Social Media and the Arab Spring



Often social media are lumped together as one unit of analysis, usually with reference to their content. This misses the point. The platforms which constitute ‘social media’ organisations do not produce content. However, their classification, and thus regulation, is presently not entirely cut and dry.

In fact, Facebook’s executives have pushed back for years against being classified as a media company. Note Sheryl Sandberg, the firm’s chief operating officer, in an interview with Axios states “at our heart we're a tech company... we don't hire journalists.” However, Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO has recently admitted that the platform is a “publisher”. At a minimum, they are distribution platforms for other creators.

Whilst on the surface the various social media platforms have a number of similarities; connecting people, creating groups and conversations, freedom to share content, targeted advertising, they also have some discrete, but consequential differences, such as the way the algorithms influence what you see in your newsfeed. Facebook’s algorithm tends to push you more content similar to the content you have already ‘liked’, reinforcing attitude polarisation.

Activist groups will more often than not be present across multiple media, amplifying the reach and shareability of their communications. This matters for advocacy efforts. Sixty-six percent of Facebook users obtain their news from the site. It is when social media platforms are used in conjunction with other digital media properties as amplification tools, and echo chambers for a narrative, that their true power is unmasked.

For advocacy efforts, the ability to build a narrative and disseminate information with like-minded individuals is bolstered by social media platforms. However, the additional benefit these platforms bring to the advocacy environment is in developing and fostering social ties and building networks. Social media channels are predicated on the idea of communication interactivity between the message originator and the audience, and between audience members themselves.

“perception of social media strengthened the sense of national identity through the creation of social links with fellow citizens.”

Take a Facebook page as an example.

Not only can the page administrator disseminate messaging content to the followers of the page, but the followers can contribute to the conversation in the form of comments and positive reinforcement by ‘likes’; thus, ensuring they see more similar content. An entire discussion can take place instantly in the virtual world, around the world. This is where the new media technology platforms, social and digital, bring their speed and reach to bear in a formidable way. Activist groups harnessing this unprecedented power can rapidly distribute strategic communications messaging, which itself can be propagated beyond the initial ‘group’ by its followers via their own social media pages or other digital presence to an exponentially larger audience. This is the definition of ‘viral’ content, which is so termed because of its ability to spread like a pandemic disease. This rapidity of reach is unique to the digital internet-enabled world. 

Social media create social ties, albeit in the virtual world, but this is where new bonds can be forged and fostered through airing and discussing common grievances among like-minded individuals[1].

With digital media, protest movements and activist organisations have never had it easier to connect with others sharing their views on issues, build narratives directly and organise boots-on-the-ground activism. Karolak[2], in a study of the Tunisian revolution notes, “perception of social media strengthened the sense of national identity through the creation of social links with fellow citizens… in this way social media complement strong ties”. As noted, activism is a grassroots concept. Digital media does not replace the need to ‘turn up’, any more than does conventional media.

Whilst conventional media organisations can bolster and help carry a message, that content is influenced by a corporate agenda. Whereas, the content in the digital realm is owned by individual story creators. Digital and social channels have allowed for the genesis and mass-proliferation of independent citizen journalists – which played a central and critical role in Tunisia and Egypt – all able to create and share content globally and instantly.

During the Tunisian revolution, Al-Jazeera covered the protests, but initially only by accessing the videos posted online by citizen journalists on the ground shooting on mobile phones and cameras and uploading to Facebook and YouTube. The narrative is, therefore, to some degree, the ‘wisdom of the crowds’; the real-time story, raw and unfiltered.


On the morning of Friday 17th December 2010, a 26-year-old Tunisian man Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in front of the governor’s office in Sidi Bouzid, a small town 270 kilometers south of the capital Tunis, sparking the Tunisian Revolution and inspiring what was to become known as ‘The Arab Spring’.

Less than a month later, Bouazizi was dead of his self-inflicted wounds and President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had resigned and fled the country. The month-long activism consisting of demonstrations, protests and violence drew the world’s attention to the boiling pot of tensions in countries across North Africa and the Middle East. It also sent shivers down the spines of rulers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations.

Despite state-controlled media attempts to quash the story, it was video content posted online – to Facebook, YouTube and DailyMotion – which alerted others in Tunisia and the outside world, to the events unfolding. In a country known for its lack of press freedom – in 2010 Tunisia ranked 164 out of 178 countries on the Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders - and journalist self-censorship, the protestors relied on digital platforms and social media, most prominently, Facebook.

“social media is dominated by young voices… young people are gatekeepers for political messaging in a way that we’ve never been before.”

In a quantitative survey conducted by Marzouki et al[3], just five days after the ousting of Ben Ali on 14th January, the data show the overwhelming perception among Tunisian respondents as to the critical role Facebook played in the revolt. Respondents (N=333) were asked to rank from 1-10 for the question, “How do you feel the importance of Facebook in the Tunisian revolution of January 2011” (sic) (p. 239) [emphasis in original]. The response recorded was 79.9 percent greater than or equal to seven, with the largest segment – 22.5 percent - ranking 10. The authors note that “the Tunisian revolution was fully and spontaneously driven by the youth”, adding, that “this fact can be attributed to the ease with which younger people cope with new communication platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube”.

In Tunisia in 2010, whilst just 5 percent of the population had smartphones, the country boasted 2 million Facebook users equating to a 20 percent penetration rate. In fact, Facebook user numbers grew dramatically – by approximately 11.5 percent - from the end of November 2010 through to mid-January 2011. Leveraging social media platforms as a tool to organise domestically and share real-time content internationally played a significant role in Tunisia.  

Critics of the influence of social media may point to low penetration rates in the overall population to question its effect. This misses the point to some degree, as it matters who is connected. Those who are predisposed to activism, in this case the youth, invariably have higher rates of social media use. Nayak observes, “social media is dominated by young voices… young people are gatekeepers for political messaging in a way that we’ve never been before… we’re the ones who decide what images, what moments, and what messages get magnified”. This is echoed by Tusa, “how technology shaped an event can only be understood by examining those who used it, and how they did so.” Further, Tusa observes that there are two crucial factors which social media supports in terms of protest movements: framing and organisation.

The ability to build a sense of community with communications and a rallying cry around a cause, and the ability to disseminate an agenda to a mass audience at grassroots level – at times numbering in the hundreds of thousands – has been noted as vital to advocacy efforts. Framing was evident in the lead up to, and during, the Tunisian revolution. Tunisians had become increasingly disillusioned with the leadership of Ben Ali, with core issues of high unemployment, endemic corruption throughout the social strata, kleptocracy, and nepotism. Adding a spark to this tinderbox was the online release of the WikiLeaks cables – dissemination of information via a non-conventional media organisation – in the weeks leading up to Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation.

At around the same time, unrest was spreading in Egypt. On June 6th 2010, Khaled Said, a 28-year old Egyptian man, was brutally beaten to death by Egyptian police officers. Said’s family posted photographs of his severely disfigured face online, which caught the attention of Wael Ghonim, then a Google employee in Dubai. Ghonim created the Facebook page, “We Are All Khaled Said”, and crafted specific and pointed content distributed via the page to a growing segment of Egyptian followers. As observed by Alaimo[4], “The page’s success is also due to the manner in which it harnessed a powerful human story”.

Further, the central cause the page was advocating against “Egyptian police torture and financial corruption” was a theme which touched all Egyptians. The ability of citizens to build their on-ground bottom-up narrative in countries in which conventional media are state-controlled underpins grassroots advocacy and activism. A striking example of this is discerned by Hamdy and Gomaa, that Egyptian conventional media organisations, which they determine are “semi-official” framed the events in January and February 2011 as a “malicious, chaotic scheme” being instigated by “unemployed thugs, foreign conspirators, and delinquent and violent youth.”

Overwhelmingly, social media content framed the events as “human interest.” It is clear from this evidence that in the Egyptian revolution case, conventional media organisations, being state-controlled, serve to blunt advocacy efforts rather than support them. Far from being vital to the advocacy effort, conventional media organisations can in fact be malignant. This observation can certainly be paralleled in any geographic territory where state control or heavy influence is pervasive in conventional media organisations.

In both cases, social and digital media channels allowed individuals to frame the narrative, disseminate information to the world, communicate with other like-minded individuals, and organise demonstrations; all indispensable elements of advocacy. All this under authoritarian regimes which control and censor conventional media organisations. It can be argued that social and digital media provided cheap, easily accessible tools, to the wider population, which anyone could harness, in support of organisation of protests and documenting the events as citizen journalists, distributed to a global audience. Therefore, it is not a stretch to conclude that these tools aided the activist movement which toppled their respective governments.

The swiss-army knife of social media platforms can be employed in a number of ways to serve the elements of advocacy, from dissemination of information, through to organising actors and reporting events on the ground. Whilst state-controlled conventional media organisations attempted to stifle the stories coming out of Tunisia and Egypt, digital media tools allowed on-ground citizen journalists to frame the narrative and rapidly disseminate the information to a global audience through the amplification capability of social media. It was from here that conventional media organisations like Al-Jazeera picked up the story. So, while conventional media organisations undoubtedly still have a role to play in supporting advocacy and activism efforts, they are simply not considered vital in the digital age

[1] Tusa, F 2013, ‘How Social Media Can Shape a Protest Movement: The Cases of Egypt in 2011 and Iran in 2009’, Arab Media and Society, Winter 2013, No. 17, pp. 1-19

[2] ‘Karolak, M 2017, ‘The use of social media from revolution to democratic consolidation: The Arab Spring and the case of Tunisia’, Journal of Arab & Muslim Media Research, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 199-216

[3] Marzouki, Y, Skandrani-Marzouki, I, Bejaoui, M, Hammoudi, H, & Bellaj, T 2012, ‘The Contribution of Facebook to the 2011 Tunisian Revolution: A Cyberpsychological Insight’, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, And Social Networking, Vol. 15, No. 5, pp. 237-244

[4] Alaimo, K 2015, ‘How the Facebook Arabic Page “We Are All Khaled Said” Helped Promote the Egyptian Revolution’, Social Media + Society, Vol. Jul-Dec, pp. 1-10