Over the last decade, the power of social media as an independent media outlet has grown exponentially. Its ability to provide free and non censored information to the masses has allowed it to become a critical tool for political demonstration. @UCD_Politics student, Hazel Nolan, argues that social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook enabled and furthered the Arab Spring of 2010, as these domestic media outlets were censored by the various Middle Eastern governments. Freedom of speech as expressed through social media, she argues, gave way to the most rapid search of democratisation in a post-colonialism world.
The Jasmine revolution of Tunisia in 2010 marked the beginning of the Arab Spring. On the 17th of December 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi a twenty-six-year-old street vender lit himself on fire after being mistreated by police following his arrest. Bouazizi had been caught selling fruit and vegetables in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, without a license. His actions were seen as a move of martyrdom and defiance in the face of the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali who had been in power in Tunisia since 1987.
Bouzizi’s actions sparked demonstrations throughout Tunisia which were planned, implemented and documented through Twitter, mainly using #SidiBouzid. This hashtag saw 79,166 tweets flood into cyberspace, spreading news of the revolution and also reporting on the violent clashes between demonstrators and police with images and videos of tear gas and batons trying to break the spirits of protestors. (Freelon, 2016) These Tunisians were displaying their outcry regarding the lack of opportunity in Tunisia for young people due to high levels of youth unemployment, inflation and poverty despite a very well educated population. The first demonstration of the Arab Spring was ultimately a success as President Ben Ali fled Tunisia. The pressure of social media proved to be extremely effective.
The constant documentation of the Jasmine Revolution spread like wildfire throughout the Arab World. In January of 2011, Egyptians too took to the streets of Cairo to display their dissatisfaction with the Egyptian police force. Once again, this demonstration was reported from using Twitter. #Jan25 allowed for Egyptians to express their political opinions on a global platform in order to highlight the injustices they were facing through the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak. Protestors were able to organise themselves through the use of social media, namely Facebook as private groups were set up without any censorship from the government. The first person to tweet the #Jan25 hashtag was a twenty-one-year-old Egyptian, who stated in her blog that “Twitter is a very important tool for protestors.” (Schonfeld, 2016). This hashtag became one of the most important tools for the demonstrations in Egypt as it trended world wide. This hashtag alone received 671,417 tweets. (Freelon, 2016).
The sheer scale of the social media frenzy that happened in Egypt in 2011 was immense. It allowed for protests to be planned meticulously. On the 11TH of February 2011, protestors staged an overnight protest in Tahrir Square in Cairo. For the most part, Egyptian demonstrations were violent and with many protestors dying in the scuffles with police. Amr Gharbeia, https://twitter.com/gharbeia, was a blogger who documented his protest at Tahrir Square through social media. He noted; “I like to think the social network is the people itself. Things like Facebook, Twitter, SMS and phones are just social tools. When they blocked Facebook and shut down technology, our network still operated because it’s about people. Internet activists are also people and a lot of our organising, social work and relationships are developed offline.” (Gharbeia, 2016). After almost 20 days of protesting, Mubarak’s government was overthrown due to public pressure. Both the Tunisian and Egyptian uprising showed that social media gave people a chance for their voices to be heard.
Following the uprisings in both Tunisia and Egypt, Libya’s Arab Spring began in February of 2011. A series of anti-government protests began across Libya to demonstrate against the country’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Protests eventually reached the capital of Tripoli in an attempt to topple the harsh authoritarian military regime and look for a more democratic society whereby political freedoms and free speech were not severely censored. However, clashes turned ugly when security forces opened fire on protestors in Benghazi. The hashtag #feb17 was tagged onto 907,962 tweets (Freelon, 2016) and allowed for Libyans to tell the world what was happening to them and blocked the military regime from covering up what happened in Bengazi. This led to the UN security council and NATO making the necessary steps to intervene.
Demonstrations began in Yemen in January of 2011 to rally against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year long presidency. These protests ultimately resulted in the death of 2,000 citizens as Saleh’s autocratic government clashed with demonstrators. The uprisings were mainly fronted by students who disagreed with the regime which gave little room for any political freedoms. The search for democratisation in Yemen was similar to that of Tunisia as the disenfranchised youth emphasized their lack of opportunity despite being well educated. This tech-savy population once again took to their smart phones to voice their opinions. #Yemen received 479,456 tweets which documented the political uprising. (Freelon, 2016).
The phrase Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam also became increasingly important in the search for democratisation in the Middle-East during the Arab Spring which began in 2011. The slogan itself directly translates to “The people want to bring down the regime” and was tagged onto millions of tweets along with the #Jan25, #SidiBouzid and #Yemen posts. The slogan itself was also chanted during rallies, matching tweets which almost acted as a megaphone in cyber space. This effective hashtag was coined during the Jasmine Revolution and successfully exported to each country as citizens displayed their anger at the harsh and oppressive regimes that they lived under.
The Arab Spring marked the beginning of Twitter’s place in political activism. Its real-time information gave protestors the ability to organise themselves into huge groups to protest civil unrest. Twitter also allowed for their common goals to be exported throughout the Arab word. As the Arab Spring wen further and further into 2011, it became clear that the search for democracy in each country was extremely similar. Citizens were seeking liberation and looking to the West now more than ever for similar ideologies. Twitter also allowed for cable media networks such as Al Jazeera to pick up on what was happening in each country as each domestic outlet was silenced in order to cover up police brutality and other aspects of the protests. However, this was wave of revolution was not a new concept. The Domino Effect that happened within the Middle East was ultimately driven by Social Media. Defiance in the face of censorship.
In total approximately 7,830,925 tweets were used to further the Arab Spring. 140 characters really can change the world. (Freelon, 2016) #Algeria #Bahrain #Egypt #Feb14 #Feb17 #Jan25 #Libya #Morocco #SidiBouzid #Yemen
Hazel Nolan is currently in her second year of studying History and Politics in University College Dublin. She is also auditor of UCD for Choice, a pro-choice campaign group on campus which aims to mobilise all students, staff and alumni to Repeal the Eight amendment of the constitution. In her spare time she is also an active member of both Dramsoc and Belfield FM where she co-hosts a satirical political music show. This blog post was written for her UCD Politics module, POL20180: Capitalism and Democracy.
Aljazeera.com. (2016). The Arab Awakening. [online] Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/general/2011/04/20114483425914466.html [Accessed 3 Nov. 2016].
BBC News. (2016). Arab uprising: Country by country. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-12482293 [Accessed 3 Nov. 2016].
Freelon, D. (2016). Arab Spring Twitter data now available (sort of). [online] Dfreelon.org. Available at: http://dfreelon.org/2012/02/11/arab-spring-twitter-data-now-available-sort-of/ [Accessed 3 Nov. 2016].
Gharbeia, A. (2016). Egypt unrest: Bloggers take campaign to Tahrir Square – BBC News. [online] BBC News. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-12381295 [Accessed 2 Nov. 2016].
Schonfeld, E. (2016). The Egyptian Behind #Jan25: “Twitter Is A Very Important Tool For Protesters”. [online] TechCrunch. Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2011/02/16/jan25-twitter-egypt/ [Accessed 2 Nov. 2016].
The New Yorker. (2016). After the Uprising – The New Yorker. [online] Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/04/11/after-the-uprising [Accessed 3 Nov. 2016].