The use of social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter to organize protests roiling the Arab world has been widely acknowledged. Researchers at the Dubai School of Government have now published research showing why social media played such a crucial role in helping catalyze popular anger that toppled two regimes in the Middle East and continues to rock others.
Launched just before demonstrations began in North Africa in December 2010, the inaugural Arab Social Media Report demonstrates the growth and reach of Facebook among Arab youth: some 75% of all Facebook users in the region are between the ages of 15 and 29 years. An even more telling fact: Facebook added more than 1 million new users in the region since protests began. During the weeks of growing unrest in Tunisia, researchers found that Facebook accounts in the country grew by nearly 10%.
In response to citizens taking to the streets, countries such as Egypt and now Libya have tried cutting off their countries’ connections to the Internet. That still doesn’t stop the flow of information via text messages sent over mobile networks, notes Simon Jones, director of the Abu Dhabi Men’s College in the Higher Colleges of Technology, and a former senior research fellow at the MIT Media Lab. "Mobile phone penetration is higher than computer penetration," Jones says. "Everyone has a mobile [phone]. It’s instantaneous to send large numbers of SMS messages to people. You can reach a wider range of people, more quickly. Emails are ignored; web pages might not be seen for weeks, but SMS gets eyeballs."
While it may be easy to block websites, or even block an Internet network, cutting off a mobile network leaves even the government without the capability to communicate, Jones says, a point the protestors exploited. "SMS catalyzed the action," he says. Jones compares the mass protests to flash mobs, noting the modern prank provided an example of how to organize through social media. "For young people, it’s a natural way to organize, because they’ve done it before," he says. "Lots of governments haven’t understood that." Regime fear of technology leading to action has a long history, Jones adds, citing the example of Communist Russia and its Samizdat policies that regulated the use of photocopiers. "People have always used the tools available to them," he says, "almost every young person is now connected to some network, whether over the phone or the Internet."
In addition to social media tools and mobile networks, satellite television played a role in providing alternative perspectives about the Arab world, says Lawrence Pintak, founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, and former Middle East correspondent for CBS News.
"Social media was invaluable in networking the activists, in allowing them to reach out to each other, to coordinate and to share images of unrest in disparate parts of Tunisia and later Egypt," he says. "But television was the game-changer. In Tunisia, Al Jazeera and later other Arab networks took the videos posted on YouTube and made them accessible to the masses; in Egypt, social media allowed the activists to organize the Day of Anger, but television brought the masses out into the streets."
Regional bloggers first demonstrated the power of the Internet as a tool of change, Pintak says, noting while some governments understood the potential and risk of social media, "certainly in Egypt the regime was living in the past and dismissed ‘Facebook Girl’ and the others as children.
"Governments have yet to learn to systematically use these new media outlets," Pintak notes. "A few years ago, a member of the Saudi royal family told me that they recognized that change was coming and that media was a key part of that change, and so they were trying to figure out how to harness the process. So far, they have not done very well. As the reporting of Egyptian television during the crisis showed, Arab governments still don’t quite understand that they can no longer control the message nor kill the messenger."
In an interview with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton, researchers at the Dubai School of Government — Fadi Salem, fellow and program director of the school’s Governance and Innovation program, and Racha Mourtada, research associate — note that the way social media tools have been used in the past few weeks has forever changed social and political culture in the Arab world. Among the surprising facts the study uncovered, they add, is that Facebook penetration can be high even in countries that restrict use of the Internet.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: We’ve seen the toppling of two governments by protestors organizing through social media in the Arab world. Was this expected?
Fadi Salem: I think it was, if you look at the events taking place in the Middle East over the past year. If you look at our report, we highlight some of the countries where people used social media tools to mobilize and engage in civil movements, such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, or Tunisia. It was expected that social media would be part of any engagement that took place. But the extent has been surprising. The fact that there were problems existing, and people were discussing them online, made social media the platform of choice. The Arab world lacks channels for youth to communicate their problems. This was a medium people felt empowered in. Maybe if other channels existed, social media would have been less of a platform.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Given that these social media tools were developed in the West, how have the youth localized these platforms for their use?
Salem: Let’s go back to the role of the media and the role of the channels that already exist in society. People for the last 50 years didn’t see in the mass media a tool they could use to interact with the government. The media are mostly state-controlled, and people tended to overlook them because of their low credibility. In the Arab world, the average person’s consumption of news, the decision-making process based on news, involves going through at least five different sources. You check BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera of course, and the local news. And then based on that, on a specific issue, you consume information from all these sources and you make a decision. So when social media became the platform of choice over the last five years, it was very natural for young people to choose this platform to influence their decision-making [as a tool for filtering numerous sources].
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What were the main factors that led to a broader adoption of these social media platforms?
Salem: In our report we looked into factors such as age, gross domestic product, Internet freedom, and the country in question. For example, one of the surprises was that Internet freedom is not related to the degree of Facebook penetration. Even with countries with lower Internet freedom, they had high Facebook penetration, or large numbers of Facebook users.
Mourtada: We had the youth factor, where 75% of Facebook users are the Arab youth. There was the gender factor, which wasn’t the same as the rest of the world. Globally, it is about 1:1 when it comes to males and females on Facebook, whereas in the Arab world, it is closer to a 2:1 ratio, with a lot more men than women on Facebook. We think that has to do probably with factors such as political participation, participation in the workforce, education, and access to health care. This part of the world doesn’t have the highest figures when it comes to women’s participation in these indicators. The top three countries with Internet penetration are Gulf countries, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Qatar. They don’t have very high Internet freedom ratings, yet they boast some of the highest Facebook penetration ratings in the world.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What has made social media grow so fast in this region?
Mourtada: I don’t think there’s one defining factor. Obviously having Internet access and being tech savvy is important. Countries with higher incomes generally had higher Facebook penetration too. Just as a trend over the past year, it’s been growing phenomenally; the number of Facebook users has grown by 78%.
Salem: One of the primary reasons is that the regional population is young. In most of the countries in the Arab world, the age group under 30 makes up 50% to 70% of the total population. This is the group that feels empowered by the [social media] platform . It didn’t start that way — it originally was a way to connect with others in countries where it is not that easy to connect with the other gender. But then, the usage trends shifted towards more politically active, more socially active ways of use. The trend is visible all over the Arab world. Just scan comments from Facebook profile updates or from Tweets. You will notice the shift from, ‘This is what I am doing tomorrow,’ to, ‘I wish I was in Tahrir Square.’ I’m not sure this will last, but we’ll see.
Mourtada: We have seen a number of countries where the number of Facebook penetration is actually higher than Internet penetration, so they must be using mobile phones. That was the case in Djibouti and Iraq.
Salem: Also, families are large in most of the countries in the Arab world, so one Internet connection could have five people connected in the household.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Are there things that you learned that surprised you, either positively or negatively?
Mourtada: One positive thing is that in all Arab countries, the rate of growth of new users to Facebook is huge, for example in places such as Iraq. I believe it had 300% growth over the past year. Even countries with lower rates of Facebook penetration are all getting into the social media movement, much faster than any country in the West. That isn’t surprising, since those countries may have reached a plateau, while Arab countries are just beginning to take off.
Salem: One thing I found surprising was the rate of Arab women using Facebook. I was expecting it would be more, not less. I was expecting, given that this is a society where it is not easy to connect with the other gender. But that wasn’t the case. Only Lebanon has about an equal number of men and women. In Jordan and Bahrain the ratio of men and women who use social media tools is close.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Did social media spur these young people to action, or was this unrest simply looking for an outlet?
Mourtada: It’s a combination, a perfect storm. All these social and political issues were bubbling under the surface. Then you also happen to have all these social media tools available. These tools were perhaps the catalyst for the unrest, but not necessarily the actual instigator. There already was this social revolution going on, and it just found its outlet. You can’t ascribe too much power to these tools, as ultimately the people using these tools drove this revolution.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: When did these tools go from a means of socializing among youth to tools for organizing protest and voicing dissent?
Salem: Take Tunisia, for example. There was a huge shift in the way people used Facebook there. Penetration of Facebook among Tunisians was high, but people used it to socialize, nobody talked about politics, because it was taboo. Suddenly, after the [self-immolation of a 26-year-old Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, last December] the shift happened — everyone changed their profile photo to the Tunisian flag, posted news articles critical of the government, and organized. The most important thing Facebook allowed the people to do was organize in a way they didn’t think possible. Self-organizational movements are not part of the culture in many Arab countries. The state is the provider and the organizer. But even when the government disappeared in Tunisia and in Egypt, people started organizing themselves, not just for political movements but for cleaning the streets, for security to protect their neighborhoods. So when people felt the need, they managed to find these platforms and utilize them creatively.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: In your study, did you determine whether people were using more Arabic or English while on social media?
Mourtada: The impact would have been less [if these social media tools didn’t have the capability to display Arabic text]. There was a lot of Arabic use. It depends on the class you’re talking about too. The middle class tends to use more English. In order to become popular uprisings, these protests have to draw in the lower classes too, and these people mainly Tweet or use Facebook in Arabic.
Salem: One of the main examples is Rast network, a Facebook group with tens of thousands of followers in Egypt. It basically is a news agency. Its name is the Arabic word for ‘scanning’ or ‘compiling.’ For the many of the youth in Egypt, this was the source for information. This group of young people, who are a part of the revolutionary youth, used Rast to collect all the information that the government and all the traditional news outlets were not providing, such as profiles on personalities in the government, and what people were Tweeting about. With the core of the movements being youth connected on Facebook, it was the easiest way to collect and share information. And it was all in Arabic.
It spread just by Tweets and Likes on Facebook. There is no editorial board and they don’t publish their own articles. They collect information and repackage it, with links and YouTube videos. They were in the first few days, especially during the Internet blackout, the source of information on what was happening in Egypt. Somebody who managed to get an Internet connection would post a video on YouTube, and it would be linked there, and it was disseminated to the community of supporters outside. It was also followed closely by Arab media organizations.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How did the protestors translate plans made through social media to actual people showing up on the streets in large numbers?
Salem: In Tunisia, that was the real surprise. In Egypt’s protests, there was a case that worked in Tunisia, and they followed that. Tunisia was surprising. There were definitely grievances, and an event, Bouazizi’s death, which catalyzed opinion. People were spreading the videos through their mobile phones, through Bluetooth, so it wasn’t even the Internet alone. So how did such large numbers of people show up? Look at the number of Facebook users in Egypt and Tunisia. When the report was launched in December the number of Facebook users was more than 4 million users, now it is 5.2 million. We don’t have the numbers yet for Egypt on the percentage of growth, but for Tunisia in the first few weeks during the protests, it shot up 8%. That was a huge increase in two weeks. But consider, you have 5 million people on Facebook, probably a big percentage are receiving this information, and every single person will have a real-life network of about five or six people. So do the math: that’s about 30 million people who know what’s happening. If 1 million were to show up, or even 100,000 show up, it would be enough.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Still, how did social media propel these protests in a way that other media have not in the Arab world? For instance, Al Jazeera and opposition newspapers reported on protest movements that were ignored by state-controlled media. But you’d never see similar reactions among people.
Mourtada: With social media, there is that personal touch. The people themselves are putting that content out, communicating with each other, as opposed to some media outlet telling them what’s going on. With these social networks, the only way you can get the word out to that many people, and get them to organize, is if there is that element of trust between them.
Salem: Consider the profile of the Facebook user in the Arab world. Some 75% are people between the age of 15 and 29. They are part of one generation, and feel they have the same social problems, the same issues with the government, and the same aspirations. So it is one specific group. That’s 4 million users in Egypt. But we have two different cases here. Since Tunisia, we had several different calls for ‘Days of Rage’ in Arab countries. Not all have materialized, such as in Algeria, though it has a high number of Facebook users. In Syria, there was a call, but nobody showed up. But in Yemen and Syria, the number of Facebook users is very low, so that’s also a factor.
Who is organizing this, that’s as important as the message. In Egypt, people trusted the group organizing the protests. These organizers had been activists for a year, at least. Whereas in Syria, the group who called for protests were outside the country, and they had low credibility. Nobody knew who they were. There could be other reasons. Maybe the timing wasn’t right. There are differences in every country.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Has Facebook created a social shift in the Arab world? Have cultural norms been disturbed, perhaps permanently?
Salem: Absolutely. Not just cultural, but political norms as well. I would say that in countries where penetration of the Internet and social media is high, the next president, the next government there, will be those who utilize these social media tools to interact with the public. If it’s a democratically elected government, it could be similar to how Barack Obama managed to win his presidency. The people who can connect to the youth through these technologies will be the next people in power in these countries.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Considering the adoption of Facebook as a platform in the Arab world, did you record any concern that it was not homegrown? For example, in Japan, Facebook does not have high penetration because people there are using locally developed social media platforms.
Salem: Unfortunately, the Arab world hasn’t produced enough technologies or media channels for people. I know that in some countries, the opinion is, ‘Ok, this is from the U.S., we don’t know who will be monitoring this.’ But at some point, people will not care anymore. If they have a cause that is beyond this, they will not look into who developed the platform.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: So you didn’t come across that sentiment?
Mourtada: It didn’t seem to be a factor, from the number of Tweets and Facebook messages. People got past that, and it became about communicating, regardless of where the platform was built.
Salem: In the case of Egypt, the previous government tried to convey this message, that Al Jazeera, Wikileaks, Facebook, these are external, it’s a conspiracy from the outside. The public didn’t buy it.
Mourtada: It’s mainly the governments people rose up against that were wary of these tools. It’s a testament to the power of these tools.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Have some of the barriers between classes in the region been eliminated, or reduced, as a result of this collective experience through social media?
Mourtada: It’s brought all these people together. You could say social media tools have created a new public sphere, where people can come in and talk about their grievances and social issues. In that sense it has flattened the informational hierarchy and some of the social structures.
Salem: Definitely, the flow of information in these societies became horizontal. No bottlenecks can filter this information. An endless number of connections have been established between people today, and it is almost impossible to block, filter or even monitor all of them. Governments in the region and on a global level are realizing this. Everybody has seen from Egypt’s example that you cannot disconnect the information flow, even if you cut off an entire country from the Internet.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You mention in your report that one of the countries you could not get credible information on was Iran.
Salem: There is an issue with some countries, and that’s because of the rules in the U.S. In Iran, Syria, Sudan, Cuba and North Korea, indeed there are embargoes on these countries, technological embargoes. Even companies like Google and Facebook will not enable you to get information, by law, or provide services to people in these countries. Even if they can access Facebook in these countries, they might not be able to download many applications for Facebook, which would affect their number of users. That limits the information available to us also. At this point, now that there is a realization that censorship is useless. Take Syria, it unblocked Facebook, YouTube and Blogspot. The real censorship is now happening from the U.S. side. We’re talking about 180 million people in these countries who cannot download a browser, or use an application.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How do you see regional governments reacting to social media now?
Salem: Governments are realizing this is an opportunity to communicate and connect with the majority in these countries, which is the youth. Some governments are working on this, creating guidelines and putting policies into place to use social networking tools. On the other hand, some countries realize that they cannot control or monitor people as easily as they thought they could. This is another positive thing. Governments will waste fewer resources on trying to control and block these platforms, and instead try to use them to engage with their populations, which will ultimately see their countries better off. That they are taking these measures suggest these governments have accepted the fact that these tools will be here from now on. This is like when the Internet was first introduced in Arab countries. The first response was to control and monitor. The same thing happened with satellite television. That’s the normal process, denying, and then accepting…. The next step will be participation. Taking advantage of these tools to connect with the public, and get them engaged in policymaking and decision-making, if not democratic participation.
We’ll see how Tunisia and Egypt change their perspectives on these platforms. But I have no doubt that every single country in the world will try to infiltrate these platforms. Some countries have policies in place on how to use, manipulate and change perspectives on using these platforms. Everybody will try to collect information at least on the usage of social media tools, from how people are interacting with those platforms to devising plans on how to change that usage.