Arab Spring activists and experts discuss how to make the most out of social media when propagating a cause.
by Portia Ladrido
In the heart of fast, convertible cars, gold-plated buildings, and artificial beaches, a thriving entrepreneur gave up on the start-up company he built for 15 years.
“I was becoming very disillusioned about how little I can achieve through entrepreneurship within a neoliberal economy, which doesn’t really allow you to change anything because you’re working within the system,” said Iyad El-Baghdadi, an Arab Spring activist from the United Arab Emirates.
Because of this growing frustration, he transitioned into activism and campaigning, with a supportive wife on one hand and a Twitter account on the other.
“It was the only avenue available to me at that time. I lived in the UAE and there was no civil society, really. There’s no academic scene; no publishing scene either. I can’t go to any other field and Twitter was basically right there.”
El-Baghdadi started sending links of videos he translated from Arabic to English to more influential online activists. He immediately gained a huge following for translating activist Asmaa Mahfouz’s YouTube video calling for protests in Tahrir Square, which many credit to have ushered the fall of then-dictator, Hosni Mubarak.
The Arab Spring, particularly the Egyptian revolution, has been called an online revolution because of how social media has supposedly amplified the movement. Historically, insurrections have carried out even without the aid of social networking, so is digital social networking necessary to catapult a cause?
Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco specialising in Middle Eastern politics and strategic nonviolent action, believes that if people have a message to communicate, they would find ways irrespective of the medium.
“In Palestine, during the First Intifada, the Israelis were wondering how the directives of the protests were getting around. What happened was that they got people to memorise one paragraph at a time and when they got to the next town, they would recite it, and write it out. Social media is just the latest incarnation of that tradition,” he said.
He emphasised that more than anything, social media’s role was in consciousness-raising prior to the uprising rather than the revolution itself.
“When they publicised torture and other abuses by police by getting around the official government media to let people know about political prisoners and various corruptions –social media helped. But during the uprising itself, it was not as significant as a lot of people say.”
Sebastian Valenzuela, an assistant professor at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile specialising in political communication and digital media, said that while social media is a democratising tool, it has also made it easy for authorities to take control.
“Now, you would think that social media is a tool for democratising an otherwise authoritarian system. But what happened was that authorities used Twitter to identify dissidents and some of them were persecuted or put to jail.”
But when a dictatorial government such as that of Egypt’s Mubarak decides to shut down the Internet, it seems likely that the dissemination of information also comes to a halt. As it turned out, it was widely reported that one of the largest days of protest in Egypt was when the Internet was shut off. There is a perverse effect of shutting off the Internet and activists decided to use another form of social network by organising people through the mosques.
Valenzuela said that it is certainly through face-to-face interaction that sparks the mobilisation of political action.
“You still need face-to-face communication. I would say that social media by itself is not enough but it does help you so long as you have other elements in place. It’s not about technologies or resources, sometimes, it is just about specific contexts.”
Whilst face-to-face communication is certainly necessary, social media’s presence was still imperative in facilitating the movement. In a study carried out by the University of Washington, it suggests that during the week before Mubarak’s resignation, the total rate of tweets from Egypt and around the world ballooned from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day.
Eric Stoner, founder of Waging Nonviolence, a news and analysis website of protest movements across the globe, also said that in general, despite social networking’s obvious pitfalls in facilitating unarmed insurrections, its indispensable asset is its ability to connect people.
“The ease with which people can have real interaction through social media is an undeniable feat. It wasn’t possible a few years ago, at least not so easily. I think not only can it facilitate organising, it also lowers the cost to connect with other people to get the ball rolling with launching movements.”
Digital social networking has clearly made it possible for nonviolent resistances to project the scale of their movements, but El-Baghdadi says that it wasn’t through any kind of online platform that enabled the revolution; it was purely a shift in consciousness in the Arab world driven by an idea of change.
“Social media is being used right now because of lack of an alternative but what it’s really good at is exchanging ideas. When an idea succeeds – it doesn’t have to be a true idea, it just has to be useful – and when people see that it’s actually working, they adopt it.”