Social Networks and the Arab Spring

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“An Examination of the Role of Online Social Networks in the Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2010-11”

In the academic research and journalism about the Arab Spring, there are contrasting views surrounding the importance of the Internet and online social networks in the success of the uprisings. Did the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt give validity to Egyptian Google executive Wael Ghonim’s claim that “if you want to liberate a society, just give them Internet” (Ghonim CNN), or was the function of online social networks greatly exaggerated by international media to highlight Western ideals of democracy? This research paper will closely analyze the extent to which these online social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, mobile phone networks, and YouTube were used as tools for the organization and mobilization of civil disobedience in Tunisia and Egypt in 2010-11. It will examine the role and impact of online social networks and will assess whether they were merely extensions of offline communities or if they played an integral and mandatory role in these uprisings.

Though this paper will investigate the range of opinion on the impact of digital media in the Arab Spring, it will argue that online social networks played an integral role for Tunisian and Egyptian citizens in their rapid and successful uprisings. Online social networks blur geographical boundaries, which create opportunities for widespread communication, effective organization, mobilization of citizens, and the sharing of videos locally and internationally. Before the proliferation of digital media in the Middle East, these opportunities were not available to citizens and communication was limited to individual communities or offline networks. The combination and collaboration of already established offline networks, various digital technologies, and online social networks lead to the success of the civilians in overthrowing their governments.

Despite the years of civil discontent and corruption in both the Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak governments, revolution did not occur until digital media provided the opportunity for different communities and individuals to unite around their shared upsets and create mobilization strategies online. In Tunisia and Egypt, “social media have become the scaffolding upon which civil society can build, and new information technologies give activists things that they did not have before: information networks not easily controlled by the state and coordination tools that are already embedded in trusted networks of family and friends” (Howard 2011). It will be shown that although online social networks act as an extension of the offline public sphere, their role in these uprisings was integral in creating an organizational infrastructure and to generate international awareness and aid against the corrupt governments.

Discontent had been brewing in Tunisia for years during President Zine El Ben Ali’s rule. In 2009 he was reelected for a fifth term with an overwhelmingly fraudulent 89% of voters (Chrisafis, 2011). Despite years of suffering from an oppressive regime, rising unemployment rates, and censorship, it was not until the self-immolation of a vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, was documented and transmitted online that the revolution gained the awareness and support it needed to make a difference. There had been previous acts of protest, but “what made a difference this time is that the images of Bouazizi were put on Facebook” (Beaumont, 2011). A relative of Bouazizi, Rochdi Horchani, went so far as to state, “we could protest for years here, but without videos no one would take any notice of us” (Chrisafis, 2011). The revolutions in Tunisia inspired Egyptian activists to use similar tactics to evoke change in their own corrupt government. Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak ruled over Egypt from 1981 to 2011, when he was overthrown by the organized and effective protests of Egyptian citizens. Although social media and digital...
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