Blog # 5 – Social Media and Social Change: Learnings from the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring led to various theories around the importance of social media in the success and failures of the revolutions that were taking place. Was it a “cute” Facebook revolution or a movement that began decades in advance? According to Basem Fathy, the truth is complicated and doesn’t lie at the extremes in Egypt. The movement did not have a significant hierarchical structure with a charismatic leader and was instead a large, loose network of young and old activists that at one point decided to gather together for common action, then at another moment to separate and spread. According to Fathy, the influence of factors (conditions, events, and timing) was much greater that the influence of actors (individual people) and the internet was one factor among many that sparked the eruption of the revolution in Egypt. It was clear that the movement offline was always preceding the movement online, and the movement online suffered when there was a wide gap between online and offline activism.

But there were multiplier effects that were generated by the use of the internet. According to David Kirkpatrick and David Sanger in this New York Times article, the use of social media led to a remarkable two-year collaboration that has given birth to a new force in the Arab world — a pan-Arab youth movement dedicated to spreading democracy in a region without it. Inspired by the Tunisian revolution, the Egyptian Youth Movement saw an opportunity to turn its annual protest on Jan. 25 into a much bigger event One of the heroes of this movement, Wael Ghonim, a 31-year-old Google marketing executive, had “little experience in politics but an intense dislike for the abusive Egyptian police, the mainstay of the government’s power. He  offered his business savvy to the cause. “I worked in marketing, and I knew that if you build a brand you can get people to trust the brand,” he said.” His Facebook site was one of the primary elements for mobilizing support.

In her article, Zeynep Tufekci, describes the global campaign that helped release activist Mona El Tahawy. She says “it was a perfect storm. A global social media campaign, institutional power, grassroots Egyptian activists, network-savvy global players and traditional media converged upon Mona El Tahawy’s case”. She explains how although social media was not the only factor it can greatly change the way a global campaign can be run today due to the following factors:

1-     Speed. Social media speeds up everything.

2-     Social media allows for complex, diverse ad hoc networks to come together:

3-     Social media is integrated in an increasingly global, networked public sphere:

4-     Social Media fosters personal interaction:

5-     Social media works for prominent people better (rich get richer):

6-     Personal networks, unsurprisingly, remain the underlying key anchors of the global social media networks (hubs matter and hubs tend to be dense and interconnected among each other):

7-     Traditional big interests remain powerful and, along with dynamics of the attention economy, social media cannot overcome all obstacles (Bahrain. Bahrain).

8-     Just like pre-social media, it remains easier to organize for “no” harder to organize complex discussions:

These articles outline how networks, connections and movements must exist already in order for social changes to take place, but that social media can be an accelator and catalyst in an unprecendented way.

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