Social Media and the Arab Spring

Social Media and the Arab Spring

In this article, we shall examine the role of social media as a factor for the Arab Spring. While there were many grievances that citizens had in the various countries, social media was a tool that was used to express frustrations with the governments (Stepanova, 2011). We will discuss how individuals used social media in their protests against the authoritarian governments. The Arab Spring protests began late in 2010 in Tunisia, and then spread to Egypt, Yemen, and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. And while we have examined the causes of the Arab Spring here, in this particular article, we look at how effective social media was for individuals as they were planning protests against their respective regimes.

While many people want to look at social media patters beginning with Tunisia, since the protests not only began there, but this was the first case of a political overthrow. Thus, examining how it happened is clearly important to know. However, scholars argue that Tunisia may not be the ideal starting point, and that it would be better to begin by looking at the politics of Iran in 2009, particularly with the rise of the Green Movement.

Iran, the Green Movement, and Social Media

In 2009, the president at the time, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, was running for re-election, and was challenged by Mir Hossein Mousavi. Mousavi was not expected to do well, but received a great deal of votes from many who were worried about the policies of Ahmedinejad, and the conservative holds on power in Iran. Thus, the elections were believed to be real close. However, when it came time to count the ballots, the Revolutionary Guards and the authorities declared that Ahmedinejad won easily. As a result, citizens–forming under the Green Movement–began protesting government actions, and corruption related to the the ballots. There were reports of millions of ballots missing (Schattle, 2015).

What is important about this event is the role of social media and technology in the organizational activity of the protesters. As scholars explain, while the protests did not lead to a revolution (and in fact, that was not the objective for most in the Green Movement) they did show just how important social media was for the those challenging what happened with regards to the elections. As Schattle (2015), notes, “the election became the moment in which the whole world learned how citizens could use social media platforms to organize political opposition and raise their voices on the global stage to challenge legitimacy of their national governments. This marked the first time large numbers of supporters of a defeated national candidate communicated their frustration to the rest of the world by relying heavily on text messages and posts on Twitter and Facebook, as well as the bottom-up “webcasting” platform of YouTube” (71-72).

For example, even just during the elections, people were using social media at much higher rates than usual. For example, “the number of text messages sent via mobile phones in Iran rocketed from the usual 60 million messages per day to more than 110 million messages per day” (Schattle, 2015: 72). And it was difficult to gauge the overall Facebook usage because the government blocked the website on May 23rd. Now they did change their position after a few days” (Schattle).

Thus while social activity increased through social media in Iran, this was much more evident following the announcement of the election results. Not only were over one million protests out in Tehran on June 15th, 2015, but much of the organization took place online. And while the government tried to counter the online activists, they were unable to do so, particularly early on, when they were less organized with regards to how to respond to the internet activity (Schattle, 2015).

But even as the government was trying to prevent individuals from working online, websites were still very active. For example, BBC Persia has many more page views during this time compared to a couple of weeks earlier. In addition, citizens were contacting the organization, and sending their videos of what they are experiencing and seeing (Schattle, 2015). Thus, while many were talking about social media in the context of the Arab Spring, we have to be aware of the role that the Green Movement had with regards to social media and protests in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that all social media outlets were effective in Iran. For example, “In 2009, the media raced to declare the Iranian Green Movement’s challenge to an allegedly fraudulent presidential election to be a “Twitter revolution,” when in fact new media played little role inside Iran even if it helped drive international news coverage” (Aday, Farrell, Lynch, Sides, & Freelon, 2012: 4). Thus, as we shall see, there are various forms of technology that can (and is often used), some more than others.

Social Media and the Tunisian Revolution

The event that began the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia was when Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire hours after an altercation with a police officer who was giving him trouble for his fruit stand. Following this event, Tunisians took to the street to protest the repressive policies of then leader Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali. But despite the protests, the government controlled media was not willing to initially cover the protest movement. However, “the television network Al Jazeera showed a video clip of the protests that its producers found on Facebook. This linkage, once again, between social networking platforms and global news organizations proved crucial in boosting momentum and garnering worldwide attention for the protest movement” (Schattle, 2015: 75-76).

And because the government-controlled media was not covering the activities, nor telling the truth about what was happening, outside sources continued to rely on activist and independent journalist footage for news about Tunisia. So, they were posting information on internet websites, and it was here that others were able to access the information.

In terms of the role of Facebook, was is interesting is how Facebook employees actually saw that a number of Tunisian accounts were being hacked in late December. However, despite this, the government was unable to block Facebook, and thus, protesters were uploading content to their pages on the site. Thus, for some, what was a social media site quickly became mobilized as a political tool to counter the state (Schattle, 2015). And because of this, the government still was trying to limit its use in Tunisia. This was evident by their actions with regards to the site in early January, when they were trying to capture user login information through specific software programs that they were using (Schattle, 2015: 78). And as a response to the government trying to delete Facebook accounts, those at the “Facebook headquarters rerouted all Internet requests for Facebook coming from Tunisia to a more secure “https” server commonly used to encrypt information and keep it out of view of the Tunisian internet service providers and their spying. More innovatively, Facebook also implemented what the company called a “roadblock” for all users in Tunisia as they logged in and out of Facebook, with users in Tunisia now required to identify their friends in photos before log-ins would be accepted” (Schattle, 2015: 78).

The Role of Social Media in the Egyptian Revolutions

Shortly after the Tunisian uprisings ousted Ben Ali in Tunisia, protests also began in Egypt. However, while thousands went to the streets to protest the authoritarian government of Hosni Mubarak, there were political frustrations already in place. For one, Mubarak was a dictator who allowed little space for political advocacy. In addition, poverty rates were still high, as well youth unemployment rates. Nevertheless,  “…the fact that the crisis occurred sooner rather than later, in direct follow-up to protests in Tunisia, was largely due to the initial mobilizing effects of ICT and social media networks” (Stepanova, 2011: 1). Thus, what happened in Egypt was that “The protests were kickstarted by a Facebook campaign run by the opposition “April 6 Youth Movement,” which generated tens of thousands of positive responses to the call to rally against government policies.Over the past decade, fast scalable real-time Internet-based information and communication tools have become relatively accessible in Egypt (with broadband access starting at $8/month)” (Stepanova, 2011: 1-2). Thus, with more and more Egyptians having access to the internet in the past decade before the uprisings, there were more that had the potential to utilize the internet for social and political activities. And in fact, there were 160,000 bloggers in the country of Egypt, with 30 percent of those bloggers writing on political issues (Stepanova, 2011).

And another factor that led to the protests were what happened in June of 2010. It was during that summer that an Egyptian by the name of Khaled Said, age 26, who died at the hands of police. Initially, police said that he died because of swallowing drugs. However, through social media, images began to circulate showing Said bruised and beaten (Schattle, 2015). And while many began protesting following his funeral, they also moved their protest online, particularly with the formation of a Facebook page entitled “We Are All Khaled Said.” It was here that individuals were posting information about police brutality and corruption (Schattle, 2015). Then, in January of 2011, other Facebook activities emerged. Taking cues from Tunisia, many Egyptian activists began using the social media site to organize protests against the regime.

However, these were not the first cases of bloggers using social media to challenge the government. In the case of Egypt, “…in 2005 Egyptian blogger Abdolkarim Nabil Seliman was arrested and imprisoned for four years after criticizing President Hosni Mubarak and the state.’s religious institutions. In 2007, a number of bloggers were arrested for organizing and covering social protests when the Egyptian parliament approved controversial constitutional amendments. Many activist Egyptian bloggers, some affiliated with groups such as Kefaya and the April 6 Movement, were arrested and faced physical abuse” (Howard, et. al, 2011: 7).

In terms of the flow of information during the Egyptian protests, interestingly, (and as we shall discuss in more detail below), the social media relationship was not one directional; while many many Egyptians were posting information and organizing rallies, many from other parts of the world were also posting messages, whether it was for support, or advice with how to deal with authorities (Schattle, 2015). But along with Facebook, other social media sites such as Twitter were also used. Here, people utilized hashtages to make their points about the situation in Egypt. Thus, these sites were often used by activists to specify their political demands to the state (Schattle, 2015).

However, similar to Tunisia, the Egyptian government did not allow these sites to be operational without any form of interference. The Mubarak regime did at times block certain internet sites (such as the social media sites of Facebook and Twitter) on January 27th, and complete internet access on January 28th, 2011 (Schattle, 2015). With Egypt, “

“Having first blocked Twitter and Facebook, the Egyptian authorities moved directly to ordering all major telecommunications providers to block Internet access; Telecom Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Link Egypt, Etisalat Misr, and Internet Egypt all complied. As a result, 93 percent of Egypt’s Internet addresses and networks were shut down. However, even this unprecedented Internet blackout was not total: both European-Asian fiber-optic routes through Egypt and the Noor Group/Telecom Italia routes used, among others, by the Egyptian stock exchange were left undisturbed, perhaps in the hope of re-opening the stock exchange as the protests were quelled. Nonetheless, the Internet shutdown and cell-phone service disruptions were major hindrances to Egypt’s economy and debt rating” (Stepanova, 2011: 2).”

As Schattle (2015), explains, “[e]xperts noted that dictatorships can block internet access fairly easily when their governments already exert strong control over domestic online service providers. This is carried out by enforcing strict licensing procedures over the companies’ own fiber optic cables and other technologies that enable Internet connections to be maintained–or, alternatively, shut down” (Schattle, 2015: 84). It wasn’t until February 2nd, 2011, that the internet was again available (Schattle, 2015). However, shutting down the internet is not without its drawbacks for an authoritarian regime. For example, there are economic costs, as well as the negative press and impact on a leader’s reputation both domestically and internationally, thus rendering this approach quite risky for dictators. In addition, with the government shutting down the internet, it actually “also spurred new technology solutions, such as utilizing router/pay diversity methods, IP proxy servers, and Google’s voice-to-Twitter applications” (Stepanova, 2011: 2).

Overall, when looking at Egypt, it was found that “The profile of the most active users—young, urban, and relatively educated—fully correspond to the core of the first anti-government protesters in January that later led to a larger and more mass-based campaign. Overall, the input of the social media networks was critical in performing two overlapping functions: (a) organizing the protests and (b) disseminating information about them, including publicizing protesters’ demands internationally (Facebook reportedly outmatched Al Jazeera in at least the speed of news dissemination)” (Stepanova, 2011: 2).

Overall Effects of Social Media on the Arab Spring

Thus, looking at these cases, it becomes evident that social media had at least some influence on shaping the Arab uprising in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt. Philip N. Howard et. al. (2012), in their work entitled Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring?, argue that there were three key places in which social media had a impact on the uprisings in North Africa.

First, they argue that many of the youth were discussing politics on social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, along with posting media on YouTube. And from this, we saw the connection between domestic media and it being shown by more popular news broadcast companies such as CNN and Al Jazeera (Howard, et. al. (2012)). This is similar to the qualitative evidence discussed earlier about intentional support and publicity with regards to what was transpiring in Tunisia and Egypt. Wilson and Dunn (2011) observed a related finding. Looking at the Twitter hashtags, with particular attention to the “#jan25” hashtag, they found that “there is a clear indication that Twitter was used to actively and successfully engage an international audience in the Egyptian revolution. It also appears that the resulting discourse was dominated by a relatively small group of power users within a massive group of relatively passive users who offered expressions of support, shared related content, and retweeted power user content” (1269). It seems that the tweets helped foster motivation by others, which in turn may have helped with regards to domestic activities (Howard & Dunn, 2011).

Second, Howard et. al. (2012) find that the conversations about political change were actually right before large demonstrations. Giving the example of Tunisia, they explain that “20 percent of blogs were evaluating Ben Ali.’s leadership on the day he resigned from office (January 14), up from just 5 percent the month before. Subsequently, the primary topic for Tunisian blogs was .“revolution.” until a public rally of at least 100,000 people took place and eventually forced the old regime.’s remaining leaders to relinquish power” (3).  And as a result, the leaders tried to limit individual access to these sites (Howard, et. al., 2012; Stepanova, 2011).

Lastly, Howard et. al. (2012) find that the activists were actually linking up with other activists throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and elsewhere. Thus, individuals were exchanging ideas about democracy, politics, and strategies with regards to forms of protesting. People throughout the region (such as in Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, and Egypt) were speaking and writing about the events that were unfolding in Tunisia  (Howard e. al, 2012).

Limits of Social Media and Political Change

But despite the various positive ways in which social media led to revolutions in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, and ushered in new public questions against the regime and various military forces in Iran, some have suggested that social media alone is not sufficient for democratic political change. There are additional challenges, even if such media and technology exists, depending on the political context of the said state (Stepanova, 2011). With regards to to limitations, Stepanova (2011) argues that “[f]or one, Internet access must be available to significant segments of the population. In the foreseeable future, this condition will exclude a number of underdeveloped countries with minimal Internet penetration” (3). She gives an example of the Near East, where, save for Iran in that region of the Middle East, there is not much political activity through social media or other Internet based platforms because of the low percentage of individuals that have access tot he internet. For example, “…(Internet users made up just 1.1 percent of Iraqis and 3.4 percent of Afghans in 2010, for example, as compared to over 21 percent in Egypt, 34 percent in Tunisia, and 88 percent in Bahrain).‡ Outside the broader Middle East, this is also true for a host of countries from Myanmar to Somalia” (Stepanova, 2011: 3).

Along with limited Internet access, there is no statistically significant relationship that more Internet usage will lead to more social protest through this medium. There are countries with both low and high Internet users that had protests (Stepanova, 2011), and low and high Internet usage states that did not see significant citizen protests. But even if the Internet is not highly available, it does not mean that other forms of technologies (such as cell phones) were not instrumental in helping usher regime change (Stepanova, 2011).

In addition, another point is to gauge the effect of the Internet or social media usage. Speaking on this point, Stepanova (2011) argues that “not all types of ICT and related information and social networks have had the same impact. Nor have they outmatched other means of information and communication, from satellite television to cell phones, in playing a mobilization or public information role. While the media utilized the term “Twitter revolutions” for the developments in the Middle East, identifiable Twitter users in Egypt and Tunisia numbered just a few thousand, and the mobilization role of micro-blogging as a driver of protests has been somewhat overemphasized, as compared to other ICTs, including cell phones, video clip messaging (such as YouTube), and satellite television” (4). Thus, while many like to say that these forms of social media were the key factors, one has to examine the data to analyze just how much influence each social media site or technology had with regards the protest movements. However, while Twitter was used by only a fraction of the population in Egypt (.001%), it is still the case that “Twitter use by Egyptians coordinating protest communications was deliberate and well considered. This was evident in the days before the protests erupted, as coordinators debated via tweets which hashtags should be attached to protest-related tweets” (Wilson & Dunn, 2011: 1250-1251).

Another question about the effectiveness of social media is that even if social media is relied upon with citizens, as mentioned earlier, it does not suggest that from that will come a revolution. Not only does one have to look at the particular context, but more specifically, it also depends on the power that regimes have in civil society. If their power is tied up solely in the hands of few (Tunisia and Egypt), then social media can better help facilitate change in such a situation. However, if regimes have a strong social support network (i.e. Bashar al-Assad in Syria amongst parts of Syrian civil society, or populist governments) then it will be more difficult to use such tools to remove a dictatorship from power (Stepanova, 2011: 4).

In addition, these Internet networks must be supported by those who are familiar with the technology, and are heavy users of the Internet and social media. However, this is not always the case for countries. In fact, “for ICT networks to succeed, the younger, relatively educated generation, which represents the most active Internet-users, should make up not only the bulk of activists, but also a sizeable percentage of the population at large. This effectively excludes, for instance, areas of Eastern Europe and Eurasia where this segment of the population faces a dramatic decline” (Stepanova, 2011: 4).

One last point that some have made with regards to giving too much immediate credit to the abilities of social media to transform authoritarian states into democratic protests (and democratic forms of governance) have to do with who is using those social media tools. For example, a government could be actively using the same outlets to promote their authoritarian message. Furthermore, some of the anti-government forces may be using social media, but are not looking for a democratic governance, but rather, some other form of government (Stepanova, 2011). This can be seen with the terror organization the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who have tried to use media, technology, and social media outlets to promote their message.

This was the case for many of the authoritarian leaders during the Arab uprisings. For example,

“During the Arab Spring, leaders sought to avoid the mistakes that they believed other leaders had made. For example, the Bahraini government facilitated the flooding of Twitter, online forums, and Facebook pages with proregime voices to disrupt the formation of any unified consensus or narrative. It spread stories about the alleged Iranian ties of the opposition, which, whether they were true or false, took a toll on its popularity. Other regimes went even further, using social media to hunt down activists and target them for arrest or murder. Bashar al-Asad’s regime attempted to respond to videos of its violent repression by publicizing videos of its own that it claimed documented atrocities by the opposition against police and ordinary citizens. Many governments targeted online activists and bloggers, arresting them or forcing them into exile” (Aday, Farrell, Lynch, Sides, & Freelon, 2012: 8).

As Stepanova (2011) argues,

“The weakest link in U.S. policy on the matter is the automatic connection it makes between social media networks and a Western-style democracy agenda. While the U.S. government (and others) are probably doomed to make this connection, it is a problematic one in several ways. By emphasizing the power of new technologies in spreading Western democratic values, this approach ignores the socioeconomic and social justice and equality dimensions of the mass protests in the Arab world, which may be linked to, but is not identical to, political democracy promotion, especially in its liberal sense. Also, while effective as a grassroots tool to bring down an authoritarian regime, social media-based network activism may not be best suited for political competition at the stage of “post-revolutionary” state-building, governance reform, and institutionalized politics in general, compared to more institutionalized and better organized actors. More generally, net-based information and communication tools may serve as powerful accelerating factors of social protest, but they do not in and of themselves reflect or dictate the substantive natures (sociopolitical, value-based, and ideological) and contextual forms of such protests” (5-6).

And in some cases, some may worry that these tools are being used by outside states (such as the U.S.).Or, in the case of America again, social movements might be affected if the U.S. promotes free speech, and on the other hand criticize those who revealed information with regards to the United States government actions that were previously not known to the public (Stepanova, 2011).

A number of scholars have tried to look at the quantitative effects of social media with regards to the Arab Spring. For example, Sean Aday et. al (2012) wrote an interesting report entitled New Media and Conflict After the Arab Spring in which they try to analyze just how effective social media was as a cause of the uprisings. They look at five categories of potential influence: the individual, society, the role of social media for collective action, the use of social media by regimes, and international attention. Aday et. al. (2012) looks at the influence of with regards to the Arab Spring.



Aday, S., Farrell, H., Lynch, M., Sides, J., & Freelon,D. (2012). New Media and Conflict After the Arab Spring. Blogs and Bullets II United States Institute of Peace, pages 1-24.

Wilson, C. & Dunn, A. (2011). Digital Media in the Egyptian Revolution: Descriptive Analysis From the Tahrir Data Sets. International Journal of Communication, Vol. 5, pages 1248-1271.

Schattle, H. (2015). Global Media, Mobilization, and Revolution: The Arab Spring. Chapter 5, pages 70-89, in Manfred B. Steger, editor. The Global Studies Reader. New York, New York. Oxford University Press.

Stepanova, E. (2011), The Role of Information Communication Technologies In “The Arab Spring,” PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 159 pages 1-6.

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