The Arab Spring – a Facebook Revolution?

The media coverage of the Arab Spring uprising was remarkable in many ways. Never before were people all over the world able to follow an on-going revolution in the way it happened in 2011. One of the reasons was the availability of real time information. 

Pictures and videos were made by the activists and immediately uploaded to the internet. Information spread within seconds between activists and followers. The use of online social media services made this possible. It is therefore not surprising that the term Facebook- or Twitter Revolution was broadly used to label the uprisings. But is it appropriate to describe those revolutions and uprisings in that way?

Calling a people uprising a social media revolution tends to result in a couple of misunderstandings. First of all it implies that a revolution is made by “the internet” rather than by people. And that is not true. People and their demands are the crucial and essential core of a popular uprising and that has not changed whether by a globalized world order nor by modern communication and networking technologies. That does in fact not proof the term Facebook- or Twitter revolution as wrong or inapplicable. Indeed social media do have an impact on those uprising which is necessary to analyse more in detail. It is however important to understand that this term is not referring to the cause of an uprising but to its tools.

Another implication is that social media services are the only or at least main communication tool in the uprisings of the Arab Spring. This is in fact not true since the majority of people in the analysed countries do not have regular access to the internet nor actively use social media services. Social media rather changed the availability of information to us, the western world and its citizens.

But it is nevertheless true that social media, especially services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube did and still do play an important role in most of the Arab Spring uprising. For this it is necessary to understand that the use of social media is not a factor that leads inevitable to a revolution or an uprising. It rather must be understood as a tool that can be used by those who are struggling. Using social media services makes it much easier and more effective to reach people, spread information and not at least to communicate and discuss. It is thus a huge advance for people to (more or less freely) exchange views and mobilize a critical number of people for protests. But it is still just a tool which needs to be used by people in a certain way. And it is at the same time a tool which can also be used against those movements. Even though those tools are online and thus worldwide available they have in most cases to follow the local jurisdiction. Surveillance and blocking of internet traffic is becoming nowadays more and more common – not just in countries with totalitarian regimes. Moreover, most of those popular social media services are in private ownership and have primarily an orientation on profit and do thus not necessarily support a better or free world.

One doesn’t have to be a visionary to predict that the role and impact of online media in general will increase in future popular people uprisings. More research in this field is definitely needed. But for the moment and the current uprisings it can be concluded that online and certainly social media tools are not a cause but most probably an accelerating factor in people uprisings.

The use of online services and tool is likewise interesting when it comes to nonviolence and nonviolent strategies. “Cyberactivism” became more and more popular in recent years. What that term exactly mean is still unclear but in encompasses activities like Facebook groups, awareness campaigns but also the publication of classified information or hacking. Whether this is violent or a nonviolent strategy remains still undefined but it opens up for a wide range of new methods and actions.

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