Arab Spring: Power of Social Media

There were a series of protests in the middle east which  began with the unrest in Tunisia in 2010. These protests brought down several regimes in some  Arab countries and sparked mass uprisings against authoritarian governments in the others.These are commonly termed as the Arab spring.When the Arab spring happened in 2011, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had been in power for 31 years since 1980, Tunisia’s Ben Ali for 24 years since 1987 and Muammar al Qaddafi had ruled over Libya for 42 years.Most of the population was deeply frustrated because of the oppressive nature of these dictatorial regimes but remained passive out of fear.

The Arab spring has resulted in the ouster of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. There were uprisings in Bahrain and Syria, major protests in Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait , Morocco and Oman.The main elements which give uniqueness to “Arab Spring” is that the protests were  largely  spontaneous and  leaderless. Social media proved a powerful mobilization tool. For example the protests that brought down Presidents  of Tunisia or Egypt began on Facebook.

The immediate cause of the enormous protests in Tunisia was the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unlicenced vegetable vendor, when he was humiliated and  his cart  confiscated by the  police in full public view.Though  Tunisian state media downplayed the protests , the news spread on social networks and the protrests spread and grew.The power of people was so enormous that the President Ben Ali had to sack his interior minister, release all detainees and flee to Saudi Arabia.This acted as a catalyst to the revolution in Egypt which was already on the verge of eruption as the patience and tolerance  of the masses could no longer bear the exploitation and atrocities of their dictatorial government.

Wael Ghonim gives a detailed account of the sequence of events in Egypt which began with the brutal killing of a young Egyptian called Khaled Mohammed Said.This incident led to the creation of a facebook page by Wael Ghonim which soon had more than 3,50,000 followers.This page was called “Kullena Khaled Said” meaning “ We are all Khaled Said”.As admin of this facebook page, Ghonim kept the issue alive.He energized, motivated and raised hopes of the members of the group.He utilized the facebook page for accommodating the images, poetry , messages, blogs and responses .He planned and invited members for silent stands in several districts of Egypt including Cairo and Alexandria.The online mobilization soon grew into on street protests.The digital action and physical work were used in tandem to reach different audiences and together succeeded in bringing about the long awaited change of government.The government got scared of the power of social media to such an extent that it blocked internet in the whole of Egypt in order to check the protests.

According to Wael Ghonim, the objective of their facebook page was to mobilize public support for their cause.The strategy they adopted was the sales tunnel approach used in marketing.First convince people to join the page and read its posts, second, to make them start interacting with the content by “liking” and “commenting” upon it, third, get them to participate in the page’s online campaign and to contribute to its content and fourth, to take the activism to the streets.

Arab springs is an  example of the power of the people and the way it can be harnessed using modern   technology and internet.Clay Shirkey has also stated in his book “Here comes everybody” that internet has made group formation ridiculously easy.Wael Ghonim writes, “Our revolution is like Wikipedia. Everyone is contributing content in small bits and pieces for a common cause though their identity remains unknown even to each other.  He further says,”This is the power of internet and social media. Participatory democracy is becoming a reality and slowly but surely, the weapons of mass oppression are becoming extinct.”

Nobody likes to be oppressed.But still dictatorships flourished. The reason was that people were afraid of speaking out.Those who were vocal got  identified and punished. The mainstream media in these dictatorships was either state owned or censored by the state. It was therefore biased towards the state which controlled it. The media’s suppression of the physical world made the virtual world a critical alternative for promoting the cause of the masses.The virtual world encouraged the masses to speak up without fear  against the brutality of the government because their identity would not get disclosed.Even Wael Ghonim, the admin and man behind the facebook page on Khaled Said, used a software called Tor which continuously generated proxy IP addresses to prevent his antecedents to be known to secret service. The Arab spring is an example of the power of the people which is harnessed intelligently by mobilization of people using internet and channelizing their energies in the physical space supplemented by traditional ways of protest.

By: Piyush Mordia






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