Nine months have passed since the first Arab Spring protest erupted, and social media has been busy.
Online activists using Facebook, Twitter and other platforms organized protests, confronted political dissent, sent out cyberspace search parties for missing activists and initiated their demands for change.
But the revolutionary fervor has not ground to a halt just yet; even with Arab Spring “success stories” such as Egypt and Tunisia, countries that managed to overthrow their dictators, protest murmurings – and often shouts – are still reverberating in the online world.
Social media-fed protest is now intensifying, leading to worries over the political futures of the Arab Spring countries and their explosive social media commentaries.
“We may start to see a vicious cycle where the protests start, people tweet about them; the tweets will lead to more protest,” says Mohammed el-Nawawy a professor at Queens University in North Carolina and a native of Egypt, who has been studying the nation’s blogging culture.
“This will be a point where social media may lose its meaning and the protests may lose their meaning, too,” el-Nawawy warns.
“The future of social media in the Arab Spring countries is politically tied to the future of the revolutions, even for countries that have succeeded in toppling their former leaders; we still don’t know what the future holds for them.”
El-Nawawy, who has interviewed many political bloggers, particularly those prominent during the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings, asked them all a similar question about their futures as online activists.
“Many have no clear idea what their role will be in the future,” el-Nawawy says. “They succeeded in toppling regimes, in instigating protest, but now these countries are entering their rebuilding stage – a stage to strengthen civil society that was crushed under the former regimes. What will the social media role be in this case?” el-Nawawy says.
“It is always easier to instigate people into protest than it is to convince them to participate in a national challenge to rebuild.”
In Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab region, Internet penetration is low: only 20 percent of the population use the Web.
Still, it has managed to rack up impressive social media figures. For example, 8.7 million people are registered with Facebook in the country, 51 percent of Egypt’s total internet users, according to Socialbakers media statistics.
In Tunisia, 76 percent of the country’s internet users are on Facebook, and the relatively small country’s Facebook usage has grown by 16.5 percent in the past six months. Meanwhile, Twitter became another new player in the Middle East’s political arena.
In the midst of Libya and Syria’s unrest in July, Blake Hounshell, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, wrote: “Since January, I’ve been tweeting about the Arab revolutions, pretty much day and night. Does that make me a revolutionary? Not at all. Despite all the sweeping talk about it, Twitter isn’t the maker of political revolutions, but the vanguard of a media one.”
In his blog, Hounshell dubbed the new wave of online activists and followers tweeting about the Spring as the “Twitter Proletariat,” in reference to it being, quite simply, a movement of the masses against their tyrannical leaders.
The Twitter masses were even supported by internet giant Google during the Egyptian uprising in February, when the former Egyptian autocratic regime shut down the Internet across the country, crippling the anti-government protesters who wanted to spread their news. Google launched a special service to allow people in Egypt to send Twitter messages through a phone line, a means of “helping people on the ground,” a corporate blog statement read.
“If you are not open to social media spaces then you are not attuned to the dynamics on the street and you sacrifice both understanding and power,” Alec Ross, one of the creators of technology policy for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, told Reuters.
“We are well beyond being able to consider social media a fad,” Ross said.
Jumping on the social media bandwagon
But now, as the unrest in the region lingers, el-Nawawy feels that many groups have jumped onto the social media bandwagon all too conveniently after the platform became associated with those that supported the uprisings and opposed corruption.
“Having seen that social media is the way to go, that it is the ‘cool’ way of reaching out to the young people, many groups are now on Facebook and Twitter, enhancing their social media presence.”
“In Egypt, most cabinets in the transitional government and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces now have their own Facebook pages. But who are they trying to cater for?” el-Nawawy said.
“Are they doing this only to cater for the online activists? To show them that they understand their language, or are they trying to cater for the public at large?”
Also, there are clear signs that these emerging post-revolution groups are using social media as an indicator of political change.
“They are trying to showcase their creativity while also making a point that they are not stagnant or locked up in their old ways of doing things,” el-Nawawy believes.
The upside to this is that governments are now accepting that social media is here to stay, even governments that had traditionally limited Internet and phone access during times of political instability.
But the fear remains that the social media giants will become saturated with news hype, while mirroring the uncertainty and chaos still entangled in the Arab Spring countries.
“Many activists are still using the same tactics they used during the revolutions, calling people to protest, but many [including those not online] are starting to lose trust in this,” el-Nawawy says.
“They see that the situation is still unsettled and that there are more divisions among the social activists themselves. Not long ago there was just one coalition movement that had one Facebook page in Egypt; now there are more than 100, and each one has its own page.”
“People are lost in this whole environment.” says el-Nawawy.