The word “Twitter” spray painted on a shopfront in Tahrir Square during the popular uprisings in Egypt. Photo courtesy of: Peter MacDiarmid/Getty Images

A recent report by the American Institute USIP (United States Institute of Peace) seeks to give greater insight into the role played by Twitter during the Arab Spring. Up until now, the debate surrounding the role of Twitter and so-called Web 2.0 has remained somewhat polarised. This report then aims to provide an empirical analysis of the available data in order to move away from the binary arguments presented by those who have come to be known as “cyberoptimists” and “cyberskeptics”.

In 2009, following the outbreak of huge protests in Iran, many rushed to the conclusion that Twitter had a played a decisive role. Two years later, some analysts maintained that new media and social networks constituted a vital element in the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring. However, as Jay Cohen remarks in his article “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators”, the undue attention devoted to the role of new factors like social networks in popular uprisings can lead one to overlook other factors which may well have played a more important role. What’s more, such forms of analysis risk denying the wider context in which these revolutions emerged, to the point that it often seems as if the simple existence of Twitter/Facebook was that which predicated these historic events. Indeed, on the evidence of this advert from France 24, it was the mass of tweeting blue birds which, on their own, brought an end to the tyrannous regimes of Mubarak, Gaddafi and Ben Ali

Nevertheless, the debate does some to be evolving. Towards the beginning of the report it is stated that “both undue enthusiasm and skepticism could lead not only to poor analysis but also to dangerously misconceived policy.” As such, this report sets out to provide an empirical analysis of the available data in order to give a non-partisan account of the influence of Twitter on patterns of mobilisation and organisation during the Arab revolutions.

Instead of relying solely on the information contained in certain tweets, the report makes use of a “unique dataset drawn from bit.ly, the URL shortener, to track who actually consumes information about the Arab Spring: where, when, and how”. By making use of this particular dataset, the report aims to gain a clearer picture of how the consumption of the information contained in these tweets might have translated into action on the ground. The available data allowed the team of researchers to isolate bit.ly links relevant to the Arab Spring and to pick out the links contained in tweets pertaining to certain hashtags: #sidibouzid (Tunisia), #jan25 (Egypt), #feb14 (Bahrain), #feb17 (Libya). Having identified these links, the analysts were then able to find out how many times each link had been clicked on and the countries from which the clicks originated.

The team of researchers charged with putting together this report do admit to certain methodological shortcomings. To begin with, they do not take into account (like every hitherto report) the importance of SMS as a tool of organisation and mobilisation. Furthermore, they accept that their chosen dataset – bit.ly links – could well overrepresent Twitter users or underrepresent “casual or less sophisticated” internet users. Perhaps most important, however, is their admission that there is no way directly “to link bit.ly data to actual political action”.

In spite of these shortcomings, the data relating to where and when these links were accessed does demonstrate that it is unlikely that the dissemination of such information led to concrete action on the ground. Indeed, as the report makes clear, from the data examined thus far, it appears that “bit.ly traffic largely consists of consumers outside of the countries where the protests took place”. Given that local consumption is more likely to translate into action on the ground, this analysis does then suggest that Twitter may well have been more influential as a tool for disseminating information to the outside world. Otherwise expressed, “it would appear that bit.ly, in part via Twitter, was functioning like a megaphone”. This, apparently, was especially true of Tunisia where the heavy restrictions imposed on the mainstream media meant that new media took on a heightened importance.

Twitter penetration rate in the Arab world. Source : shusmo.me

By way of summary, the authors of the report recommend that greater caution is taken when tackling the role of Twitter in social upheaval. It is also advised that one take into account the many occasions on which social networks fail to mobilise large numbers of people. Furthermore, they advise against attempts to isolate one factor as being most important, commenting that such a singular focus risks neglecting the general context of such events. Finally, we are reminded that “tyrants tweet too”. In other words, one should not forget that, as well as being potential tools of mobilisation, new media and social networks can also be co-opted by regimes themselves.

The report, towards the end, takes issue with certain readings of the Arab Spring which place an exaggerated emphasis on the influence of new media. For example, in a 2011 report, Philip N. Howard and Muzammil M. Hussain write that “For years, discontent had been stirring, but somehow the drivers of protest never proved sufficient until mobile phones and the Web began pervading the region”. However, as the report indicates, such a reading fails to give proper account of Tunisia’s recent history. Indeed, in 1983, a wave of popular protest, not dissimilar to that which was seen in 2010-11, swept through the south of Tunisia as a result of sustained levels of unemployment and poverty. These protests would later spread to other Tunisian cities and even to Algeria. And yet, in 1983, Facebook did not exist. From 2008 onwards, Tunisia saw similar stirrings of popular unrest, notably in the regions of Redeyef and Gafsa. In consideration of the history of mass protest in Tunisia, it is surely not unreasonable to argue that the 2011 revolution which followed this period of unrest could well have happened in the absence of new media. In short, it remains very important firmly to situate the events of 2010-11 within a wider context in order best to relativize the importance of social networks in social movements.

It is therefore clear that the existence of Twitter was not a decisive element in the outbreak of the mass demonstrations of 2010-11. Indeed, it is worth recalling here one of the arguments presented by the above mentioned Nawaat article which states that “Twitter only really got going in any meaningful way ten days after [the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi and subsequent protests] when the hashtag #sidibouzid first appeared”. Now, with the findings of the USIP report, we can confirm that even the hashtag #sidibouzid most probably served, above all, to broadcast information out of Tunisia.

The report also indicates that there may exist a considerable division between cyberactivists and the rest of society. Indeed, with regard to Egypt, they state that there exists a sizeable gap between the community of cyberactivists and the mainstream of the population. In Tunisia too, the evidence suggests that, contrary to what some have claimed, cyberactivism makes up but a small part of the overall opposition movement. As previously noted on Nawaat, “the hashtag optunisia used for Opération Tunisia, carried out by Anonymous, only made an appearance on 3rd January and, even then, remained at a very low level of activity throughout the period studied”. Therefore, it does seem that one must remain somewhat cautious when considering the role of the online community in social movements since, by insisting on its importance, one runs the risk of blurring the class dimensions of such revolts.

Lastly, the report elaborates upon what M. Keck and K. Sikkink have called the “boomerang effect”. This being the idea that the dissemination of information via Twitter and other new media allows activists more effectively to alert the international community who, in turn, put pressure on oppressive regimes such as that of Ben Ali. The report does admit that such an effect was not seen in Syria or Bahrain but it does stress the fact that the “increased and transformed attention [resulting from new media] has reshaped how the world views these cases”. It is undeniable that new media has had a profound impact on the reporting of world events. However, it’s worth remembering that the supposed boomerang effect was not seen following the outbreak of popular protest in Tunisia too, with Western news media remaining slow to cover the events and some governments even continuing to pledge their support for the Ben Ali regime. As such, if Twitter was meant to have helped to mobilise the international community, “to say that this mobilisation made it possible to influence the positions of foreign governments would be to hugely exaggerate its effect”. We can, by way of conclusion, say that new media did undoubtedly make it easier for people to communicate and disseminate information and that this had an impact on the media coverage of the Arab revolutions. However, to some extent, the debate surrounding this phenomenon seems motivated by an outlook not dissimilar to that which originally lent this series of popular uprisings the title of “Twitter revolutions”. In other words, it attributes far too much importance to external factors.

The latest report by USIP therefore helps us further relativize the role played by new media in social movements. Since 2011, it does seem that various analysts have elected to focus on the more modish factors contributing to popular uprising. Often, such analysis exaggerates what is, in fact, a limited impact on the part of new media and, at the same time, neglects more traditional forms of political organisation. Furthermore, by concentrating on such factors, one risks overlooking the general sociopolitical context of these movements and the genuine demands of those people who weren’t necessarily “on-line”.

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