Demystifying social media and the "Arab Spring"

We can't deny that social media contributed a pinch of salt to the grand dish brought together by a host of factors, but ultimately, all praise is due to the brave people of MENA, the vast majority of who have no idea of who Mark Zuckerberg is.

Just how powerful are Facebook and Twitter?
Ziya Meral
On 22 October 2011 17:40

Now that the dust is settling and the shape of things to come (or not to come) is becoming clear, we can all leave aside our amplified excitement over the role played by social media in revolutions we have witnessed in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) this year.

While I do remain an avid user of tools such Twitter as well as keeping my own blog, the attention that social media has got in the mainstream media since January 2011 is not backed by reality in the field and at times, far from being helpful, it brought along additional problems.

Firstly, the limited nature of communication through social media meant that complex events and developments were reduced down to misleading sound bites.

Take the phrase "Arab Spring" for example. At its face value, it seems to capture what has been happening in MENA and still leaves 129 characters to play with in the 140 character economy. Yet nothing can be more misleading and problematic than that phrase.

The changes in the region are not simply about Arabs, but include Turks, Iranians and a host of other ethnic groups and countries.

In addition, the language of 'spring' assumes a linear process from worse to better. But we know that socio-political changes are not linear, and after spring might come winter.

However, the most troubling part of the phrase is it's ethnocentrism, that communicates a patronizing message that the Arabs are finally waking up and demanding freedoms like us; as if they have been sleeping all these years.

Secondly, the place of internet based social media is a lot smaller in MENA than it’s made out to be.

Various sources, such as the World Bank or Internet World Stats, provide us with credible data on the use of internet in a given country. Internet penetration rates remain at an average of thirty percent across the region.

In the UAE it is thought to be more than sixty-five percent but in Syria it is thought to be around nineteen percent and in Yemen, as little as nine percent.

In Egypt, internet use was around twenty percent by the time of impeachment of Mubarak, showing a leap after January with some 7 million new users.

An internet business advisor in Cairo told me that in January, Twitter had only an estimated 300 thousand users in the country. He also pointed out that the most widely spread tweets were in English, thus limiting the access to a small number of Egyptians. 

The humble foot print of social media is also visible in the fact that the internet savvy and relatively affluent youth were only one of the cohorts making up millions of Egyptians from every walk of life who stood up for their country.

They were more visible than the trash collecting Zebeleen or the victims of state violence or indeed members of religious movements and the hungry, unemployed, urban poor, because with their handle on media, language skills and appeal, they were able to attract a disproportionate amount of media coverage.

Thirdly, the use of internet in the region is still minuscule compared to the two main communication tools people use to gather information and mobilize: satellite TV and mobile phones.

In Libya, while internet penetration is around seven percent, back in 2008, it became the first African country to reach 100 percent mobile phone penetration. Even those who tweeted from Tahrir square and those who were trying to organize marches and protests in Syria, Iran, Bahrain and Libya were using mobile phones to do so.

Since literacy rates remain low and language barriers limit on-line information sources, and since almost every house in MENA has satellite dishes which, unlike internet satellite signals, are practically impossible to block completely nationwide, people were watching channels like Al Jazeera for their news.

Television remains the number one source of information and media for this region.

Fourthly, social media also caused serious damage too.

False reports spread like wildfire. It became impossible to confirm stories and facts behind poor quality clips on YouTube.

This also gave a great platform for state security services to manipulate social media, spread rumours that snipers were firing on people and that demonstrations were not happening.

Unconfirmed information or sinister misinformation made reporting developments much more challenging. Governments were also able to map out who was behind what and who was related to whom with a few clicks.

And lastly, social media mania, cherished by the marketing gurus of certain websites and hailed as the future of social change by Western commentators, blinded us to the main factor that makes revolutions happen: human beings who risk everything.

It is the human being that utilizes various communicative tools, written, spoken or visual, to reach out to others.

It is human physical presence that protests, demands change and ousts governments.

A click on a mouse or keypad, no matter what it means for the advertisement providers and for eager owners of frequently visited websites, does not mean a thing in itself.

For these reasons, while we can't deny that social media did contribute a pinch of salt to the grand dish brought together by a host of factors, ultimately all praise is due to the brave people of MENA, the vast majority of who have no idea of who Mark Zuckerberg is.

Ziya Meral is a Turkish writer and academic. He tweets @Ziya_Meral    

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