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Social Media Has Been a Mixed Blessing for the Arab Spring

BY Lisa Goldman | Friday, February 15 2013

Cairo graffiti (image: Hossam El-Hamalawy/Flickr)

Two years ago, the international media was churning out endless articles about the impact of social media on the political upheaval in the Middle East. This was particularly the case for the Egyptian uprising, which was dubbed the Facebook Revolution. Academic researchers and think tanks published papers on the subject, with most concluding that Twitter and Facebook had played an important role in amplifying conversations and reporting information, but not in actually fomenting revolution.

Egyptian activists always rejected vigorously the notion that social media drove their revolution. It was the outcome of old-fashioned grassroots organizing on the ground, they insisted. To support their claim, they point to the fact that the critical mass of people descended to the streets during the five days the Mubarak regime shut off the Internet and mobile phone networks.

Perhaps the true achievement of social media during the halcyon days of the revolution was in introducing the world to a panoply of liberal Egyptian activists who altered western perceptions about the Middle East. Young and charismatic, they spoke fluent English and were bursting with self confidence. They tweeted live from Tahrir Square, posting photos to Flickr and videos to YouTube, providing a first-hand, real time account of a popular uprising to an audience of millions. The international media made them into the story, interviewing them for CNN, photographing them for Vanity Fair and inviting them to appear on prominent television programs like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

But revolution is exhausting, and soon fatigue set in — for both the activists and the passive viewers.

Today, most of the activists are quite subdued. Many are frank about being burned out and wanting to turn inward. The revolution in Egypt is stumbling, while Tunisia's first elected post-revolutionary government is in turmoil following the assassination of a secular opposition politician. The Syrian uprising has degenerated into an armed insurgency and a depressing bloodbath. News reports preface references to Bahrain's uprising with the adjective "crushed," if they report on it at all. And who talks of Yemen these days, unless a drone strike kills an American citizen?

While most analysts now acknowledge that the role of social media in fomenting revolution was overhyped in the extreme, there can be no doubt that it continues to affect the political discourse. The lasting effect of reporting and debating events online in real time has shaped the way in which ordinary people carry on political conversations around the Middle East. In many cases, the government now uses Twitter and Facebook as a medium for communicating directly with the people. At techPresident we wrote recently about an extraordinary case in Egypt, where President Morsi issued major policy announcements via his party's Facebook page, abjuring the conventional protocol of calling a press conference and addressing the television cameras.

But there are also troubling signs that social media, or the way in which people are using it, is actually harming the Arab Spring.

In a blog post for Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch (@abuaardvark), director of the Insitute of Middle East Studies at George Washington University, presents the case against social media — whether it be users who undermined the credibility of activists with false reports, or activists who have become addicted to the high of reporting from the streets at the cost of slogging through the tedious-but-necessary process of organizing political parties.

"One of the key ways social media mattered was in framing western perceptions of what was happening," Lynch told me during a telephone conversation. "This happend both directly, when journalists interviewed the activists, and indirectly, via the Andy Carvin effect," — i.e., curating tweets to give a sense of what was happening on the ground. Lynch continued, "But then two big things happened: The activists lost credibility; and the mainstream media lost interest. So things that got attention in February 2011 got almost none in February 2012. The attitude was like 'Oh, Egypt is still there.'"

Most saliently, Lynch points out that social media has contributed significantly to political polarization. Twitter, Facebook and similar platforms have become de facto arenas for internecine squabbling that often becomes very aggressive. Given the tone of the public online debates, it's clear that they are contributing to the widening gap and increasing hostility between Islamist and anti-Islamist, or liberal, Egyptians.

The worst of this polarization is not visible to the casual observer, Lynch explained. Most of the activity is happening on the deep web — on invitation-only Facebook pages, for example. Or via Twitter DM (direct message), SMS and email.

"A huge amount of digital communication, stuff we should study, is out of our reach. So about 70 or 80 percent of digital communication is 'dark,' — i.e., not visible. If you're not a friend of a person, not 'in the network,' you don't see the discussions that are going on. This is enough of a filter to keep out the casual person who's googling for information."

The inaccessability of data is a problem for researchers, of course. But more insidious and damaging are the aggressive, bullying conversations that so many Egyptian activists complain about privately. These are the exchanges that keep once-exuberant revolutionaries awake at night, worrying about the future of their country and wondering if they should stay and fight or look for a more comfortable life abroad.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.