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On December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself afire. Within months, much of the Arab world was ablaze as well.
Bouazizi's fatal self-immolation sparked what later became known as the Arab Spring and led to the demise of dictators not only in his country, but in neighboring Egypt and Libya as well. It reverberated among other repressive rulers and regimes in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and beyond. Ultimately it resonated far from Bouazizi's rural hometown of Sidi Bouzid--including thousands of miles away in New York City, where Occupy Wall Street movement began nine months to the day after his desperate act in opposition to voicelessness and powerlessness. The Occupy movement gave rise in turn to more than a thousand similar protests around the world and the creation of a global movement. From London, Madrid and Rome to Athens, Tel Aviv and Tokyo, millions were suddenly on the march, demanding, as had Bouazizi, more respect, hope, dignity and democracy.
They called themselves "the 99%" in opposition to the ruling 1%--the dictators like Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gaddafi, but also those they dubbed "banksters," the investment bankers and financial manipulators who had gamed the economic system to their own benefit and then, supposedly too big to fail, forced the rest of society to bail them out. On the heels of the Great Recession, the American Autumn, like the Arab Spring that preceded it, became as much an economic as a democratic revolt. As one writer, Rebecca Solnit, later asked in an open letter to the dead Bouazizi, "What were all those dictatorships and autocracies for, if not to squeeze as much profit as possible out of subjugated populations--profit for rulers, profit for multinational corporations, profit for that 1%?"
Mohamed Bouazizi was neither the first Tunisian to kill himself in protest of the economic and political conditions in his country nor the last. But something was different about his story, or at least the way it had been told. Bouazizi's personal rebellion led first to a successful societal revolution against a man who had ruled Tunisia for decades with an iron fist, and later to others that dislodged dictators in Egypt and Libya. Why? Did it have anything to do, as some have suggested, with the rise of social media?
Not long after the fall of the Tunisian dictator, many observers, including U.S. President Barack Obama, proclaimed that social media had in fact played a key role in events there, as well as in Egypt, where strongman Hosni Mubarak's regime was also toppled. Writing for the Reuters news agency, for example, Philip N. Howard, author of The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam, noted that Bouazizi's death had "activated a transnational network of citizens exhausted by authoritarian rule... It was social media that spread both the discontent and inspiring stories of success from Tunisia across North Africa and into the Middle East." Among the lessons for the West, Howard concluded, were the facts that "a larger network of citizens now has political clout, largely because of social media," and that "democratization has become more about social networks than political change driven by elites."
Months later, after analyzing more than 3 million tweets, gigabytes of YouTube content and thousands of blog posts, he and other scholars at the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam published a study claiming "social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring," and noting that, "conversations about revolution often preceded major events on the ground, and social media carried inspiring stories of protest across international borders."
Howard, an associate professor of communication at the University of Washington, said the evidence "suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising. People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom."
During the week before Mubarak's resignation, for example, the rate of tweets about political change in Egypt increased ten-fold and videos featuring protest and political commentary went viral, with the top two- dozen receiving nearly five and a half million views. The amount of content produced in Facebook and political blogs by opposition groups also increased dramatically. Ironically, government efforts to crack down on social media may only have incited more activism, especially in Egypt. People who were isolated by efforts to shut down the Internet, largely middle-class Egyptians, may have gone to the streets when they could no longer follow the unrest through social media.
"Recent events show us that the public sense of shared grievance and potential for change can develop rapidly," Howard concluded. "These dictators for a long time had many political enemies, but they were fragmented. So opponents used social media to identify goals, build solidarity and organize demonstrations."
Other researchers and scholars, however, are not so sure of the actual role social media played in facilitating the protests. Writing in mid-September, 2011 on nextgov.com, a web site devoted to "technology and the business of government," Joseph Marks reported that although experts were in agreement that, "Something extraordinary happened at the nexus of social media and political action during the Arab spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa"just what happened is less clear." While Twitter and other social media had become a megaphone that disseminated information about the uprisings to the outside world, Marks said, "a comprehensive study of Tweets about the Egyptian and Libyan uprisings" between January and March found that more than 75 percent of people who clicked on embedded Twitter links related to the uprisings were from outside the Arab world.
As one researcher, GWU associate professor John Sides, noted, "This obviously suggests that new media presents a tremendous opportunity to inform an international audience, but it also raises the question: "Will they be there tomorrow?'" Sides said public attention spans in the Western world are limited and cited Iran's 2009 Green Revolution as an example. Although the Iranian events attracted a surge of international activity on Twitter, attention dwindled shortly after the death of pop icon Michael Jackson (See Chapter 7).
Alec Ross, senior adviser for innovation at the U.S. State Department, supported the idea that social media had played a determinant role in the Arab Spring. Ross said the use of social media during the uprisings signaled the beginning of a "massive transfer of power from nation states and large institutions to individual and small institutions." Other panelists warned, however, that, "data on the role of social media during the Arab spring is so disparate and confusing it is nearly impossible to draw meaningful conclusions from it."
Cyber-Realists vs. Cyber-Utopians
The ongoing controversy over whether and to what extent social media helped create the democratic surge of the Arab Spring brought to the fore earlier disagreements between "cyber-utopians" and more skeptical "cyber-realists" such as Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Gladwell's New Yorker article, headlined "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted," created a storm of reaction--most of it negative--when it was published two months before Mohamed Bouazizi's death.
"The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution," Gladwell had written. "The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns." Like Morozov, Gladwell was convinced that those he derided as "digital evangelists" had, at the very least, vastly overstated the impact of social media on the new wave of political activism.