A Digital Revolution: How social media affected the Arab uprising

It almost felt like a tradition; a strong Arab politician corrupted by the policies of foreign lands, being installed to become the leader of a whole nation only to benefit Western powers. The dictator was firmly placed on his throne only to leave on one condition: death. After the inevitable happens, he is replaced by one from his bloodline, preferably his wealthy son or a just-as-corrupt ally. Most Arabs of the older generation, who were only allowed the emotion of fear thanks to emergency law, learned to live with it and the younger generation were expected to to do same. After decades of living this way, the action of one sparked a never-ending string of revolutions. A frustrated Tunisian man by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, set himself ablaze after his street cart was confiscated by Tunisian police. Bouazizi, who was providing for his family with his street vending, was often harassed as his work was deemed illegal by Tunisian authorities. His actions submerged Tunisians into outrage and anger and inspired protests across the region, which hit the waves of social networking sites. 18 days after the incident and with a visit from the country’s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Bouazizi died.

Activists all over the world had the chance to become aware of Bouazizi’s story and the protests he inspired and actually become a part of a the revolution thanks to websites such as Twitter and Facebook. When protests started to get violent after Tunisian activists and Ben Ali forces clashed, people all around the world were given live updates from activists and reporters on the ground through these sites. Information was being circulated, showing the true colors of Tunisia’s president, decreasing his support. On January 14, 2011, the 40 year ruling of former president Ben Ali was over and he was forced to step down. The impossible became reality and dawned a new era across the region.

Swiftly, activists all over the Middle East were inspired and decided to stage protests in their countries. Not much time passed when citizens in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, Algeria and even the Gaza strip were demanding political reform and a democratic system. Just like with the Tunisian uprising, social media networking sites, specifically Twitter, became a platform for planning gatherings and updating the public with data and photos. At least once, every Arab on the internet caught themselves re-tweeting some of these revolutionary tweets. By the time of legendary uprising in Egypt, there was no resting in the land of the world wide web. People who partook in this tweet marathon would find that every three seconds, there was an estimated 40 tweets updating the situation in Egypt. It was hectic and by then, everybody had joined in.

But was the all the attention beneficial? With the amount of misleading information online, could we have done without social media?

I asked the influential Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the popular website “Electronic Intifada” (www.electronicintifada.net) and author of the book <em>One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse</em>, about his thoughts regarding the role social networking played during the Arab revolutions.

“On the whole I think social networking is positive because it has enabled activists to connect across large distances and to learn about each others work and circumstances.” he said. “That’s certainly the experience I have had with the Internet since the mid-1990s before it was called ‘social networking. Some of the real life relationships I have developed came about first through social networking online.”

Abunimah spoke about attention surrounding social networking stating, “There is also a lot of exaggeration and hype about social networking and media being behind the Arab revolutions. I have not seen any convincing evidence of that. Revolutions are always made by people who have decided that they are prepared to risk their lives to bring about changes that they can see no other way of bringing about. Perhaps social networks played some role, but no doubt printed pamphlets or cassette audio tapes might have played a similar role in previous revolutions in earlier times. So these are useful tools, but we must always keep them in their proper perspective!”

I also got different perspectives from average online users who rely on the internet during this pivotal moment in the Middle East. And what better place to get in contact with them than on Twitter and Facebook?

Twitter user @AsiefD from South Africa thought social networking caused negativity because “everyone has their two cents and throw around their ‘expert’ opinion” whereas @iAmArabb from Newcastle said, “[It’s] positive-everyone is in touch and kept up to date, no one is really in the dark about whats going on”

On Facebook, Zeinab Saleh from the California stated, “I think they’re helpful because they spread the word of what’s going on and there’s different people with different opinions. You read it all and see different sides to everything. You learn”. And Austen Maddox from Kentucky thought, “It’s helpful on getting people organized but on the other hand it’s very easy for the governments they oppose to read everything they plan”

Arabs have witnessed the truest form of democracy ever in the history of the Middle East, which is freedom from tyranny and capitalism.To echo what Mr. Abunimah said- it was regardless of how people chose to communicate with the world but actually the will of brave protesters that helped achieve the vital change in the region. And, to me, they owe it all to one young heroic Tunisian man- Mohammed Bouazizi.

Leila Saleh

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