Course:LIBR559M/Overview of Social Media in the Arab Spring

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Group I

  • Lindsey Krabbenhoft, Dana Horrocks, Stefan Khan-Kernahan, Sarah Parker


See also LIBR559M Class Projects 2013

This entry is an overview of the role of social media in triggering and sustaining the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring refers to the series of protests, demonstrations and political actions which led to the deposition of repressive governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. This wiki aims to examine the role which social media played both before and after the events of December 2010. While the focus of this entry is on Tunisia and Egypt, the final section explores how other nations reacted to the revolution taking place.

Political Discontent in Tunisia and Egypt: Before the Arab Spring

Leading up to the Arab Spring Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, a former military general under the Bourguiba regime, maintained Tunisia's autocracy. In the south, Tunisians were growing frustrated as rising poverty and unemployment stood in stark contrast to the wealthier northern region supported by the government to uphold the tourism industry. Prior to the rise of social media, all media under Ben Ali’s rule had been sufficiently controlled. In 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi’s, a self-immolating street vendor from the south, story was broadcast on Al Jazeera, and he became a symbol of the revolution. Through social media the world was invited to view Tunisia's discontent.[1]

The Egyptian story has similar origins as its citizens also lived under the oppressive regime of Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak’s government controlled the media, but with the rise of social media it had difficulty silencing its citizens. The 1996 launch of Al Jazeera is also a significant disruption in government control as Arab language media could be viewed via satellite television. Furthermore, Al Jazeera invited its viewers to participate through online polls, an early nod to social media behaviour.[2]

Social Media in Tunisia and Egypt

The Internet and Social Media Use

By the mid 2000s in Tunisia and Egypt, social media's steady increase began to take hold.[3] Pre-revolution activists used social media to comment on political issues. Egypt in particular had a high number of bloggers. Rasha A. Abdulla[4] states that social media users had learned to communicate using “horizontal communication," where information is passed between citizens compared to vertical communication where information is passed top down (i.e. government controlled). For Egypt, horizontal communication was expressed in the blogosphere, showing discontent with Mubarak long before the 2011 protests erupted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

On April 6, 2008 events were foreshadowed when a general strike was organized by a youth movement via Facebook. What started as a localized invitation to protest quickly grew to 70,000 citizens who connected through various social media platforms.[4] By the time Facebook launched its Arabic language version in 2009, user numbers could be guaranteed to increase.

Tunisia and Social Media

It was the Tunisian revolution, or Jasmine Revolution, that started what is known as the Arab Spring. A large, youthful, tech savvy portion of the population comprised of many unemployed university graduates used social media outlets to spread Bouazizi’s story. A video of the “lit man” began to circulate on YouTube and quickly spread.[5] Spurred by their common grievances and with Bouazizi as their martyr, organizers began public protests and launched an internet campaign to garner support.[6] Arab “citizen journalist” videos and images captured from blogs, Facebook, and You Tube were broadcast on Al Jazeera, reaching an even larger audience.[4]

Initial social media efforts were strengthened by the telecommunications infrastructure in Tunisia which afforded a high percentage of mobile users and low broadband prices.[5] By March 2011, nearly 9 in 10 Egyptians and Tunisians claimed to organize and publicize protests via Facebook, with 94% of Tunisians getting their information from social media sites.[7] Key research coming from the University of Washington’s Project on Information Technology & Political Islam stresses the importance of Twitter and blogs in spreading a message about democracy and liberation throughout North Africa and the Middle East. After December 17, 2010 the Tunisian blogosphere saw “a spike in the frequency of online conversations about liberty, revolution, and Ben Ali’s leadership. In this way, the volume of digital conversations peaks with the size of street demonstrations, and the content of these conversations directly reflects public sentiments.”([6], p12)

Government Reaction

The government’s reaction was to block online activists by stealing their passwords and deleting accounts.[8] Bloggers were arrested and imprisoned for their virtual activity.[9] Some news reports claim that these attempts to limit the influence of social media backfired as 59% of Tunisians polled said they felt more motivated to continue their mobilization and to find creative ways to communicate.[7] Social media emerged in Tunisia as a way to distribute real time news, share videos, organize protests, and encourage the success of similar uprisings in neighboring countries.

Egypt and Social Media

In Egypt, revolution was sparked by a YouTube video of Khaled Said being tortured and killed which was viewed by more than 5,000,000 people.[10] The Facebook page titled “We Are all Khaled Said” “attracted 500,000 visitors in its first week.”([10], p135) This evidence of abuse added to the political and economic conditions in Egypt, fostering a climate of disparity and unrest. As Stepanova[11] states, “the sociopolitical gap between the small ruling elite and the bulk of the population had long reached critical levels,” which suggested the inevitability of civil unrest.

By 2011 Egypt boasted 17 million in internet users.[11] Contrary to many media reports of the revolution taking place on Twitter and Facebook, the deposition President Mubarak was largely due to the vast majority of Egyptians having access to television (93%), mobile phones (70%), and finally the internet (21%).([5],[10]) Social media was communicating between activists and sharing news with the outside world. Global Voice Advocacy (2010) as cited by Khondker[12] reported one Egyptian activist's tweet: “we use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.”(p677) In a study on the use of Twitter in Egypt, tweets per day on political change went from 2,300 to 230,000 in the week leading up to Mubarak’s resignation.[6] For Egyptians, “Facebook and other social media are not simply sites used for entertainment or managing their personal lives(...)social media is where Egyptians go to do politics.”([6],p18)

Government Reaction

Taking note of this, the Egyptian government attempted to block sites and eventually shut down internet access in January 2011. While the crackdown proved that it was possible to stop internet access, it did not have the desired effect in controlling the population and resulted in “new technology solutions, such as utilizing router/path diversity methods, IP proxy servers, and Google’s voice-to-Twitter applications."([11], p2)

Other Nations

Internet censorship was and is practiced using methods such as: filtering, IP Tracking, server-side credential storing, and monitoring users.[13] During the upheaval in Libya where internet users amount to 6% of all citizens[14], intermittant periods of downtime occurred for 2 months; however, analysis indicates some instances seemed planned, whilst others may have been incidental due to power availability in ISP regions.[15] While in Syria, the government was in a unique position acting as the nation’s ISP. Its first line of response was to redirect internet users to fake login pages. The Syrian government, noted for being particularly tech savvy, kept tracking users for 6 months, using information gathered to arrest dissidents.[16] As tensions grew, the government took the stance of blocking all internet access.[17]

Why has this hard-line action of blanketing internet access not survived in other Arab nations? Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libyan and Syrian internet users are few in number and are among the more educated and privileged. In both nations, the governments' response to track and block was either too late or simply ineffective as the movements surged beyond the need for social media. [14][16] This highlights that social media, whilst a powerful tool, is simply only a tool, and there are parameters in which it is meant for best use.

Evgeny Morovoz argues that social media was driven by a cause, and the cause is the determinant of success of activist campaigns small and large.[18]Couple this with governments censoring and/or filter internet access, [13][17][19][20]and you can see that many governments’ primary move during these times was to put “blanket bans" in place, effectively reducing or stopping social activists' messages.

In Iran, Algeria, Jordan, and Syria, the citizens asked for social platforms to be made available. This proved to be quite a tactical move, as it painted the picture that governments were trying to appease activists’ cry of censorship. The encouraged use allowed governments to monitor, locate, and detain activists.[20][21]

Finally, it should be noted that currently in nations such as, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, internet censorship is public knowledge and has been so for as long as internet access has existed. These governments act swiftly in response to online dissidents, passing ever-restricting legislation, which has now all but banned free speech online, carrying steep jail terms.[22]This coupled with widespread public distrust of authorities have helped control citizens in these countries. It has become increasingly hard to form the strong ties that are needed to provide the spark and momentum to create an uprising.[23]


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  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Essam M. The role of social networking sites (SNSs) in the January 25th Revolution in Egypt. Library Review. 2012; 61(2):128 - 159
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  12. Khondker, HH. Role of the New Media in the Arab Spring [Internet]. Globalizations. 2011; 8(5):675-679
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  16. 16.0 16.1 Assed masses Syrian cyber army in online crackdown. NewScientist [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2013 Feb 1]. Available from:
  17. 17.0 17.1 Syria internet services shut down as protesters fill streets. The Washington Post [Internet]. 2011 [cited 2013 Feb 1]. Available from:
  18. Facebook and Twitter are just places revolutionaries go. Guardian News and Media Limited [Internet]. 2011 Mar 7 [cited 2013 Feb 1]. Available from:
  19. Saudi Arabia bans public protest. Guardian News and Media Limited [Internet]. 2011 Mar 6 [cited 2013 Feb 1]. Available from:
  20. 20.0 20.1 Violence in Bahrain and Libya - Friday 18 Feb. Guardian News and Media Limited [Internet]. 2011 Feb 18 [cited 2013 Feb 1]. Available from:
  21. Yemen arrests anti-government activist. Guardian News and Media Limited [Internet]. 2011 Jan 23 [cited 2013 Feb 1]. Available from:
  22. Tougher UAE Internet dissent law shuts door to free speech: HRW. Thompson Reuters [Internet]. 2012 Nov 28 [cited 2013 Feb 1]. Available from:
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