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April 10, 2011
Open Space

Social Media and push for democracy in the Arab world

Faisul Yaseen

When Google executive, Wael Ghonim created a Facebook page ‘We are all Khaled Said’, little did he know it would spark a revolution in Egypt.

Egyptian police had allegedly beaten the 28-year-old Khalid Mohamed Saeed to death in custody. Following this, a Facebook group, ‘We are all Khaled Said’, moderated by Ghonim, brought attention to the killing and contributed to the growing discontent leading to revolution in the country.

“I’ve never seen a revolution that was preannounced before,” Ghonim said in an interview after the revolution in Egypt.

And almost never in the past had a leader emerged out of nowhere in any social movement like this. Ghonim was neither a politician nor a social activist having an influence over people. People started following Ghonim’s Facebook page as they could identify with the cause and empathy with the victim.

The role social media played in starting revolutionary movements in the Arab world did not begin from Egypt nor did it end there. Before Egypt, social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were already used in Tunisia, South Sudan and Iran and after Egypt in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordon, Lebanon, Oman, Iraq and most of the Middle East.

In Tunisia, Twitter and Facebook users intensively campaigned against the authoritarian government leading to civil resistance including a series of street demonstrations. The massive protests in January 2011 led to the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who had been ruling the country since 1987.

In Tunisia, the large-scale mobilization was possible only after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010. People had a lot of grievances from the authoritarian government even before the incident but in the death of Bouazizi, Tunisians found a precursor, which lead to massive protests throughout the country. The emotions of the people were surcharged and everybody empathized with the family of Bouazizi, a university graduate who could not find a job and had to remain content by earning livelihood being a street vendor.

Talking on the sidelines of a panel discussion WikiLeaks, the web, and the long strange journey of journalism during the South By Southwest Interactive Festival at Austin in Texas, CBS Radio journalist, Scott Braddock said social media instantly gave power to the people.

“In places like Egypt or Libya, people either have to resort to massive civil disobedience or pick up a gun,” Braddock said. “Here we just have to vote against or for and that is our version of what is happening in Libya.”

However, the arrival of social media and return of social activism has brought the equation at par to some extent. Long before social media played its role in Middle East uprising, it had played a part in Moldova Spring 2009 protests following which the country’s Communist Party lost power. Later, social media saw a wide role during Tehran student protests.

Referring to Hosni Mubarak who was overthrown as president of Egypt after ruling the country for 30 years, another panelist at the discussion, James Moore of Latakoo Inc said people in Egypt had decided that they had had enough of this U.S. puppet and needed to teach him a lesson.

Scores of deaths and injuries were reported in Tunisia revolution while protests in Egypt led to 840 reported deaths and over 6,000 injuries following which many questioned the use of social media.

Avtaar activism and pop culture was witnessed during protests in the Middle East as people used Western music songs, cartoons, graphics and superheroes depicted in English movies of the West and posters and T-shirts with images of people like Argentine Marxist revolutionary and a key figure of Cuban revolution, Che Guevara, shedding the image of fundamental Islamic outrage.

Despite this, people leading the protests urged the participants to exhibit restraint and called for emotion management to stop Aceldama.

“There is no such thing as a bloodless revolution,” Moore said on whether social media was resulting in a lot of bloodshed. “Our own country (the United States) didn’t have a bloodless revolution.”

Earlier, protests used to be viewed as pathological but it is no more the case. The protestors exhibited solidarity and empathized with one another and with the larger cause of the revolution. Members of the Egyptian elite including the pop star Shireen Abdel Wahab and the soccer goalkeeper Nader al-Sayed turned up in support of the protestors. Brigades of university teachers joined the protests, as did a column of legal scholars in formal black robes displaying affective bonds within the community.

“Tunisia is the force that pushed Egypt, but what Egypt did will be the force that will push the world,” said Walid Rachid an organizer of Egypt’s April 6th Youth Movement. Rachid invited Ghonim, who was acting anonymously as El Shaheed, via an email, asking for “marketing help” with his group’s plans for the January 25 protest.

Rachid and Ghonim who did not know one another proved that social media platforms were built around weak ties but also proved right the claim of sociologist Mark Granovetter that there is strength in weak ties.

With confrontation continuing in Libya, the ongoing developments in the Arab world have far-reaching consequences on the rest of the world. Many countries have already reviewed their foreign policies and tried to broker peace in the region. Even the U.S. President Barack Obama hailed Tunisia’s courage to battle its authoritarian government and did not side with Egyptian leader Mubarak, who had been a long-term ally of the United States. The Britain Prime Minister, David Cameron also ordered relief to the Tunisian and Libyan refugees after unrest broke out in the region.

To improve its image among the people in the region, the United States stood against the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was the country’s long-term ally. The U.S. is also aiding the insurgents fighting pro-Gaddafi forces in the country claiming the step is aimed to restore democracy in the region. This shows how social movements in one particular region can force a change in the foreign policies throughout the world.

Meanwhile, some experts continue to be cynical of the different social media tools and question why these tools were abuzz only in the Muslim Middle East and silent in the Christian Northern Ireland, Hindu India, Communist Russia and China, and Israel and Palestine. They accuse media of being corporate controlled and biased and question the loyalty of these media organizations.

Ben Werdmuller, CTO of Latakoo Inc is one of those cynics. “I worry that is the case,” he said about the cynicism on who owns these social media tools and that Muslims were being pitched up against Muslims.

“Generally social media is an exemplary thing but dangerous when they are taking power away from certain quarters,” Werdmuller said.

However, Moore does not agree to Werdmuller’s views. “Mark my words, these protests are not going to remain confined to the Middle East but will spread to regions like Balkans and the erstwhile Soviet states and countries like Ireland, China, Israel, India and Indonesia,” he said.

Certain experts are also weary of the way governments in the Arab world are tackling social media tools.

Ethan Zuckerman, the co-founder of Global Voices Online, said the governments had figured ways to tackle social media. “In Tunisia, they didn’t cut the Internet; in Egypt, hundreds of thousands of protestors were on streets by the time the government cut the Internet; in Libya, the Internet was snapped early,” Zuckerman said in a Skype interview.

He said cell phones were playing an important part in the infectious use of social media. “In places like Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, people usually use Facebook and Twitter only through cell phones,” he said.

The Middle East protests saw everything. While the governments tried to flare up emotions like regionalism and religion accusing protestors of siding with the neighboring enemy countries, people leading the protests raised issues like failure of successive governments in providing quality education, improving economics, punishing the corrupt, and cleaning politics and diplomacy. However, social activism to an extend saw it’s way professionally demanding an end to violence and hoping ushering of a new era of peace. The social media activists laid emphasis on the basic rights of the people from the governments through innovative ways with a focus on advocacy.

Speaking during a Core Conversation at SXSW on How Social Networking Is Changing Advocacy, Convio’s senior strategy consultant, Andrew Magnuson said the information war was on at full swing.

“Governments like the one in Iran are using social media as a tool to confuse people,” he said. “They anticipate where the unrest is coming from and respond with propaganda.”

The governments may be bracing up to use social media effectively and crush rebellions but at the same time, social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter have been instrumental in the advocacy of rights, particularly the human rights.

Social media has changed advocacy forever. “It has done so much for advocacy that Internet itself did not do,” Magnuson said.

One of the important things about social media is advocacy now is decentralized.

“By signing online petitions, human right activists are able to campaign against human rights violations on a large scale,” Magnuson said referring to how social networking was changing advocacy of human rights. “This helps them mobilize, coordinate and send same message everywhere resulting in the success of such campaigns.”

While people have been able to use these tools to bring legitimate regime changes in the Arab world, there is also another side of the story.

“Governments can use social media to better serve the people or to deal with them repressively,” Magnuson said. “It becomes a war of information.”

Habib Haddad, the founder of YallaStartup, at a core conversation on ‘How Social Media Fueled Unrest in Middle East’ said some tweeters were powerful people. He gave example of the Egyptian Army, which has its own Facebook page.

Other experts felt the U.S. government was using Tweeter and Facebook for their own good. “Whether you call social media revolutions or not, the U.S. government is using Tweeter and Facebook to dictate policies to other countries,” Al Jazeera journalist Ahmed Shihab Eldin said while another participant chipped in: “Despite social media boom, government in Iran is doing what it was doing two years ago.”

One of the participants at the conference said a lot of pro-government people were tweeting in Bahrain using pseudonyms while another said governments were using software to create fake identities.

This proves social movements should also be prepared for the backlash as the oppressors are usually strong and the oppressed ones weak. The governments have available resources but the masses have the power of mobilization, which often has an influence to sweep everything else.

Katherine Maher, the ICT Program Officer at National Democratic Institute, said governments not only in the Middle East but elsewhere too had cracked down on social media users.

“Apart from Tunisia and Egypt there were also protests in Azerbaijan, Zimbabwe, Uganda and China, which were dealt severely by their respective governments,” she said. “Forty-four people were killed in Zimbabwe.”

The experts also felt that shutting down Internet would further complicate the situation for the authoritarian governments. Al Jazeera’s Eldin said former Egyptian president Mubarak complicated matters for himself by shutting down Internet as users who spent all their time on the web were pushed to hit the streets.

The social media may not only be pushing the Arab world toward democracy but also strengthening the already democratic setups in places like the U.S. where almost everyone is on Facebook and Twitter.

The results of the 2012 U.S. presidential elections may swing either way based on who uses the social media better.

Though the issues for candidates running for forthcoming presidential elections in the U.S. may be Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran; energy and oil; healthcare, outsourcing and immigration; education and Internet but the success of their campaigns may well rest on how well they use social media tools.

“We’re going to see a lot of new things in the upcoming presidential campaign,” said Jennifer Preston, social media editor of The New York Times, hinting that innovation is going to be a deciding factor in the social and political movements.

“Lots of Democrats and Republicans must be looking at that,” Preston said about the use of social media tools.

After Tunisia and Egypt, experts see even bigger role for social media tools in the near future.

Panelists at ‘Lessons Learned from the Arab Spring Revolutions’ at SXSW envision a wider role for social media tools like shaping policies, which are important for bringing any social change.

“Protestors picked best slogans for rallies on Google Moderator,” YallaStartup founder Haddad said about the protests in Egypt.

The slogan pickings may be mundane but another example Haddad gave indicates how things may shape up in future.

“In Tunisia, social media was used to draft constitution,” he said. “The announcement of the new prime minister in Egypt was made on Facebook.”

Haddad also pointed at the efforts social media organizations need to put in for staying relevant. “Success of social media in Middle East tells us it is not only about technology but also adaptation of cultures,” he said.

This is where Avtar activism and local pop culture come into play. The protests can be successful if the activists know what icons and what slogans they should play up, and what songs they need to sing during rallies, which common masses may link themselves to.

Vadim Lavrusik, the community manager of mashable.com, to some extent addressed the concerns of Haddad saying how The New York Times chipped in to do its bit by sending their first tweet on the Egypt crisis in the Arabic language.

“The Arabic content on the web has exploded,” said Katherine Maher.

The revolutions have brought a lot of hope in the Arab world but there is also some pessimism.

Maher is not sure to which extent social media could play its part in bringing democracy in the Arab world. “Not that revolution is very easy, democracy is very hard,” she said.

On how social media was changing the media landscape as a whole, Maher said Al Jazeera had 45 people just monitoring YouTube.

Social media is also resulting in security concerns. Another panelist, Azmat Khan, who is a web journalist working for Frontline PBS, delved on this issue.

“Intelligence officers stole computers and other devices of journalists and activists in Egypt and Libya,” she said. “Besides, certain stories are difficult to tweet as they expose people coming in favor of victims in front of the authorities.”

Susannah Vila, the director of content and outreach of movements.org, questioned the issue of anonymity and laid emphasis on fact checking.

“Earlier, people used to be anonymous on social networking website and evade arrests,” she said. “Journalists have to be aware of fact checking and also spread that awareness to activists.”

On the sidelines of the conference, Clay Shirky, the author of two books Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, said, “We overrated the access to information, but underrated the access to each other.”

Shirky was referring to questions asked by a reporter on the pro-social media versus anti-social media activism and how he saw social media’s influence on our sense of identity.

The issue of identities plays an important part in all social movements and the Middle East revolutions were no different. Identity has often been a necessary precursor and product of movement collective action.

Though initially the protests in Egypt were being linked to the fundamentalist Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the young moderate protestors were quickly able to shed this image. The protestors were seen on many videos uploaded on YouTube saying that the protests were not about brining Islamic revolution in the region but about people fighting for their rights.

The Middle East protests also proved an opportunity to the people to assert their identity. Mostly, people in the West were bracketing all Muslims in the Arab world to groups and outfits like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The jeans-wearing, clean-shaved youth coming out on streets to protest against the authoritarian governments demanding a democratic setup broke the stereotype of Muslims in the West, thereby creating a new identity of Muslims.

“Whether you are an atheist, a Christian or a Muslim, you are going to protest for your rights,” one Egyptian protestors said in a YouTube video, which had over 100,000 hits. This proved that the protestors were not seeing the movement as religious but a collective action for democratic reforms.

Judging the role social media was playing in pushing authoritarian governments toward democracy, recently Mark Pfeiefle called for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The prize may not seem to be out of place but the Twitter founder Jack Dorsey would need to share the honors with the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. After all, revolutions are not just tweeted, they are also skyped, facebooked, mashed, open spaced at four squares and above all led by hitting the roads. The Middle East has been no exception and, thanks to these social networking tools, has seen revolutions. Though there is also some pessimism about the results social media may bring, talking to students from the Middle East at Indiana University, it seems everyone in the Arab world wants an end to authoritarian governments and see establishment of democratic set ups. Social media may provide the much needed push.

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