A series of revolutionary movements characterized the Arab Spring in a unique way. There was unprecedented utilization of conventional and digital media to convey the messages and promote the agenda of the insurgents. This realization deserves consideration from an academic angle to find out the role that media played in toppling governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain, with the struggle still going on in Syria. The focus of the discussion will be on the narrative, the momentum, the ideology, and the unifying motivations that facilitated the use of media in these countries. The Arab Spring was not only unique in the sense of media usage, but in the level of coordination and organization that protesters exhibited during the events. Thus, understanding this from a political point of view will assist in deciding whether the media were neutral or bi-partisan in the revolution.
This is a dissertation on how social media helped topple governments during Arab Spring Revolts. In its first chapter, it introduces the reader to the history of a number of Arab countries that had been affected by the Arab Spring. These include Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain. It is important to acknowledge that the media is referred to as the fourth estate in many countries around the world. This is because the media has a pivotal role in establishing democracy and human rights in countries where political leadership might be lacking. The role of the media has become phenomenal in one of the recent historical occurrences in history: the Arab spring. In this case, political leaders that were in power for decades were toppled through protests and new governments were installed. Studies have shown that the media played a pivotal role in the Arab Spring revolts that saw dictatorial governments in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt replaced while leaders in countries like Syria and Bahrain continue to face difficulties with civil war still ongoing. Some analysis of over 3, 000,000 tweets, thousands of posts in blogs, and YouTube content shows that indeed social media had a hand in charming out the political debates in the wake of Arab Spring (Howard & Hussain, 2013).
For instance, Howard and Hussain (2013) indicated that intense conversations formed precedence to major political events in these countries. Specifically, social media allowed the public to share inspiring stories that bolstered protests across international borders in most of the affected Arab countries. According to Howard (2011), the project leader in communication at University of Washington, evidences gathered suggests that social media were the primary carrier of cascading messages on freedom and democracy across the Arab world. The commonly used platforms were Facebook, blogs, and Twitter. As such, they had a hand in raising expectations about the possibility of success in the event of a political rising. The paper discusses media’s role in toppling governments during the Arab Spring revolts. In doing so, the paper will look at the role of media as the fourth estate, and how this important position can help facilitate the overthrow other political powers. Equally, it will focus on the media’s effect on important changes in the world. Finally, the paper analyses how media can be neutral in the event of political protests.
The countries that faced revolutions in early 2010 in the Arab region were led by dictators. For many decades, citizens in these countries did not believe that government officials could be toppled since many of them had spent years consolidating power. Thus, they had established networks of security, including loyalty from the military that could thwart any attempt to topple the government. The Tunisia revolution, commonly known as the Jasmine Revolution, was the first popular revolution that toppled a government during the period of the Arab Spring. It formed the basis of other revolution in the North Africa and Middle East, the first since the 1979 revolution in Iran. The Jasmine Revolution was triggered by three significant incidents.
The first was when a Tunisian street vendor was killed. The second incident involved a protester named Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire to protest the hopelessness and ill treatment from government forces. This act led to the third phase, when demonstrations began in several parts of the country. During this time, the government forces were being called in to thwart the protests by forceful means. This was a brutal security crackdown led by the government that was ostensibly charged with the responsibility of protecting its citizens. The beginning of protests in Tunisia was met with intense brutality characterized with arrests and a shutdown of the Internet. The removal of the source of information angered protesters who demanded that the president be removed from power despite his promise to reshuffle the government and create more new jobs for the unemployed (Howard & Hussain, 2013).
One of the outstanding features of the Jasmine Revolution is that social media played an important role in spreading the information about the overall chain of events that led to the social and political change in Tunisia is concerned. Previously, Tunisia had witnessed two major protests against dictatorial leadership: the January 1984 Bread Revolt under President Habib Bourguiba and the 2008 revolution under president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali known as Revolt of the Gafsa Mining Basin. The government forces managed to control the protests during the two incidences. However, due to social media technology, the government in Tunisia was not able to control the rapid spread of information during the Arab Spring. The use of digitized information made widespread communication unstoppable. The agitated citizens could receive and pass messages regarding events in real-time. Unlike the use of televisions and radios, which the government could manipulate to suit their agenda, the emergence of social media meant that the government could not control the speed of information communication or prevent it from reaching the public who were accessing real-time information. As such, the 28 days of mass coordination transformed the political scene in Tunisia, bringing about the fall of the 23 year old regime (Karoui, 2012). To back up this information, the researcher conducted a survey based on interview method.
In a case study, the researcher conducted an interview guided by a series of questions on the role of social media in the success of the Tunisia Revolution. The interview was conducted with the Head of Communication and Digital Media. The interview questions were as follows:
- To what degree did social media play a role in the Jasmine Revolution that toppled the 23 year-old government of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali?
- What are the types of media platforms that were used to communicate and share information regarding the events as they were occurring during the revolution?
- Did the media play a partisan or neutral role in the wake of the revolution?
- Do you believe that media can play any role in the cultivation of democracy?
- Did the international reporting of the unfolding events in Tunisia reflect the actual occurrences on the ground?
- Do you have any other comment on the role that social media play in promoting democracy in the Arab world?
The analysis of the responses from the head indicated that social media were the driving force behind the continued spread of the revolution across the country. The use of digital platforms presented the protesters with an opportunity not only to speak to fellow citizens, but to share what was happening with the international community. This was important because it elicited sympathy and encouragement abroad. This is what gave the protesters an impetus to continue pushing for regime change in the country. The government security network notwithstanding, the protesters were able to overpower the government forces through coordinated communication and facilitation. This ensured that the protesters could meet in the right place at the right time, forcing the president to flee the country (Tripp, 2013).
Before the coming of the digital media, led by the social media like Facebook, most of communication occurred through television and radio (Sharp, 2010). The government heavily censored these modes so that people could only access information that painted the government in a positive light. The digital media and the use of the Internet ensured that people receive real-time information, including information that would have otherwise been censored by the government. Among the most popular and widely used modes included Facebook, blogs, Youtube, and Twitter. These platforms allowed accession of internal channels. These information sources were not censored in any manner, and for the first time the general populace could be exposed to the atrocities and aggravation of human rights inside the Tunisia (Bradley, 2012).
An interesting thing about the revolution in Tunisia, unlike many other revolutions that followed, was that media had not witnessed a revolution of this kind before. As it occurred, social media users were enthusiastic about the events, garnering the attention of the international community. However, this might have given a false impression to the protesters. For example, they may have thought that everyone was in support of the protests. The international media channels took it upon themselves to report every detail of the revolution. It fueled the discontentment in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world. Previously, the international media could not access information as easily or report first-hand. However, with the social media, international media broadcasters recruited reporters who could give them information regarding the happenings on the ground and publish the same. The publicized information was then shared with people across the world. According to the head of communication, the media played a bi-partisan role, but to the wellbeing of the nation. Indeed, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Saudi Arabia are countries where freedom was a privilege afforded only to well-connected elites; it was not accessible to the common citizens (Sharp, 2010).
The ability to spread information from the local scene to the international level meant that the demands and values of people in Tunisia could be shared among other like-minded people around the world. This sharing occurred through blogs, where information was accessible anywhere around the world. One notable observation about the revolution in Tunisia is that most of the people who shared information had used Facebook as their primary point of contact with each other. Cyber activism in Tunisia and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East began upon the spread of the Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolation videos. The spread of videos that depicted the police brutality in response to the protests laid the foundation for protests in other countries. However, it was common knowledge among the bloggers that dictatorial governments were wary of the spread of information through the Internet and, as a result, cases of blog censorship were rampant in Middle East and North Africa.
From the researcher’s point of view, the historical characteristics of countries that experienced the Arab Spring were similar in many aspects. The first is that these countries were governed by repressive regimes that had been in power for over two decades or longer. In all of them, there was a public feeling that something needed to change in the leadership of the country. This leads to chapter two.
In this second chapter, the researcher will present a detailed analysis of the political problems facing the identified countries. As the basis of the chapter, it is important to note that the upholding of democracy depends on many factors within a country. One of these factors is freedom of speech. For many years, the countries that experienced uprisings had suppressed freedom of speech while claiming to be upholding democratic values. When this claim was tested through simple demands, as in Bahrain, the leadership felt threatened and unleashed brutal force on the protesters. In some cases, entirely peaceful protesters were shot at, aggravating the anger against the government and leading to calls for their overthrow. Indeed, democracy can be upheld where people are free to express their views. It also requires people to be free to petition their government to change the policies guiding employment and security. The media as the fourth estate have the responsibility to keep the government in check. It does this while also ensuring that it is adhering to the democratic values and upholding international human rights as envisaged in the UN charter on human rights. As such, it is difficult for the media in areas where it has always been suppressed to act neutrally in the event that the people protest to demand rights from the government. During the revolution in Tunisia, the media played an important role to bring about the downfall of the dictatorial regime (Tripp, 2013).
The international community only reported information as it was gathered through social media. Though this contained credible information that reflected the actual events in Tunisia, it also opened up the possibility of exaggerated reports. However, according to Kassim (2012), the international media did not help the government to bring down the protests, it encouraged local journalists to write blogs and report the event through social media. It was somehow a reaction to the long-time suppression of the freedom of speech. In fact, the international media felt that they now had access to information that the government had held in secret for a long time. In Egypt where the protesters were well coordinated, international media outlets such as Al Jazeera and BBC News held live coverage of the event. This played a role in giving legitimacy to the demands of protesters in the international community. Indeed people from around the world were able to see government forces attacking and shooting protesters who were not armed. The use of live coverage and live photos and videos on an online platform meant that the protesters had legitimate grounds to protest against the government. On the other hand, the government did not have a platform to present their views to the international community because it had previously not allowed them to report from their countries (Krayewski, 2013).
The fumbling of President Hosni Mubarak to address the concerns of protesters marked the epitome of the protracted decline of the dictatorial efficacy in Egypt. The government lacked the power to provide basic services to the Egyptians as unemployment became rampant in the country, thus alienating millions of people in the middle class. Moreover, the business elite in the country continued to enjoy conspicuous consumption while the military intervened in the protests. It clearly indicated the government’s avoidance of addressing the challenges that people were facing in favor of retaining the status quo (Ghonim, 2012).
The protesters’ tactical and political complexity came about not because Mubarak was unwilling to address the issues on the table, but because there was a vibrant, unrelenting media in the country. Besides the common challenges of inequality and corruption in the public sector, the Egyptian protesters were riding on the wave of freedom of expression through the media. For a long time, the Egyptian publics’ freedom of expression had been suppressed by the government. The advent of social media meant that the public was now able to gain unfiltered access to information that had previously been censored in the mainstream media. When the Egyptian police killed a famous blogger named Khaled Said, it ignited the campaigners to honor him through the protests. Protesters in Egypt were relatively prepared to have serious engagement with the army chiefs on the future composition of the government. This was amid fears that irrespective of the protest outcome, the military would not agree to erode its institutional prerogatives substantially (Bradley, 2012).
While the protests in Cairo and Tunisia removed dictators from power, the situation in Libya was different because it had degenerated into a civil war. The former Libyan strongman, Muammar Gaddafi, had four decades of experience consolidating power and patronage amongst his loyal circle, making it virtually impossible for protests to dislodge him from power. The four decades were characterized by artificial inducement of scarcity of everything including basic medical care and consumer goods. This generated entrenched corruption in the country while the capricious cruelty of the presidency had fermented into a deep-seated and widespread suspicion. To this end, the coming of the new media through social platforms meant that Libyans were free to demonstrate their discontentment with the government albeit to a larger audience. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, Libya did not have any political alliances or strategic economic association. The country also lacked nation organizations that could be used to coordinate protesting efforts. To this end, the protests that were experienced in the country began in the media before spreading to the public as nonviolent protests similar to the ones staged in Egypt and Tunisia. In the end, a call was made for an all-out secession as Libya had become labeled in the media as a failed state. In fact, it was through the media that many Libyan protesters came to learn about failed states and the way protests similar to theirs had brought down dictatorial regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.
Notably, Libya had operated for four decades in a political system that incorporated traces of Italian fascism characterized by brutality, dogmatism, and extravagance. Among other things, Gaddafi prohibited private ownership and retail trade. The free press was not allowed, and military leadership and civil service were subverted. In the absence of public sector bureaucracy such as a reliable police force, the government was at liberty to determine who provided security and safety. The same was the case with the provision on essential public services. From the analysis of the three cases, it was evident that the absence of governmental and social cohesion would definitely affect the prospect of a smooth transition to democracy. The government of Libya had the responsibility of introducing law and order that had been missing for decades (Manhire, 2012).
In Syria, the protests began on the 26th of January 2011 and escalated into the civil war that continues to this day. The events that lead to the Syrian civil war was inspired by the Arab uprising in Tunisia. The residents of the town of Dara’a started the protests over the torture of a student accused of putting up anti-government graffiti. Soon, this unrest had reached other parts of the country, with protesters demanding land reforms and the ouster of President Al-Bashar. They also demanded that the government allow for a multi-party political system. The protesters also called for equal rights for Kurds. There were also calls for political freedoms including free press, the right to assembly, and speech. The government of Syria had previously made some concessions through trivial protests (Saikal & Acharya, 2013).
In addition, the government was also forced to repeal a fifty year-old emergency law that allowed it to suspend constitutional rights. Again, the government launched a series of crackdowns using tanks in restive cities as security forces used bullets on demonstrators. The security forces also used snipers to coerce people from the streets while essential and basic commodities like electricity and water were shut off. The prices of basic goods escalated, especially in areas that proved restive. Soon the protest disintegrated into ethnic divisions as the country’s elite took over influential military positions. The dissidents established the Syrian National Council to include a representative of the Damascus Declaration group that advocated for democracy (Saikal & Acharya, 2013). At the same time, there was a reactivation of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a previously banned political outfit, the emergence of different Kurdish factions, the Local Coordination Committee, and several other groups that documented the unfolding events in Syria. The emergence of these groups meant that the media were taking its position in the determination of the political underpinning in a country that had perpetually suppressed the media for many years.
The Bahrain protest initially started as a call for greater political freedom and respect of the rights of people. Unlike in many other countries where the uprising had been witnessed, the Bahrain protests were not intended to threaten the monarchy. This is because the prevailing frustration of the majority Shiite was the major cause of the protests. Bahrain protesters were peaceful until the police raided the protest on the third day to clear them from the Pearl Roundabout, resulting in the deaths of four protesters in the process. As a result, the protesters increased the items on their demand list to include the end to monarchy (Manhire, 2012).
The government response to the protest was brutal. There was a systematic crackdown on bloggers and anybody else who tried to provide information that portrayed the Bahraini incidents in a negative light. The midnight house arrests heralded a campaign of intimidation. The Bahrain Independent Commission Inquiry indicated that the government tortured prisoners and committed heinous human rights violations. The government had previously claimed that the protests in Bahrain had been instigated by external forces, including Iran. International human rights groups were also denied an opportunity to investigate the events in the country, fuelling the speculation that the Bahrain authority did not appreciate the need to disseminate factual information to the people (Kassim, 2012).
It is thus evidenced that countries that experienced the Arab Spring had developed a political system that rewarded political elites and allies. Most of the people felt that the system favored only those who were well connected. Therefore, removing dictators from power through information became a major strategy. It is evidenced that dictatorship can make it very expensive for a government to lead its citizens. However, the aftermath dictatorship can be avoided if the leadership appropriately reacts in time to listen to the voices of the masses. In many cases, what fuels political unrest is the ignoring of public opinion by the incumbent leaders. This takes us to the third chapter of this dissertation.
This is chapter three of the dissertation. This chapter will focus on the effect of social media on the Arab Spring; how the effect of the use of media in politics helped bring down governments. In light of the Tunisian events and those in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain, researchers have focused on the role of social media in establishing democratic leadership and collective activism. The Western world has marveled at the role of social media in controlling and determining the way political events have taken place in repressive regimes. Similarly, the role of social media in particular and digital technologies in general allows people in the affected countries to act collectively in activism. This has enabled some of these countries overcome the challenge of state-controlled media. According to a study done by Krayewski (2013), 90 percent of Tunisians and Egyptians used Facebook as their primary means to organize and spread awareness about the protests in different parts of their countries. 29 percent of Tunisians and 28 percent of Egyptians agreed that blocking the social media disrupted and hindered communication during the protests (Krayewski, 2013).
Critics have debated the influence of social media on political activism during the Arab revolutions, with some arguing that the digital technologies with platforms for cellular phones, videos, blogs, text messages, and photos formed the concept of digital democracy. Still other critics have noted that in order to comprehend the context in which high unemployment among the youth and corrupt regimes contributed to Arab Spring, it is essential to analyze the characteristics of individual media platforms in each country. In revolutions that initially started on the Internet, the authorities were able to quash them. In response, in Egypt, a popular activist group advised its supporters not to use Twitter or Facebook to pass revolutionary information. Moreover, evidence suggests that the social media played an essential role in the uprising noting that the use of such platforms increased tremendously in Middle East and North Africa in the time leading up to the uprisings (Manhire, 2012).
Bradley (2012) established that apart from the fact that these revolutions came at a time when social media were just picking up, another fact comes into play. This is the ability of protesters to use participatory systems and collective intelligence. Another factor was the dynamic nature of the crowds to spur up the power in political protests to support a common action. This has the effect of fomenting the call and demand for political change even as veteran regime leaders like Hosni Mubarak bowed to the pressure and gave up their seats. The Dubai School of Government analyzed collected data graphically and found an increase in the use of Internet before the revolution (Manhire, 2012).
The Dubai School of Government, reported by Lynch (2013), noted that the only deviation in the trend was recorded in Libya. It is hypothesized that due to a long period of terror, many Libyans were unwilling to take on a course that was seen as risky. Having been forced to run away from their own country, many took their social platforms with them. The increase in how people use social media reveals the characteristics of people that led the uprising during the Arab Spring. Since many young people are tech-savvy, it was evident that most protesters were younger people. The new generation had the ability to network and to organize the uprising not only in their countries but also across the world. Manhire (2012) observed that in mid 2011, the number of Facebook users in North Africa and Middle East had more than tripled. This shows that a constant growth in the number of people who connect with each other through social media was unstoppable. Communicating with people in real-time became a weapon of the protesters as different platforms helped people to access information (Lynch, 2013).
Among traditional mainstream media, television was identified as playing a crucial role in Egyptian revolution in 2011. The coverage by Al Jazeera and regular live coverage from BBC News gave great exposure to the actual occurrences on the ground. They also assisted in the prevention of mass violence, especially during the encounter with the government forces at the Tahrir Square (Howard & Hussain, 2013). Commentators agree that live coverage prevented mass violence and its spread to other countries. One aspect of the Egyptian Revolution was that protesters remained in one area and allowed live coverage. To them, this was a fundamental step towards showing the world that they were organized in their calls for revolution. This phenomenon was not replicated in Bahrain, Libya, or Tunisia, where the governments had implemented strict rules to control international media outlets.
Additionally, the use of media focused on the type of information that the protesters wanted to pass to the international community. Such media as video and digital images were extensively used to disseminate information in this respect (Howard & Hussain, 2013). In fact, the real-time aspect was exploited to the extent that there were images that indicated the current events especially in the countries that were experiencing the uprising. In a way, the media were used as a coordinating tool amongst protesters that were agitating for political change in Middle East and North Africa. The media provided a place where people who believed that they were struggling for the public good could share the progress, the steps they were taking, and the response of their oppressors. The widespread visual media not only showed the singular moments but also highlighted the history of the Arab countries and depictions of the calls for change. However, social media emerged as the ideal platform of rebel groups that could not be reached by mainstream media that allowed them to compare their situation with that ongoing elsewhere. However, there has been no consensus in this debate. Scholars hold different positions as to whether social media were a primary catalyst of the Arab Revolution or a worthy supportive tool to the larger, unstoppable agenda (Lynch, 2013).
The difference between a revolution and insurgency lies in the perception that people attach to the event. In the Middle East and the entire Arab world, people had conceptualized their movements as revolution. Thus, filling the media with the events that were happening on the ground became everyone’s idea. In countries like Libya and Syria, where the dictatorial leaderships did not envisage the freedom of speech, digital media was not amongst their priority areas. This made it possible for the public to make their voices accessible via the Internet (Choudhary., Hendrix., Leed., Palsetia & Liao, 2012). Through the media, the revolutionaries showed the world that the regimes were inhumane and oppressive. While the Syrian regime attempted to control the conventional media and use press conferences to communicate with the international community, the revolutionaries used social media like YouTube and Facebook to give live footage of the conflict. This impacted the regime negatively because the information propagated through press conferences contradicted the real story that was being shared on the social media. As Axford (2011) observed, the spin of pictures that were given to the outside world through amateur clips using mobile phones displayed innocent people who were gunned down by the police. This clearly demonstrated that spirit of the government as upholding law and order was false.
The media thus explored amateur videos to show the world the brutality that government forces were using to try and contain the revolution. The process through which the media collected and processed information, commonly known as Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield, became easy. This allowed for the mapping of the composition of the threat and disposition of the government forces. This normally intensive and time-consuming process certainly became easy for protesters and revolutionaries because they utilized amateur videos that people shot using their mobile phones. As such, Tufekci (2011) argues that YouTube is one of the most explosive social media to have played a cardinal role in the Arab Spring. Because of the media’s ability to convey motion pictures, protesters in the Arab world were able to show the international community not only what they felt but also what was truly happening in their countries. In most cases, the governments’ reactionary measures to disable Internet networks in their countries only aided the protests. This is the puzzle that social media presented to the regimes in Tunisia and Libya and which played a significant role in bringing them down. Using the media, the power of information reached a height that the regime anticipated because the people were able to access and use immediate information.
The compiled Tweets from the 2011 Egypt revolution were examined to seek an understanding about the trend and the reason as to why certain topics attracted much attention from the people using media. Part of the reason was also to establish the effect of the information on the country. Research by Choudhary., et al (2012) noted that on the whole, much discussion on social media contained strongly negative sentiments on the revolution in relation to other topics on Twitter. During that period, topics on human interest only accounted for 15% of the Tweets while the revolution covered 65%. Analysis of these messages revealed that the Egyptians were very unhappy with the leadership and had a desire for updates on the progress of the revolution. However, the analysis also showed that people were still open to the general human stories during the protests. Overall, the analysis showed that 95% of the Tweets were about negative comments directed at the government, personal hardship, and the political and economic circumstances in that country (Khamis & Vaughn, 2011).
With statistics indicating that over 5 million Egyptians used Facebook during the revolution, the power of social media to spread information among the general population cannot be underestimated. Online sites such as “We Are All Khaled Said” aided the youth movements to organize and facilitate the delivery of messages in a central place. These messages could reach other people quickly, allowing them to participate in the organized events by the revolutionaries (Khamis & Vaughn, 2011). An example is the 18-day occupation at the Tahir Square that was organized through the page. Hall (2012) noted that the use of social media in Egypt rose from 400,000 to 5 million during the six-month period of the revolution.
In Egypt, the social media played a big role during the first revolution that ousted Mubarak from power. Subsequent protests attracted additional social media users because most of the people had embraced digital media. Hall (2012) further notes that the power of information can never be compared to any weapon. This is based on the fact that information that detailing actual events in the revolution means that political changes can occur. In Egypt and Syria, government brutality that was directed to the revolutionaries and the general population helped to legitimize their course even among the pro-government citizens that initially did not support the revolution. The fact that social media were used to convey this message to the people that were non-partisan and sometimes supportive of the government shows that media impacted, albeit negatively, the governments during the revolution. In most of these countries, the masses were deprived of information. Thus, social media exploited this avenue to highlight to the people what their governments were actually capable of doing. Social media made it difficult for governments to claim innocence and commitment to democracy and respect for human rights as some of the leaders were alleging.
The findings from the secondary literature were also backed up with a case study interview that was conducted with a leading blogger. The researcher used a set of questions on the role of media on revolution. This interview was conducted by a leading blogger in Egypt who participated in the dissemination of information and messages to the Egyptian public. The questions varied from the freedom of speech to the use of digital media in educating the mass about their freedom. The questions were as follows;
- Do you think the media was wrongly accused of spreading propaganda during the revolution to oust President Hosni Mubarak?
- What do you see as the constructive role that the media played in the revolution?
- Did the media have any negative impact on the revolution?
- How could you rate the credibility and authenticity of information that media were disseminating to the public and the international community during the revolution?
- What do you believe should be role of media in upholding democracy and human rights in countries where these principles are violated?
- Was the reaction of the government towards protesters who used social media founded on principles and values of the Egyptian people?
- Was the revolution in Egypt instigated through social media or was it because of the impulsiveness of the Arab Spring elsewhere in the Arab world?
In response to the above interview questions, it became evident that propaganda was a tool that was passed during the revolution in Egypt. The same held true other countries like Bahrain and Libya. A large part of the propaganda was headed by government agencies to discourage the revolution by painting the protestors in a negative light. Nonetheless, with the utilization of social media, it was difficult for the propaganda to have the desired effects. This is unlike what could have happened if only conventional media had been available. This is because, as Murphy & White (2013) note, the historical aspect of information as power was initially confined to the nation states. However, with the coming of micro-blogging and digital media, it has become easier to counteract any propaganda whether it is coming from the government side or from the side of revolutionaries. Thus, the impact that people communicating through social media had on the revolution cannot be overlooked. This is because the media had a great impact on the protests. Furthermore, the use of audio and videos served the purpose of inciting the people against the government whenever false information emerged that there was stability in the country. The use of media during the Egypt revolution did not entail much venture in terms of capital. There was also uncoordinated regulation of the media, allowing people to communicate without the usual burden of bureaucratic rules (Khamis & Vaughn, 2011).
From this study, it is evident that media, and especially conventional media, was always an effective tool by dictators in the past. This is why, for many years, people were denied the ability to get the true story as governments would suppress it. However, the study revealed that it is difficult for these Arab governments to control the digital media and satellite TV. Furthermore social media provided a platform on which the citizens were able to receive and share information regarding their countries’ leadership and the protestors. Though the process may have been initiated by other forces, the access to unfiltered information posted on social media platforms is what fueled the uprisings in the traditionally conservative Arab nations. This takes the reader to chapter four of this dissertation.
Chapter four will look at the various ways in which media can show bias as was observed during the Arab Spring. Largely, the media played a positive role during the revolution especially in relation to unity of purpose. However, at some point, both the government and protesters used the media to spread propaganda and exaggerate events. When the revolution started, people did not have a clear picture regarding the issues that protesters were demanding. The government controlled traditional forms of media and was quick to label the protesters as rebels who were out to overthrow the government. To a large extent, the government of Syria was successful at this (Khamis & Vaughn, 2011). This is the reason why Al-Bashar, unlike his counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, remains in power today. The case was different in Egypt as protesters went to social sites to posts their demands. Because of the availability of social media, people were able to get immediate information about the demands of protesters. Sometimes Facebook pages dedicated to the protests were used for discussions and debates. This helped to coordinate and organize the revolution in a manner that the government forces found difficult to handle.
At some point, the media became the only trusted source of information. An interesting factor in the use of media during the revolution in Egypt was the element of trust. As much as people posted messages anonymously, those who got these messages were inclined to trust the source. This was evident in the way the 18-day occupation of the Tahir Square was organized so that so many people turned up to support this occupation (Howard, 2011).
The media had little negative impact on the revolution. However, one of the identifiable negative impacts that it did have was in the difficulty of estimating the level of support that revolutionaries had towards the course. An example is where some dedicated sites and pages are opened to support a given ideal. Whenever people are called to participate in a particular course, they may not turn up as expected. A few people among the so called followers might be willing to take any action towards the cause (Khamis & Vaughn, 2011). This was the case in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Tunisia. So many groups of supporters came signed in to various social media platforms in the Internet but did not take any actions towards aiding the revolution.
Similarly, using modern technology for revolutions could affect it in a negative way, especially where government spies masquerade as supporters. In such cases, the leaders of the revolution could be vulnerable to government penetration through false support. However, the positive impacts that social media had on the revolution far outweigh the negatives ones. The media were responsible for weaponizing the information down to the personal level. Whether this information ends up either as truth or propaganda always depends on the intention of the recipient (Howard, 2011).
According to Giglio (2011), the media cannot replace the physical actions that are necessary for a successful ouster of dictatorial regimes. This is because the war of movement reaches a stage where social institutions must develop decisive changes, sometimes resorting to violence. As Giglio (2011) observes during the revolution in Bahrain, the impact that media played should not be exaggerated. This is because the beleaguered regimes normally hold on the instruments of power including security forces and the truncheons.
As such, the present regime remains in control if coordination of the revolutionary is not there. The media can only speed up the rate of information access and whatever is done with information is dependent on the organizers of the revolutionaries. In the case of Egypt, it was easier to verify the information that was coming through the media. Many people turned to social media so that posting false information or messages could easily pass as such. In many Arab countries where there was an uprising, the media held minimal utility during the time of transition. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood, who later came to power after the ouster of Mubarak government, did not fancy the idea of using the media to communicate their agendas. As a result, the new government eventually ran into problems for failing to craft a message with the public. Among the mistakes made with the new regime were their attempts to use the same channels to come up with constitutional processes and form a strong political party with new ideologies (Khamis & Vaughn, 2011).
The speedy ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from power is an indication that even new governments can be affected by social media. This illustrates the kind challenges that media can present to new governments. Digital media presents a weak phenomenon where it is difficult to build strong ties between people through the media. This contrasts the strong ties exhibited in personal political relationships. The presence of weak ties as a result of digital media hampered the activism in Libya and Syria. However, this was not the case in Bahrain and Tunisia where protesters were more cohesive in their approach to political demands. Nevertheless, the prospect of weak ties in the revolutions that occurred during the Arab spring necessitated the participation of many people. However, it was not on the ideological grounds but on personal connections that resulted in the success of some of the revolutions. The media facilitated the feeling of being personally connected to what was happening inside the country and elsewhere, giving people a sense of hope. Facebook activism achieved great success not because people in the Arab world were motivated to make sacrifices, but do things that they would do instead of personal sacrifice (Giglio, 2011).
This aspect of risk-taking in using social media and other modern platforms of communication counteracts the glare for greater achievements. For instance, in Syria the government focused their efforts on combating people who were using social media to communicate as the revolution became more intense (Giglio, 2011). The political aspect of the problems that faced many countries in the Arab world bordered on the failure of the regimes to grant freedom of speech and uphold inalienable human rights. A good example is in Libya where the people were not poor in terms of resources. The government provided everything that people needed from healthcare services to education. However, there was a general suppression of the freedom of speech and brutality to the opposition. Thus, when an opportunity to protest against the regime arose, people did not consider the social services that were offered in their country. By accessing the unfolding events in Tunisia and Egypt, the protesters had a sense that emancipation was within their reach if they embraced the available channels to communicate (Castells, 2011).
The height of involvement of social media users differed in each of the country that experienced the revolution. While the igniting spark in Tunisia was based on the failure by the government to address the economic problems in the country, in Libya it was based on the sense of hopelessness on the part of the people. Consequently, there was a dissimilarity in the way people in different countries perceived the use of social media as a tool to influence the course of their revolution. In countries like Saudi Arabia, where there was no revolution, governments had already put into place mechanisms to control the use of social media with respect to what was happening in other Arab countries (DeFronzo, 1996). The sense of participating in the revolution using social media also hindered the success of the revolution in Syria and Bahrain. This is because so many people who expressed support the revolutionaries from behind a computer screen did not come out to physically support them when they took on the streets. This contrasts the occurrences in Tunisia and Egypt, where the support was spontaneous. Everyone viewed those events as the moment they were waiting for (Castells, 2011).
In many cases, the reactionary nature of government forces undermined the effort of the government to present its leadership style as people-oriented. For instance, in Bahrain where the demonstration was solely about the economic challenges that the country was facing, the government reacted with a full force. As a result, the demonstration turned into a protest aimed explicitly at the ouster of the country’s monarch (Beaumont, 2011). The way the government in Libya and Tunisia reacted to the protests showed that they did not envisage a situation where people would have an outlet to express and mass distribute their opinions on matters of their country. The media only conveyed (albeit in a strong way) the occurrences on the ground. The governments were expected to know better about the rights of the people in a universal manner so that upholding of values and principles was not depended on the reports in the media (DeFronzo, 1996).
The media indeed played a neutral role in the whole struggle as the information that reached the people was a representation of the actual occurrences in the country. As observed in Beaumont (2011), any attempt to alter the information and messages could imply the bi-partisan nature of the media. However, the use of live coverage on television and amateur videos made it difficult for the media to show biases. In most cases, the international media relied on the images and amateur videos that protesters sent to them, making it very hard for them to manipulate the story, particularly since the information that was sent to particular media platforms were relayed in real-time. Because the governments where the Arab Spring occurred had oppressed their people for such long time, the bloggers and other reporters felt that their countries lacked media ethics to censor some of the brutal pictures from the Internet. Thus, one may argue that the bloggers and amateur photographers should have censored some of the pictures. Still, this was simply a reflection of the countries’ values and principles where showing, for example, the corpses of victims were not a sign of bi-partisanship.
These facts are support the findings from an interview conducted with a revolutionary reporter in Bahrain. This interview sought to understand the way youth used media during the Arab Spring in Bahrain. The respondent was one of the active bloggers who disseminated messages inside Bahrain through various platforms. The following questions formed the foundation of the interview:
- To what degree did social media play any in the revolution in Bahrain?
- How did the youth use social media to influence the course of events?
- Did the media impact positively or negatively to the revolution?
- How did the government respond to the use of social media in your country during the revolution?
- Did the users of media become leaders of the revolution in Bahrain?
- In what ways did the youths used the media during the revolution in Bahrain?
From the responses on the above questions, it became evident that more people turned to the media to access information during the revolution in Bahrain. During this period, images of youth taking to the streets with mobile phones in their hands denoted the popularity of social media to influence the course of the revolution. However, it was not clear on the number of people who used different media to access information in Bahrain. The White Canvas Group analyzed several statistics on the use of different media during the revolutions witnessed in the Middle East (Khamis & Vaughn, 2011).
Unlike in other countries where the use of satellite TV was high, in Libya participation in social media like Twitter decreased during the time of revolution. In Syria where the revolution is ongoing, use of social media has decimated an indication that the government has increased its patronage on the accessibility of information from the Internet. More than 70% of Egyptians have access to satellite TV. This means that television channels such as BBC and Al Jazeera acted as sources information on the state of revolution (Bamyeh, 2011).
One of the difficulties that social media usage faced during the revolution in Bahrain was the dynamic and anonymous nature of the internal heading and leadership of the social movement. According to Metz (2012), the first stages of the insurgency during the Arab Spring involved great internal struggles as well as external ones. Thus, the participation of many people in trying to organize a social movement presented a challenge concerning who was to control the movement. For instance, in Egypt, more than 100,000 people were involved in organizing the match to Tahir Square. Therefore, social media is presented with the challenge in the sense that it was difficult to figure out the overarching theme of the movement (Choudhary., et al., 2012).
There was also the issue of developing a united list of core demands from various stakeholders so that when the occupation started, people would be able to coordinate. There was also the desire to have a clear focus on the most important issues that were to be accomplished immediately so as not to muddle the purpose of the revolution. The media, both conventional and digital played a role to ensure that the revolution was successful. In countries where Internet access is limited by the authority, the users of the satellite TV and other digital media naturally turned into the leaders of the revolution. According to Bamyeh (2011), this presented the theory of dissident elites who, through the use of different media platforms, became the leaders of the revolution by default.
Even though this created a sense of disorganization in the initial stages of the revolution, Allam (2011) argued that it nonetheless generated the mass movements that are the direct opposite of focused movements. This limited the gains that revolutionary activities could have had because it provided the government forces with fewer options to respond. The result was a brutal response that left many innocent protesters as well as the police dead. As Allam (2011) noted, the governments of Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Tunisia had a great opportunity to settle the protest through concessions without retaliating on the protesters. In fact, this approach could act to the benefit of the regime since it would help the regimes gain legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. However, regimes did not make any attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the media to push their agenda. Instead, they retaliated against the protesters, brutal acts that were broadcast in social media platforms. The net result was a further polarization of the standoff between the revolutionaries and the government (Alterman, 2011).
The ability to share an immense amount of accurate and uncensored information through social media contributed to the experience of activism in the Arab Spring. Throughout the event in the different countries, the protesters not only gained the power to influence and control but also helped the populace to know about the movements that were working towards the emancipation of their country (Choudhary., et al, 2012). Thus, many people had access to the plight of tortured people who could not have otherwise had a platform to pass their messages. In countries like Tunisia and Egypt, the emerging action plans, like occupational protests, attracted thousands of people. According to one Arab Spring activist, social media were used to organize the protests. To be specific, Twitter was used to coordinate the activities while sites like YouTube were used to communicate to the outside world. The use of digital media allowed for the distribution of public messages in an unprecedented manner. This was important in anchoring the demand for democracy through social movements that guided the ouster of oppressive regimes (Axford, 2011).
Moreover, social media in Libya and Tunisia assisted to dismantle the obstacle of fear by allowing many people to connect and share messages. This gave many people in the Arab world the confidence to know that they were being supported elsewhere and that so many other people in other countries were also facing the problems of oppressive regimes (The Wilson Quarterly, 2011). That brutality, injustice, and economic hardships were characteristic of oppressive regimes. They served the role of making revolutionaries and activists persist in their efforts. The use of media gave activists and revolutionaries an opportunity to disseminate messages quickly while circumventing the regulations from the government. It is notable that while digital media did not cause the Arab Spring, it certainly facilitated the communication process that assisted the activists in the long run (Gaworecki, 2011).
According to Khaled Koubaa, the leader of the Internet Society in Tunisia, of the 2000 people who registered as Twitter users, no more than 200 were active users before the revolution had begun. Social media served a crucial role in guiding the protests. For example, while many other people had immolated in protest before scenes of Mohamed Bouazizi’s act sparked a broader movement against the government, their acts did not spark the revolution because mass circulation and accessibility to such events were not previously possible (The Wilson Quarterly, 2011). While emphasizing the role of social media, Tufeckci (2011) observed that the Tunis protests had earlier been crushed in 2008 with no significant backlash. Part of the reason that allowed the crushing of the protest was that only a few people were using social media in Tunisia at that time. Thus, there was insignificant penetration of the new media. However, things had changed rapidly by 2010 when the penetration grew significantly (Allam, 2011).
The revolution in Tunisia quickly spread to Egypt unexpectedly. In both cases, the center trigger was digital media (Hall, 2012). The Western media christened such revolutions as Jasmine Revolution partly because there was no major violence in the two countries. However, this changed when it spread to Libya, where insurgency was met with the full brute force of the government security services. Indeed, consensus from the researchers shows that the media played a crucial role in promoting and advancing the call for the ouster of oppressive regimes in the Arab world. The governments’ attempt to control the media served the purpose of making the channel more relevant to the course of the insurgency that before.
According to Abaza (2011), the issue of the function of digital media in the Arab Spring is likely to overtake that of conventional media like television, which were important in all the revolutionary activities, but also had the effect of benefiting the government. Conventional channels such as Al Jazeera, Al Hiwar, France 24, and BBC News collected messages from the Internet and used them to organize groups to retransmit free messages on the cell phones. As such, there emerged a new system of mass communication that synthesizes the interaction between Internet, radio, mobile, and interactive television (Fuchs, 2012).
In general, the role that media played during the Arab Spring can largely be said to be non-neutral to the extent that it allowed people to access accurate and timely information. However, in an ideal situation, the media is just to play a neutral role. The case in the Arab Spring was different because people used the media to communicate with others without the possibility of censoring themselves.
In conclusion, it cannot be doubted that the Arab Spring brought a new dimension to revolutionary movements. This was the first protest movement to utilize the power of social media to achieve its goals. Previous movements required phased development to achieve their goals. As such, the media provided greater opportunities for protesters in the Arab world to achieve their goals quickly. The media used in the Arab Spring played a role in facilitating the mobilization and utilization of information as weapons. To this end, the use of amateur videos uploaded on the YouTube and live coverage of protesters and government brutality were the most valuable source of information during the events. The neutrality of the media in disseminating information bordered on the need to provide credible information. The countries that were affected by the revolution have the history of suppressing the freedom of speech. As such, when digital media came into place it was apparent that people could now have access to information and any attempt to censor information could not have succeeded.
From the above investigation, it is apparent that media can play an important role in instituting democracy and human rights. However, the role that social media play is not dependent on the issues that are at stake. As the fourth estate, the media has the responsibility to inform the society of the actual events on the ground in an objective manner. The use of new forms of media such as social media and micro-blogging facilitated the organization and execution of revolutionary activities during the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, where the revolution first started in the Arab world, the use of social media enabled people to access information that was previously censored. The resolve of the people to use the media also made it difficult for the government to deploy its machineries to stop accessing and using information from the internet. In Libya, the revolution began because people learnt through the media about what was happening in other parts of the world. Previously the use of conventional media was heavily regulated with government censoring and deciding what gets to the people. However, the new platforms in social media and micro-blogging sites enabled people to circumvent restrictions and regulation from the government to access the shared information with the outside world. Moreover, the various social media platforms enabled people to share the information in real-time.
In Egypt, media broadcasted live coverage of the event in Tahir Square propounding the legitimacy of protesters in the country. The use of social media also aided revolutionaries to plan and organize events that were dedicated to protesting against the government. The reactionary response of the government forces against protesters in Bahrain caused an increase in the demands that had been made by the demonstrators. People learnt about the overnight attack by the government through social media and started to demand that the monarch relinquish power. The attempt by government police to run over the protesters at Pearl Roundabout also was broadcasted in the media through amateur videos. It impacted on the government’s image in the international community helped revolutionaries attract sympathy from the international supporters for their cause. In Syria, the government managed to control social media and other conventional media channels forcing revolutionaries to turn into rebels. However, the use of social media managed to present the Syrian government as brutal to the outside world.