with Howard’s thoughts and think this is a very good explanation of the technologies capabilities. Throughout the piece Howard discusses how mobile phones along with other technologies have opened up the doors for different strategies in countries pushing for democratization. While the overall success will take more time to evaluate, it is clear that these technologies have had a strong role in mobilization of civilians. From everything we have learned in class it seems that Howard’s article is much more significant. I think it is wrong for Anderson to write a detailed article on the Arab revolutions and not devote more words to social media and the internet as a driving factor in the dissemination of ideologies in revolting countries.  

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“Real” Activism: Risks and Ties

Just as previous technological innovations have been discussed, debated, and projected into its future status, social media is the current technological innovation that faces both optimism and criticism. Gladwell argues in “Small Change: Why the Revolution Should Not Be Tweeted” that “real” activism, defined by high-risk activism, is not possible through the weak ties built by social media. I argue that conceptions of “real” activism are changing with the growth of technology, though always dependent on who is using them and for what cause. 

Gladwell states that while “high risk activism is a strong tie phenomenon,” social media consists largely of weak ties and seldom lead to high-risk activism (4). This mirrors a slactivist approach hypothesized by Morozov (13). Both authors suggest that real activism only occurs with people fully committed to a cause, one with “high-risk,” and anything short of that isn’t activism at all but rather “slacitivist” requiring little to no engagement. I argue, that with new technology, this just isn’t necessarily true. Additionally, “high-risk” is relative and Gladwell ignores the idea that the larger the group, the less “high-risk” the action is for all involved. So for the three boys in Greensboro at the lunch counter, their experience was extremely high-risk. For the hundreds joining after, there was slightly less risk involved given the size of the group. 

Recalling “Barack Obama’s Social Media Toolkit” by Lutz, the author advocates for “laddering support through tiers of engagement” (6). In other words, gauging willingness for commitment and only pushing people slightly over their commitment limit. This results in some larger commitments than others, but nonetheless a large group of varying commitments to a cause. In this scenario you haven’t rid the movement of high-risk commitments, in fact that is the core of your group. But now there is a larger group of people willing to give something. This represents the changing dynamics of activism spawning from social media that juxtapose the idea posed by Gladwell and Morozov. 

Though “Iran’s Twitter Revolution” is controversial in and of itself, it appears difficult to say that social media didn’t play a role (Morozov 11). What is clear, however, relates directly to Karpf’s differentiation between tactics and strategy. Social media can and should be used as a tactic for building social movements. But, the overall goals and motivations of the movement, dependent largely on who is using them and for what reasons. In the case of Iran, it isn’t clear what role social media played, but it is clear that it did play a role. In that case, tactically, social media may be used to harness large-scale support and possibly subsequent action. Who knows how many people would have participated in the sit-ins if Twitter had existed.

What factors do you see affecting the role of social media in a social movement landscape? Do you think social media isn’t capable of revolutionary status, or do you think we have not yet harnessed it capabilities correctly? Why? 

Posted in Winter 2012 | 1 Comment

Motivations of activists: strong vs. weak ties

Many complain about how our generation doesn’t care about change, or activism. The reality is that we’re involved in many movements, but just not in the same way as our parents. As Gladwell discusses in his article in The New Yorker, social activism has changed since the Civil Rights Movement. Gladwell discusses the differences in the generations’ activism through the lens of relationships and what the strength of those relationship means for a movement. Gladwell says many movements before social media involved “strong-tie/high-risk” actions. This meant that people used riskier methods to instigate change because they had strong relationships with the people they were in the movement with; these ties could convince people to act riskier because there’s more trust between those involved. This climate is very different from today, according to Gladwell. Social media’s rise to prevalence in the activist sector has created more “weak-tie/low-risk” actions, meaning people aren’t as connected with the people they’re acting with and not acting in a way that could really harm them.  When there are weak-ties people within the movement may not be confident that the 500 Facebook members who say they’re going to protest in front of City Hall, actually will.

The main example Gladwell uses, the lunch-counter sit-in protest, undoubtedly required stronger ties and strong commitment to the cause, which perhaps might not be attainable today. In the digital age movements come and go so quickly it’s hard to keep people committed long-term. Recent movements that supposedly used social media to organize, like the Arab Spring, were characterized by the media as occurring in a fairly short time-frame.

Another difference between past and recent movements is the awareness and actions of respective governments; this is largely different because of the internet. In Morozov’s article concerning the role of Twitter he discusses how social media has given governments the ability to gather information on rebels easily. “Once regimes used torture to get this kind of data; now it’s freely available on Facebook.” (Morozov, 2009). Though the intel of governments has changed, the reasons for revolution haven’t. Morozv says that a Twitter revolution is only possible in a regime where the state is ignorant and has no virtual presence, but a revolution is often characterized by a government ignorant of the changing political climate. Regardless of how they’re organized ¾ Facebook or real friends ¾ at their core, revolutions haven’t changed.

How else do you think revolutions and movements differ from previous generations? Do you think “weak-tie/low-risk” movements are just as effective as “strong-tie/high-risk?”

Posted in Winter 2012 | 4 Comments