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The role of social media in the Arab uprisings – past and present


Abstract and Figures

Social media in the Arab world before the recent revolutions had been described as marginal, alternative and elitist, and their impact minimal because of the low penetration rates of the internet. The 2011 events across the Arab world have brought ‘social media’ to the forefront, with many crediting Facebook, weblogs and Twitter with facilitating the revolutions that have taken place. Yet we have not fully understood the role of social media during the recent events and the convergence of social media with not only mainstream media but also with actual street demonstrations. Moreover, the role and significance of social media during recent events across the Arab world has varied greatly. What are the cultural, technical and political variables that are conducive to using social media for mobilization? How have citizens and states used social media during the uprising and beyond? How do we research social media movements in the Arab world? A total of six articles in this issue aim to answer these questions. Eaton’s article investigates the use of internet activism in Egypt during the 2011 events. In detail, the article outlines how social media were used by Egyptian internet activists to increase mobility on the ground, starting from the Facebook campaign ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ and leading to the ousting of Mubarak. Gerbaudo’s article, on the ‘kill switch’ as a ‘suicide switch’, focuses on one critical event during the 2011 uprising in Egypt: the internet blackout imposed by Mubarak’s regime during the first days of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and its effect on mobilization. Using empirical research conducted with online activists, the article reflects on the highly complex and ambivalent relation between offline collective action and social media. Ben Moussa’s article takes a step back and examines the strengths and limitations of various theoretical approaches to researching collective action in the Arab world. Critical of the common pitfalls of technological, social and cultural determinism, the author suggests a multidisciplinary approach that draws on social movement theory, radical democracy theory and alternative media theory to study Muslim-majority societies. Marc Owen Jones turns our attention to a country largely ignored by the mainstream media, Bahrain. His 10-month virtual ethnographic study, conducted during the uprising in 2011, examines how the Bahraini regime used social media in a number of different ways to suppress both online and offline dissent. Such methods included naming and shaming, offline intelligence gathering and passive observation. This is followed by the insights of an academic and practitioner into the use of social media during the Syrian uprising, which continues two years after the initial revolt in 2011. Harkin’s article explores the changing media ecology in Syria since the uprising and focuses on how Syrian society is constructing alternative ways of disseminating information. The article by prominent blogger Hussein Ghrer is a sober examination of the role of social media during the uprising in Syria. It highlights the importance of cultural, social and political factors that affect how and why people use internet tools. It contrasts the use of social media in Syria with social media use in Tunisia and Egypt, reminding us again of the importance of context. Unfortunately Ghrer was arrested on 16 February 2012, two days after submitting his first draft to WPCC. Online journalist, and friend of Ghrer, Maurice Aaek, comments on the article a year later, in February 2013.
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The role of social media in the Arab uprisings – past and present
Maha Taki
Lorenzo Coretti
Tim Eaton
Paolo Gerbaudo
Mohamed Ben Moussa
Marc Owen Jones
Juliette Harkin
Hussein Ghrer (with afterword by Maurice Aaek)
Dr Anthony McNicholas
University of Westminster
Watford Road
Northwick Park
Harrow HA1 3TP
United Kingdom
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Further information and archive issues are available at:
Maha Taki* ............................................................................................................1
intErnEt activism and thE Egyptian Uprisings: transforming onlinE
dissEnt into thE offlinE World
Tim Eaton ..............................................................................................................3
thE ‘Kill sWitch’ as ‘sUicidE sWitch’: mobilizing sidE EffEcts of
mUbaraK’s commUnication blacKoUt
Paolo Gerbaudo ...................................................................................................25
from arab strEEt to social movEmEnts: rE-thEorizing collEctivE
action and thE rolE of social mEdia in thE arab spring
Mohamed Ben Moussa..........................................................................................47
social mEdia, sUrvEillancE and social control in
thE bahrain Uprising
Marc Owen Jones ................................................................................................71
is it possiblE to UndErstand thE syrian rEvolUtion throUgh
thE prism of social mEdia?
Juliette Harkin ......................................................................................................95
social mEdia and thE syrian rEvolUtion
Hussein Ghrer (with afterword by Maurice Aaek) ................................................. 115
WEstminstEr papErs in
commUnication and cUltUrE
Social media in the Arab world before the recent revolutions had been described
as marginal, alternative and elitist, and their impact minimal because of the low
penetration rates of the internet. The 2011 events across the Arab world have brought
‘social media’ to the forefront, with many crediting Facebook, weblogs and Twitter
with facilitating the revolutions that have taken place. Yet we have not fully understood
the role of social media during the recent events and the convergence of social media
with not only mainstream media but also with actual street demonstrations. Moreover,
the role and significance of social media during recent events across the Arab world
has varied greatly. What are the cultural, technical and political variables that are
conducive to using social media for mobilization? How have citizens and states used
social media during the uprising and beyond? How do we research social media
movements in the Arab world?
A total of six articles in this issue aim to answer these questions. Eaton’s article
investigates the use of internet activism in Egypt during the 2011 events. In detail, the
article outlines how social media were used by Egyptian internet activists to increase
mobility on the ground, starting from the Facebook campaign ‘We Are All Khaled Said’
and leading to the ousting of Mubarak.
Gerbaudo’s article, on the ‘kill switch’ as a ‘suicide switch’, focuses on one
critical event during the 2011 uprising in Egypt: the internet blackout imposed by
Mubarak’s regime during the first days of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and its effect
on mobilization. Using empirical research conducted with online activists, the article
reflects on the highly complex and ambivalent relation between offline collective
action and social media.
Ben Moussa’s article takes a step back and examines the strengths and
limitations of various theoretical approaches to researching collective action in the
Arab world. Critical of the common pitfalls of technological, social and cultural
determinism, the author suggests a multidisciplinary approach that draws on social
movement theory, radical democracy theory and alternative media theory to study
Muslim-majority societies.
Marc Owen Jones turns our attention to a country largely ignored by the mainstream
media, Bahrain. His 10-month virtual ethnographic study, conducted during the
uprising in 2011, examines how the Bahraini regime used social media in a number
of different ways to suppress both online and offline dissent. Such methods included
naming and shaming, offline intelligence gathering and passive observation.
This is followed by the insights of an academic and practitioner into the use of social
media during the Syrian uprising, which continues two years after the initial revolt in 2011.
Harkin’s article explores the changing media ecology in Syria since the uprising and focuses
on how Syrian society is constructing alternative ways of disseminating information.
Maha Taki
Dr Anthony McNicholas
Carlos Barrenche
Edmundo Bracho
Lorenzo Coretti
Rikke Bjerg Jensen
Benedetta Brevini
Lawrie Hallet
Jonathan Ilan
Philip Lin
Andrea Medrado
Helena Nassif
Tim Riley
Kristin Skoog
Professor Colin Sparks
Maha Taki
Yennue Zarate-Valderrama
Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture is
published by the Communication and Media Research
Institute of the University of Westminster. The views
expressed by authors in WPCC are neither those of
the Institute nor those of the University.
The content of this journal is © University of Westminster
ISSN:1744-6708 (Print)1744-6716 (Online)
Printed by Evonprint
*This issue has been co-edited with Lorenzo Coretti.
Dr Anthony McNicholas
University of Westminster
Watford Road
Northwick Park
Harrow HA1 3TP
United Kingdom
The article by prominent blogger Hussein Ghrer is a sober examination of the role of
social media during the uprising in Syria. It highlights the importance of cultural, social
and political factors that affect how and why people use internet tools. It contrasts the
use of social media in Syria with social media use in Tunisia and Egypt, reminding us
again of the importance of context. Unfortunately Ghrer was arrested on 16 February
2012, two days after submitting his first draft to WPCC. Online journalist, and friend of
Ghrer, Maurice Aaek, comments on the article a year later, in February 2013.
TIM EATON: BBC Media Action
Tim Eaton
BBC Media Action
Tim Eaton currently works for BBC Media Action on media development projects in
the Middle East. He previously completed his postgraduate degree at the University
of Exeter, majoring in Middle East Studies. He is also a former researcher for
Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Tim has a long-standing
interest in the politics of Egypt, where he worked as a political researcher at the Ibn
Khaldun Center throughout the 2005 elections.
This article aims to investigate the role of internet activism in the
2011 Egyptian uprisings. It suggests that the significance of internet activism in
Egypt in this period was twofold: first, in its utility as a tool for activists to mobilize,
organize and inspire Egyptians to take to the streets on 25 January 2011; and,
second, in its use as a medium to document events in Egypt beyond the reach of
the authorities. Particular attention is paid to the growth of the ‘We Are All Khaled
Said’ (WAAKS) campaign on Facebook and its capacity to translate online dissent
into the offline world. The transformation of protesters into citizen journalists through
information and communication technologies, and Twitter in particular, is examined
for its success in challenging the narrative set by Egyptian state media and in
providing a window into events for the outside world.
activism, Egypt, Facebook, internet, revolution, Tahrir, Twitter
On 11 February 2011, Vice-President Omar Suleiman took to the stage to announce
that Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ageing autocrat, had resigned his post as president. Only
three months earlier, such an outcome had seemed unthinkable, as Mubarak’s National
Democratic Party (NDP) celebrated an overwhelming victory in elections marred by
widespread vote-rigging and repression. The intervening period bore witness to a
remarkable mobilization, as first tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and
eventually over a million Egyptians took to the streets to demand his removal. Through
the use of technology, and social media in particular, these events were brought
into the living rooms of people across the world, enabling them to witness events in
unprecedented detail and with unprecedented speed.
The growth of online political activism, referred to in the article as internet activism,
has sparked a major debate between those who see it as a powerful new weapon
in the arsenal of opposition activists in the Middle East and those who believe it
overblown.1 The resulting discourse has, however, led to a conflation of the motivations
for political actions, and the tools activists use to carry them out, in a battle over
causality. Yet this is a largely artificial debate, as the motivation behind the actions
of activists was opposing the repressive system of government that Egyptians rose up
to protest: internet activism was no more than a tool which activists used to get their
messages across and coordinate their actions.
It is suggested here that the significance of internet-based information and
communication technologies (ICT) in this period is twofold: first, in their utility as a tool
for activists to mobilize, organize and inspire Egyptians to take to the streets on 25
January 2011; and, second, in their use as a medium to document events in Egypt
beyond the reach of the authorities. Indeed, this ability to get people to the streets –
rather than its ability to keep them there – was the primary success of internet activism
in this period, and its significance was reduced once the momentum of events had
reached the mainstream. However, without the initial call to arms online and Facebook’s
ability to get thousands – though not millions – into the streets, then the demonstrations
might never have reached the mainstream majority of Egyptians, and Mubarak might
have survived. At the very least, it is difficult to disagree with Ahdaf Soueif in positing
that without internet activism the fledgling Egyptian revolution could not have happened
in the way that it did, nor for that matter at such speed (Idle and Nunns, 2011).
Internet Activism and its Political Uses
Before embarking on a study of internet activism it is of course first necessary to
define what is meant by the term. The one to be used here is the broad definition
provided by Vegh (2003), who writes that internet activism is ‘a politically motivated
movement relying on the internet’ using strategies that are either internet-enhanced
or internet-based. Beyond this, we can divide internet activism into three categories.
Tim Eaton
BBC Media Action
6 7
The first is awareness and advocacy – also known as participatory journalism – which
refers to the use of the internet as an alternative news source to counter the control of
information channels opposed to the interests of the activists. The second category,
organization and mobilization – also known as ‘mediated mobilization’ – is also
pivotal to understanding the significance of internet activism in the Egyptian 25 January
movement. This form of internet activism is used in a number of ways, but of most
interest here are calls for ‘offline’ action, such as demonstrations, as was witnessed
in Egypt. Finally, action/reaction activism – often dubbed ‘Hacktivism’ – is used to
describe malicious attacks by activists to bring down or paralyse websites (Lievrouw,
2011). Hacktivism played a minimal role in the 25 January movement so little attention
will be paid to it here.
Analysis of internet activism is a relatively new and fast-moving field due to the
rapid development of the technologies in use on the ground by activists. Large gaps
in our understanding inevitably remain. Thus far, academic literature in the field of
communications has predominantly focused on the media landscapes of western
societies and activists seeking the downfall of capitalism or mass media. On the other
hand, many political scientists have heralded the importance of freedom of expression
through the internet in the Middle East, though few tackle the specifics of how this
may actually effect political change. This study aims to navigate between these two
approaches to posit that the internet is indeed an effective tool for such a goal. While
the current literature has its limitations, many of the applications of internet activism
identified by communications theorists have proved to be perceptible in the Egyptian
uprisings. For while the costs of opposition and problems of accessibility may be
greater in an authoritarian context, the capabilities of new ICTs and processes of
informational distribution are transferrable.
In his 2000 work, The Virtual Community, Rheingold observed that through the
use of technology, people are able to create networks of communication instantly as a
result of their ‘perpetual connectivity’.2 Using the example of SMS distribution through
mobile phones, Castells notes that, in a world of networked mass communication, ‘one
message from one messenger can reach out to thousands, and potentially hundreds
of thousands’ as it proliferates through the network society (Castells, 2009: 348).
Buchanan has dubbed this the ‘small world effect,’ as access to each network offers the
potential to reach a potentially infinite number of further networks should the receiver
of information choose to further disseminate it to his/her personal network (quoted in
Castells, 2009: 348).
For Castells, this form of networked distribution is key, because it means that, at
every stage, the receiver identifies the information as coming from a known – and,
crucially – trusted, source. This transforms the wireless communication network into a
network of trust, in which the receiver is likely to show greater faith in the information.
According to his ‘communication power’ theory, these wireless communication networks
and networks of trust evolve into networks of resistance, ‘which prompts mobilization
against an identified target’ (Castells, 2009: 302).
It is suggested here that Castells’ model of communication power through wireless
communication is clearly apparent in the context of the conduct of internet activism in
the Egyptian uprisings. Just as a mobile phone user would disseminate information
to people in his/her phone book, a Facebook or a Twitter user’s created content is
disseminated to his/her ‘friends’ or ‘followers’3 who can then choose to comment on
it or forward it, at which point the information is then transmitted to their networks.
This permits the creation of networks of trust and, in the Egyptian case, the fostering
a network of resistance against the Mubarak regime. This study therefore seeks to
illustrate how the impact of online insurgent politics of the internet activists – in the
form of mediated mobilization and participatory journalism – was multiplied through
communication power to create the popular base for protest in the offline world.
Internet Activism and Political Opposition in Egypt
Before tackling the events of Tahrir, it is first necessary to briefly discuss the status of
internet activism and internet use in Egypt prior to the demonstrations. Although the
international newspaper headlines may suggest differently, the mass expression of
dissent in Egypt’s streets in January and February 2011 did not come from nowhere
and the use of internet activism to express that dissent was also not something that
was new. There had in fact been a steady flow of political dissent aimed at dislodging
Mubarak, with internet activism at the forefront. By 2005, Egypt was home to a
thriving and diverse blogosphere of committed and insightful political commentators
who began to challenge the narrative of the state-run media, uncovering major stories
that the state-controlled sector either couldn’t or wouldn’t run (Eaton, 2011a). This
first generation of internet activists was also integral to the ground-breaking Kefaya
movement ahead of the 2005 presidential elections in Egypt, where they would blood
many of the strategies used in the build-up to the 25 January 2011 protests. Yet, as
may be expected with any technology-enabled phenomenon, the patterns of activists’
online behaviours shifted with developments in technology. The entrance on the scene of
social media from 2007 onwards brought a new generation of internet activists to the
fore (interview with Gamal Eid, 2011). These activists were less interested in the long
treatises on political developments that the blogger community had tirelessly created
and were instead quick to act, exploiting the capability of social media for mediated
mobilization. The staging of protests in 2008, in part coordinated through Facebook,
was a sign of things to come. By the lead-up to the 2011 demonstrations, internet
activism had come a long way in Egypt, and it was expressed in many forms. Although
it had not succeeded in reaching the mainstream of Egyptian society, it had laid the
8 9
groundwork for the future by establishing some isolated networks of resistance within
Egyptian political society and developing tactics to maximize their impact through the
diffusion of communication power.
The size and representativeness of such networks should not be overstated, however.
Despite breakneck growth in internet penetration in Egypt, its use remained far from
universal at the time of the demonstrations. In May 2011, official Egyptian government
statistics concluded that there were over 25 million internet users in Egypt, inclusive of those
who use the internet through their mobile – nearly a 60-fold increase since 2000 (MCIT,
2011). Nevertheless, the penetration of the internet remained, and remains, uneven and
subject to socio-economic barriers. Research by BBC Media Action carried out in March
and April 2010 found that 55 per cent of Egyptian non-internet users did not know how to
use a computer and that 43 per cent could not afford a computer of their own (BBC Media
Action, 2010). Such numbers support the views of many scholars who have advocated
caution regarding whether internet activism could be the primary driver of revolution in the
Middle East.4 Nevertheless, internet activism formed a fundamental cog in the machine of
the opposition, as the following case study seeks to illustrate.
The Prelude: ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ and Mediated Mobilization of
the Protests
The brutal murder of 28-year-old Khaled Said at the hands of Egyptian police in
Alexandria in June 2010 caused outrage. His death became a cause célèbre for
internet activists. The official line that he had died while choking on a bag of drugs
convinced no-one. Pictures of Said’s severely beaten corpse published by the blogger
Zeinobia showed his skull and jaw with clear fractures that left the police claim that he
had died of asphyxiation untenable (Zeinobia, 2010). One thousand people attended
Said’s funeral in Alexandria, while activists protested outside of the Interior Ministry’s
offices in Cairo (Al Amrani, 2010).
Following Said’s death, Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian Google executive who was
working on the Mohamed El Baradei campaign, established a Facebook ‘group’5
open for all Facebook members to join and campaign against police brutality. In doing
so Ghonim sparked an online mobilization that ultimately led to the demonstrations
in Cairo on 25 January 2011 and, eventually, Mubarak’s ouster. The group’s name
in Arabic, Kulina Khalid Said (‘We Are All Khaled Said’ – WAAKS) expressed the
sentiment perfectly, and soon caught on online. There were, and are at the time of
writing, in fact two WAAKS pages: one in English and one in Arabic. The administrator
for the English page was Mohamed Ibrahim, an Egyptian IT consultant, and Ghonim
occupied the same position for the Arabic page, with assistance from Abdel Rahman
Mansour, another activist who had contacted him through Facebook (interview with
Wael Ghonim, 2012).
Both groups were open to all, but only Ghonim, Mansour and Ibrahim were able to
clear postings to appear on the groups’ ‘wall’.6 Although the independent website for
the Khaled Said cause states that the administrators had never met before embarking
on the campaign (WAAKS, 2010), the symmetry of the English and Arabic versions
is remarkable. From the outset, the groups’ founding in July, the WAAKS webpages
remained consistent and focused upon building solidarity for the cause. On 2 August,
Ibrahim wrote:
Our cause is not just Khaled Said’s brutal torture to death… We are
standing up for the many ‘Khaled Said”s [sic] who were and are still
being tortured in Egypt… We will not rest until we succeed. Are you
with us to the end? (WAAKS English, 2010)
From the beginning, WAAKS attempted to move its internet activism from the online
to the offline world through mediated mobilization. In his recently released memoir,
Ghonim noted that this was WAAKS’ ‘ultimate aspiration’ (Ghonim, 2012a). It did
so initially with some success, albeit not on a nationally significant scale: four silent
protests were staged across Egypt, beginning late in July, decrying the actions of
the police and security forces. Ghonim estimated that approximately 300 people
participated in Alexandria although a much smaller number – around 20 – in
Cairo (interview with Wael Ghonim, 2012). However, the cause rapidly proliferated
throughout Egyptian Facebook networks. Only a month after the death of Said, the
New York Times carried a story on the fledgling movement, reporting that the Arabic
WAAKS had over 190,000 members (Fahim, 2010). By 3 August, Ghonim reported
that the Arabic page had 250,000 members (WAAKS Arabic, 2010). In contrast,
the English page reported that it had reached only 10,000 members in November
(WAAKS English, 2010). The posts of the Arabic page therefore receive greater
attention here.
Following the relative success of the silent protests in July, the groups retained their
focus on the pursuit of the Khaled Said case through the Egyptian courts. Yet, as
elections approached, the groups called for a ‘Day of Anger’ ahead of the presidential
election. The campaign was, however, derailed as the WAAKS Arabic group was
mysteriously deleted, presumably by the Egyptian security forces. The next day, 26
November, the group was resuscitated, albeit with the loss of all previous content
(WAAKS Arabic, 2010). The protests went ahead, with hundreds – not thousands
– taking to Cairo’s streets (Associated Press, 2010). Afterwards, and throughout the
elections, many pictures, video clips and news items were listed on the walls of the
Arabic and English groups.
The campaign built steadily over the next two months, although it is unclear exactly
10 11
how and when the administrators chose 25 January as the date for protest. In his
memoirs, Ghonim claims that Mansour mentioned 25 January as the potential date in
late December. It was at this point that Ghonim decided to discuss the idea – still under
the cloud of anonymity – on an online chat forum with one of the leaders of the 6 April
movement, Ahmed Maher (Ghonim, 2012a). However, it took a further two weeks
for 25 January – which is National Police Day in Egypt – to be set as the date for
demonstrations on WAAKS. And when it was, it was not Ghonim, Ibrahim or Mansour
that first called for them. Instead, on 14 January, a YouTube interview of a former
Egyptian police officer living in exile in the United States, Omar Afifi, was posted on
the WAAKS Arabic site in which he called for a demonstration to show solidarity with
Tunisians; the resignation of Egyptian Interior Minister Habib Al Adly; and the repeal of
Emergency Law in Egypt (YouTube, 2011b). In posting the video on the WAAKS Arabic
wall, Ghonim did not seek ownership, writing clearly, ‘Omar Afifi: calls on Egyptians
to demonstrate on 25 January’ (WAAKS Arabic, 2011). Even when Afifi’s call was
repeated on 18 January, Ghonim still made clear that this was Afifi’s call and not
WAAKS’. In the one major divergence between the English and Arabic sites, Ibrahim
was already calling for demonstrations – without affiliation to Afifi – on 15 January.
Regardless, it was a recording by a young Egyptian woman, Asma’a Mahfouz,
posted on WAAKS Arabic on 18 January appears to have tipped the balance. ‘I am
talking to you to deliver a simple message,’ said Mahfouz. ‘We want to go down to
Tahrir Square, if we still want honour and to live with dignity, then we have to go down
to claim our rights on January 25’ (YouTube, 2011a). Later that day, a link to register
for the protests was introduced on the WAAKS Arabic site. Facebook users needed only
to list a contact email address to be provided with the information and instructions from
the WAAKS administrators on the plans for the protests. If anyone wanted to express
his or her own views, an online form could be found to do so (WAAKS Arabic, 2011).
Incredibly, it was only 11 days before Egyptians took to the streets that the protests were
first advocated by Afifi, and WAAKS started to register participants only a week before
that. The mobilization in the coming period was unprecedented. Within two days of the
announcement, Ghonim claimed that the news had reached 500,000 Egyptians online
through the reposting of information on other Facebook pages, including the 6 April
movement (80,000 members), Nizar Qabany (157,000 members) and the Egyptian
Sugar Cane Juice group (250,000 members). By that time, 27,000 had already signed
up to physically take part in the protest (Ghonim, 2012a). By 17 January the WAAKS
English page was calling for worldwide demonstrations in front of Egyptian embassies.
These started with New York, London, Madrid and Bologna, where protests took place
on 23 January, a Sunday (Frenchman, 2011). Nevertheless, it would be misleading to
suggest that there was any sense of what was to come following the initial hours of the
protest on 25 January. Ghonim’s post on WAAKS in the early hours of the day sounded
hopeful: ‘If 100,000 take to the streets, no one can stop us… I wonder if we can??’
(WAAKS Arabic, 2011). For the next two and a half weeks the world was transfixed by
the demonstrations that eventually forced Mubarak out on 11 February.
Internet Activism During the Protests
The success of the internet in getting Egyptians into the streets in January 2011 is
remarkable considering the known costs of opposition in Egypt. While WAAKS had
hundreds of thousands of members – no agreed figure exists although Ghonim claims
that 100,000 registered to participate (interview with Wael Ghonim, 2012) – it is
unknown how many of them were in the streets on 25 January. Nevertheless, the tens of
thousands that were in the square were a major increase over previous demonstrations.
In fact, the determining factor of the demonstrations’ success was the ability of the
activists to attract people onto the streets – something that David Faris (2010) had
identified as the fundamental failure the previous protests advocated online in Egypt.
This was different on 25 January, as the demonstrations that started in different areas
of Cairo picked up people as they went through the streets.7 And the people that they
picked up were from all walks of life: middle class and working class, educated and
uneducated. This success highlights the pitfalls of much of the criticism surrounding
the impact of internet activism in effecting political change; for once internet activism
managed to begin to mobilize society on the streets in combination with more
established political opposition movements, it achieved the popular base necessary for
the conduct of communication power. The fact that organization may have been started
by a somewhat elitist set of activists with access to computer-mediated communication
(CMC) through the internet does not mean that the impact of internet activism was
restricted to the online world.
The Egyptian government’s unprecedented decision to cut off the internet on 28
January (see Figure 1) was a testament to the gravity with which it treated the threat
of internet activism. But it also meant that the vast majority were unable to get online.
It is important to note that WAAKS Arabic was no exception, going offline between
28 January and 2 February. While the government presumably hoped that activists
would flounder once deprived of their means of communication, the opposite proved
true. When the government blocked cell-phones people seemingly switched to a more
traditional form of communication – word of mouth. In many ways the move appears
to have enticed people from their homes down to the streets to see for themselves
(interview with Sherif Mansour, 2011). Despite the blackout, many activists soon
managed to find proxies to get back online, or simply sent their updates to friends
and relatives outside of the country to post their updates online. Yet, the critical mass
had already been reached. The argument put forward by some, that internet activism
played little part in effecting Mubarak’s ouster due to the fact the protests continued
throughout the blackout, misses the point: the damage had already been done.
12 13
Figure 1: The internet blackout in Egypt on 28 January
Source: Labovitz (2011).
Figure 2: Main usage of Facebook throughout demonstrations
Source: Dubai School of Government (2011).
Nevertheless, the internet was not blocked for the entirety of the demonstrations:
internet activism remained an important tool for the protesters. A survey by the Dubai
School of Government (Figure 2) carried out in March 2011 found that Egyptian
Facebook users believed that nearly 85 per cent of Facebook usage throughout
the demonstrations was to promote and organize activism, raise awareness and
spread information about events as they happened – the fundamentals of mediated
mobilization and participatory journalism. Only 15 per cent of respondents believed
that Facebook had any social or entertainment role throughout the protests (Dubai
School of Government, 2011).
Twitter cannot be said to have had the same mass impact as Facebook. It had
only around 130,000 members in Egypt, against Facebook’s 7 million users in Egypt
in May 2011 (Dubai School of Government, 2011). Yet, while it was not able to
effect mass mobilization on its own, it was able to play a significant role in enabling
mediated mobilization and participatory journalism through the facilitation of perpetual
connectivity. Certain platforms lend themselves to specific tasks. As a tool for advocacy
of a cause, Facebook was clearly most suited to a campaign against police brutality.
Yet, while Facebook was most important in the build-up to the protests, Twitter was
a far more effective tool for activists once on the ground, as they were often able to
use the Twitter interface through their mobile phones . The following tweet from the
well-known blogger Mahmoud Salem, sent on 11 February, offers a good example:
‘Need more protesters on the salah salem side. There are only 1000 there with
thousands on the roxy side. Pl retweet #jan25’ (Idle and Nunns, 2011: 212). This short
message is a perfect snapshot of the utility of Twitter. The update was sent to those
protesting and following #jan25 on Twitter to communicate a weakness in the protest,
circumnavigating the need for a chain of command and allowing the protesters to
respond quickly to emergent threats. Moreover, the request to ‘retweet’ was heeded
by 235 people, allowing the information access to 235 further networks of people. In
this manner, just as through Facebook, information cascades through networks at high
speed to provide activists information in almost real time.8
The 140 character limit micro-blogs on Twitter were far quicker than through the
WAAKS Facebook interface, which required administrator approval of postings.
Furthermore, while SMS messages of similar length could be sent, the time that it takes
the phone to send will increase as the number of recipients multiplies. This does not
affect Twitter: contact with the entire community is nearly instantaneous. As Figure 3
illustrates, the number of Twitter posts in Egypt under the hashtag9 #jan25 – which
became the WAAKS of the Twitter world – exploded either side of the internet blackout,
and closely mirrors patterns of Twitter use in the whole of Egypt.
14 15
Figure 3: Daily Tweet volume and mentions of #jan25 in Egypt
Source: Dubai School of Government (2011).
Such practical information did not only come from protesters in Tahrir. Just as Egyptian
internet activists had been vocal supporters of the Tunisian opposition’s quest to oust
President Ben Ali, their Tunisian counterparts returned the favour. Twitter acted as a base
for knowledge sharing regarding a number of things, from advice on how to protect
one’s face from tear gas to messages of support from the outside world (interview with
Gamal Eid, 2011). As a result, the impact of Twitter can be seen to be greater than its
number of users, or even the number of tweets, as many users utilized the platform solely
as a newsfeed (Dubai School of Government, 2011). This is not to say that Twitter did
not become home to an outpouring of calls to arms: ‘You want Mobarak out?’ wrote
Monasosh, ‘[then] stop whining, get off ur [sic] assess [sic] and join us in the streets
#Jan25’ (Idle and Nunns, 2011: 90). Indeed, many activists, taking advantage of their
proficiency in English, used the platform to call for support worldwide. The well-known
blogger Hossam el Hamalawy wrote: ‘People around the world, plz [sic] picket #Egypt
embassies tomorrow Friday in solidarity. #Jan 25’ (Idle and Nunns, 2011: 55).
Despite the emphasis on Facebook and Twitter, new technologies and web-based
applications very rarely operate in isolation: their compatibility and ability to interact
with one another is demanded by their users and is a key catalyst in the proliferation of
communication power. Many elements of such crossover have already been mentioned,
from the embedding of Omar Afifi’s YouTube video on WAAKS, to the uploading of
pictures and posting of links to news stories and the use of mobile phones to access
web-based platforms. This is a crucial element of the success of mediated mobilization in
Egypt, and not one that appeared suddenly in January 2011. Facebook and Twitter had
been used simultaneously by the administrators of WAAKS, with the first call for a Twitter
protest going out only a day after WAAKS Arabic was set up. Indeed, the organizing
sessions for the WAAKS Facebook group ahead of the January protests took place on
Twitter under the hashtag #jan25. Activists were able to communicate directly with the
organizers and each other using the ‘@’ reply function (Idle and Nunns, 2011: 20).
Evaluating Mediated Mobilization on WAAKS
The importance of online petitions like WAAKS has been derided by many
commentators. Slavoj Žižek has described them as a form of ‘interpassivity’ that
actually reduces the likelihood of people taking ‘real’ action – that is, in the offline
world – by allowing someone to create the illusion of doing something, when in fact
nothing is being done (Hands, 2010a). In a similar vein Malcolm Gladwell (2010)
declared that such petitions are mere ‘clicktivism’ and a distraction from the real drivers
of protest on the ground. Yet, as Joss Hands illustrates, the ‘clicktivism’ thesis appears
only to take into account immediately obvious forms of online practices, while CMC
‘interlaces the online and offline worlds to the point at which it makes little sense to
try and think of them as separate entities’ (Hands, 2010b). In a liberalized autocracy
such as Egypt, where political opposition often came at great personal cost, the act of
supporting any cause that was critical of the regime – in any forum – should also not
be underestimated. Of course, the cost was a great deal less in joining a group such
as WAAKS, which required simply the click of a button. But the crucial element was
that it provided access to Facebook members and their near-infinite personal networks
of friends and contacts, an element which cannot be dismissed as inconsequential.
Previous political campaigns using internet activism, such as Kefaya and the 6 April
movement, may have succeeded in mobilizing a few thousand people, but Facebook’s
network society offered access to millions more. There was no physical opposition
movement in Egyptian civil society to rival such access.
By engaging Egyptians on an issue, which they all understood – police brutality
– WAAKS inspired solidarity in numbers, which enabled it to nurture an insurgent
community. Journalist Jack Shenker believes this solidarity helped to cause the ‘islands
of resistance that were evident in Egyptian society to coalesce and explode into the
mainstream’ (interview with Jack Shenker, 2011). Indeed, since the major strike action
in Al Mahalla in 2008, there had been a number of workers strikes in Egypt and
growing discontent with the country’s economic plight, but these islands of resistance
had remained isolated. This was something in which the network society of social
16 17
media played a significant role. The call to arms unleashed an outpouring of emotion
and solidarity with the community: responding to Ghonim’s post on 18 January,
Mohamed Issa wrote ‘January 25th is the beginning, the days that follow will force the
tyrant [Mubarak] to leave’ (WAAKS Arabic, 2011). There are thousands of examples
of similar sentiments; one such is shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4: Snapshot of WAAKS English, 20 January 2011
Source: WAAKS English (2011).
The flat leadership model also differentiated WAAKS from the attempts of other
opposition movements to demonstrate. Such a model was made possible by the
advancement of CMC, although it should be emphasized that this was also something
that the organizers sought, not least for their own safety (Ghonim, 2012). In the
past, many demonstrations were easily broken up due to the fact that they had easily
identifiable leaders,10 but this was not the case on 25 January. Ghonim was himself
apprehended on 27 January, and only came to the attention of most Egyptians when
he gave his heralded interview on Dream TV on 7 February – he had remained
anonymous while operating WAAKS for fear of arrest (Ghonim, 2012). His arrest
did not cause the movement to flounder, as it was not reliant on one or indeed a few
individuals to retain its momentum.
Thus, despite the emphasis of this article on the organizational qualities of social
media, the flat leadership model of WAAKS determined that the demonstrations on 25
January were, at best, only loosely organized. Beyond instructing members to attend
at specific locations at a specific time, no further strategic guidance was offered. This
was a crucial departure from previous efforts, and a major strength in the authoritarian
context. The threat was also one that the regime failed to comprehend, consequently
rendering their traditional tactics of imprisoning leaders useless. Through the use
of social media, WAAKS had created a movement that allowed all of its members
to participate, comment and act within the realms of a loosely defined concept of
freedom from state oppression. Rather than diktats filtering through a hierarchical
organizational structure – previously the norm for both the government and the so-
called ‘liberal’ opposition in Egypt – in-depth analysis of the posts on WAAKS illustrates
that it sought to offer little more than general guidance to its members, who were
largely granted autonomy to act as they saw fit.
Ghonim would later reflect that: ‘This was a leaderless movement, there was no
organization and no strategy’ (2011). But in his memoirs, he does claim that he
consulted with various other opposition personalities, including Mostafa al-Nagar,
campaign manager for Mohamed El Baradei, as well as Ahmed Maher, a leader in
the 6 April movement, and another activist, Mahmoud Samy, over the coordination
of strategy (Ghonim, 2012). In fact, Ghonim claims that the other activists met several
times to formalize their tactics, agreeing to start out in satellite locations where they
would pick up Egyptians on the street en route to converging on Tahrir (Ghonim,
2012). No such strategy was apparent through the WAAKS page, and this perhaps
illustrates that some of the more established opposition groups did follow a more
organized path on 25 January.
When considering this question, it is worth pointing out that another key element of
communication power was at play here, as Ghonim’s network of resistance on WAAKS
combined with the networks of resistance of the other more seasoned activists, boosting
WAAKS’ strength considerably. Such links had worked in an ad hoc fashion up to that
point – with the duplication of information from WAAKS on other platforms in solidarity
– but this appears to have formalized the alliances.11 This is also further illustrative
of the futility of trying to forge a distinction between the online and offline worlds.
Maher, Samy and Nagar were communicating anonymously with Ghonim through
CMC, but they were making decisions about activities on the ground. The activities of
WAAKS were never limited to networks of resistance on Facebook, but in fact offered
a non-aligned hub for protest against the state. Hitherto unconnected networks were
connected through WAAKS.
Nevertheless, few on 25 January appeared to have knowledge of any planning.
None of the activists who took to the streets to protest on 25 January interviewed by
the author knew anything of a plan to take over Tahrir Square. Mohamed Abdel Aziz,
the Egypt coordinator of Freedom House, said that the organizers had only hoped for
10,000 protesters, and were surprised by the numbers that took to the streets (interview
with Mohamed Abdel Aziz, 2011). It was only after the protesters had been able to repel
the initial wave of police that the protesters realized their strength. Taking advantage
of perpetual connectivity through mobile phones, Abdel Aziz reported how he then
began calling activists protesting in other areas. Soon after, a somewhat spontaneous
decision to march towards Tahrir was made. Abdel Aziz did not know where the decision
had come from – certainly not from the WAAKS Facebook page – but he soon found
himself in Tahrir Square. When asked about the organization at the demonstration, the
prominent activist Mahmoud Salem said that he believed a ‘collective consciousness’ was
fashioned in the streets that day, but knew of no real plan of action hatched anywhere
(interview with Mahmoud Salem, 2011). Thus, despite the elements of planning that
were apparently in place for 25 January, according to Ghonim, it is difficult to see how
such a small number of activists could have provided such a large number of people
with any detailed plan once boots hit the ground. In the end, it was numbers that were
decisive. Gamal Eid, a leading Egyptian activist and head of the Egyptian Organization
for Human Rights (ANHRI), astutely noted, ‘You are talking about millions of people. You
don’t need a plan’ (interview with Gamal Eid, 2011).
The Role of Citizen Journalism
‘Trying to figure out what was going on [in Tahrir] was like playing with a jigsaw
puzzle,’ one Egyptian told the author. Indeed, the volume of information in circulation
was unprecedented. Crucially, unlike in Algeria in 1991, almost any act of aggression
that the Egyptian regime directed against its people found its way on to social media
and TV screens around the world: the ability to bridge the gap between new media and
traditional media was crucial. It was also not in any way accidental. From the outset,
WAAKS encouraged citizen journalism among protesters, featuring a short video with
the title, ‘The camera is my weapon.’ In it activists were encouraged to ‘use cameras to
capture every policeman who will attack peaceful protesters’ (Frenchman, 2011).
Gamal Eid was quick to realize the potential of Twitter for the dissemination of
information on the protests to the international media. Understanding that few western
journalists would be able to read tweets in Arabic, Eid put a call out on Twitter for
Egyptians who would be able to translate the updates of his ANHRI employees. Eid
was surprised to find that 35 Egyptians soon volunteered. One such translated tweet
came from the ANHRI representative in Suez, where he reported that opposition
protesters had been attacked by pro-government thugs on motorcycles. Acting on
ANHRI information, the story went by telephone from Suez to the volunteer to translate
into English, which Eid then posted directly to the foreign news correspondents’
Twitter accounts by using the ‘@’ function (interview with Gamal Eid, 2011). The story
was later covered by The Guardian (2011). Meanwhile, the live blogs of the major
international newspapers used tweets from activists on the ground in Egypt to inform
their transfixed readers of developments.12 Twitter provided such readers with some of
‘the most riveting real-time coverage ever recorded’ (Idle and Nunns, 2011: 19).
Citizen journalism captured moments of triumph and despair throughout the
demonstrations: the YouTube video that showed a man walking in front of an armoured
vehicle with a water cannon bore striking resemblance to the man who bravely defied a
tank in Tiananmen Square (YouTube, 2011d). Likewise, a video shot on the mobile phone
of a bystander that showed an unarmed man gunned down in the streets of Alexandria
by security forces was pronounced Egypt’s ‘Neda’ moment, drawing comparison to
the YouTube video that had shown a young Iranian woman killed at a protest in Tehran
in 2009 (YouTube, 2011c). Such images told a thousand stories and counteracted the
propaganda that the Mubarak regime was spreading through state television. These
images and videos were circulated as Nile TV informed its viewers that the protesters
were foreign enemies, criminals or members of the Muslim Brotherhood (Abouzeid,
2011). There can be no doubt that the Egyptian state lost the propaganda war, which
is in no short measure due to the participatory journalism of Egypt’s protesters in Tahrir
Square. This goal was present from the outset, and emphasized by internet activists.
The Significance of Internet Activism to the Demonstrations
Insurgent politics conducted through internet activism multiplied the impact of
social protest in Egypt. Yet revolutions do not come out of thin air, or for that matter,
cyberspace: there would have been no revolution without a cause to bind Egyptians
together. Thus, to simplify the events in Egypt as a Twitter or Facebook revolution would
imply a blinkered view of the realities on the ground, ignoring many crucial factors.
The role of organized labour and the urban poor was integral to forcing Mubarak out.
Moreover, the Cairo-centric focus of this article, as a result of its emphasis on internet
activism, also fails to do justice to the fact that protests were taking place not only in
Cairo but all over Egypt. We should also bear in mind, however, that seemingly there
was considerable interaction between internet activists and more established opposition
movements in the lead-up to the protests. To consider internet activism in this period as
a solely online phenomenon would equally be a mistake, as content created online was
clearly disseminated offline.
Caveats aside, then, in seeking the significance of internet activism in the fall of
Mubarak, we must look to its utility as a tool for internet activists to inspire, organize,
mobilize and finally to document. Different platforms and technologies were used in
different ways, but there is rarely a dividing line: most were used for more than one
such function. Indeed, while the roles of Twitter and Facebook have been emphasized
here, it is of course true that other platforms, such as YouTube and Flickr, and the
availability of mobile phones, were also crucial tools for activists.
Nevertheless, important questions remain unanswered. The most significant of these
relate to the impact of ICT on participation. While it may appear logical, even obvious,
to suggest that WAAKS increased the likelihood of its members participating in the
demonstrations, there remains a lack of concrete evidence. While the link between online
communities and participation has been identified, work in this area has thus far focused
on case studies conducted in the West, and with activities and goals that are largely
confined to the online world. The need for a detailed study of events in an authoritarian
context is acute and would be extremely valuable to scholarship in this area.
Regardless of such questions, it is apparent that many of the concepts of the
communication power theory propounded by Manuel Castells were present in Egypt’s
network society. Through the spread of information online, internet activists were
able to establish networks of resistance within Egyptian political society. And, despite
the relative weakness of the ties between members of these networks, CMC emerged
as an effective tool to facilitate collective action. Perpetual connectivity of activists
enabled them to have access to an infinite number of networks of trust and multiply
the impact of social protest through the creation of an insurgent community. Internet
activism made political action easier, faster and more universal in Egypt. But it was
not, of course, a panacea.
For more detail on this debate, see below.
That is, the ability of activists to be online
constantly while on the ground. This is primarily
through the use of internet-based mobile phone
applications. It is also known as ‘Mobile-ization’.
Rheingold was referring to mobile phones, in
Accepted contacts on Facebook are categorized
as ‘friends’ – the user must accept a request
from another user to reach this status. On
Twitter, a user can ‘follow’ the blogs of another
user without permission, although they can be
‘blocked’ from doing so by the other user.
Much of the scepticism surrounding the role of
internet activism relates to the representativeness
of internet users in Egyptian society. Khaled
Hroub (2009) proposes that ‘the hope that
internet activity would be a principal agent of
political and social change is one thing, the
reality is another’.
Facebook groups can be created by anyone
with a Facebook account and can be created so
that they are either open (any Facebook member
can join) or closed (members can join only by
The ‘wall’ is a feed of microblogs to which
members of groups can contribute pending the
authorization one of the group’s administrators.
This is something that Ghonim (2012a) claims
was planned by Mostafa al-Nagar, Mahmoud
Samy and Ahmed Maher.
This view is proposed by Lustick and Miodownik
(see Faris, 2010).
Messages are organized into streams by their
hashtags, e.g. #jan25, allowing users to follow
conversations on a given topic from other Twitter
users that are unknown to them.
The demonstrations in Mahalla el-Kubra in
2008, for example, were known to have been
organized by Ahmed Maher and Esraa Abdel
Fattah. When Abdel Fattah informed her 6 April
Facebook group that she would be arriving at
a fast food restaurant and described what she
would be wearing it was no great shock that
the police had formed a cordon around the
restaurant and arrested her before she even had
the chance to protest.
Ghonim claims that it was Maher who secured
the agreement of the ‘Ultra’ football fans to
participate in the protests: the Ultras would
become a powerful vanguard for the activists
throughout the clashes with Egyptian police and
security forces (Ghonim, 2012a).
There were many newspapers that did this. Two
such examples are The Telegraph and
The Guardian.
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in Egypt and its role in the January 25th protests. MA thesis, University of Exeter.
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gime Response in Egypt. PhD thesis, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
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Tahrir’. Thomson Reuters Foundation Seminar, June.
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(accessed 14 July 2011).
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folded, in the Words of the People that Made It. New York: OR Books.
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ated (accessed 3 August 2011).
Paolo Gerbaudo is a Lecturer in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College
London. His research focuses on the interaction between media and space in
contemporary activism. He is the author of Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and
Contemporary Activism (2012), a book discussing the relationship between social
media use and new forms of public assembly in the social movements of 2011 from the
Arab spring to Occupy Wall Street.
This article discusses the effects of the Internet communication
blackout, or ‘kill switch’, unleashed by the regime of Hosni Mubarak
during the first days of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. It argues that
while the regime hoped that the blackout would stop the mobilization and disrupt
the activists’ internal coordination, this move ended up having more of a positive
mobilizing effect than a disruptive one. This was for two main reasons. First,
the ‘kill switch’ shattered the consensus in favour of the regime and the passivity
of middle-class youth. Second, by excluding the possibility of a virtual distant
connection with the protest, it forced many sympathizers to turn into supporters of
the movement by physically joining the occupation in Tahrir Square. Reflecting on
the implications of these findings the article concludes by asserting that the role of
social media as a means of mobilization is highly complex and ambivalent, and
that it has to be understood in complementarity with, rather than in opposition to,
face-to-face interaction and street-level communication.
Arab spring, communication blackout , digital activism, protest mobilization, social media
Paolo Gerbaudo
King’s College London
24 25
YOUTUBE (2011b) Omar Afifi 14th Jana’ir Iyyid Horeyat Tunis wa 25 Jana’ir
Mowiyyidna [Omar Afifi 14 January gala for Tunisian freedom and 25 January,
our appointment]. YouTube. Available at:
watch?v=gdJQRz0BtU8 (accessed 3 August 2011).
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28 January. Available at:
(accessed 3 August 2011).
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ZEINOBIA (2010) Follow up: the other Khaled Said. 14 June. http://
Chronicles+%28Egyptian+chronicles%29 (accessed 3 August 2011).
Interview with Mohamed Abdel Aziz, Egypt Coordinator, Freedom House, Cairo, 19 June 2011.
Interview with Gamal Eid, Head of the Egyptian Association for Human Rights, Cairo, 20 June 2011.
Interview with Wael Ghonim, London, 31 January 2012.
Interview with Sherif Mansour, Senior Programme Officer, MENA region, Freedom House, Cairo,
19 June 2011.
Interview with Mahmoud Salem, London, 21 October 2011.
Interview with Jack Shenker, Egypt Correspondent, The Guardian, London, 27 July 2011.
Interview with Moheb Zaki, former lecturer American University in Cairo and Director of Ibn Khaldun
Center for Development Studies, Cairo, 20 June 2011.
PAOLO GERBAUDO: King’s College London
26 27
Paolo Gerbaudo
King’s College London
In revolutions as in many social phenomena there are ‘tipping points’ (Gladwell, 2000):
days or hours that, with the wisdom of hindsight, can be seen as decisive in steering
events one way or the other. In the case of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the tipping
point was undoubtedly 28 January. While protests began on 25 January, it was on
28 January that demonstrators won the battle with the security forces on the streets,
burned down the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) and
set ablaze tens of police stations all over the country. President Mubarak took another
15 days to resign from the post of president he had held for 30 years and which he
intended to bequeath to his son Gamal. Yet, from 28 January the fall of his regime
appeared irreversible. Through the events of that day Mubarak lost the support of a
sizeable number of Egyptians, and the repressive apparatus he directed lost control of
the streets. The arrival of army tanks in Cairo on the evening of 28 January graphically
manifested the fact that the regime was not capable of maintaining public order.
If 28 January 2011 makes for an interesting case study for students of social
movements and political science researchers, it is also a highly promising object
of analysis for those media scholars interested in the impact of social media on
contemporary activism. To these researchers 28 January presents a fundamental paradox
that invites us to question many of the assumptions underlying contemporary debates,
and in particular the idea that social media automatically have a mobilizing effect. In
fact, 28 January was the first of five days of almost complete electronic communication
blackout. But it was also a day that saw a huge escalation in the volume and energy of
the mobilization against the dictatorial regime headed by Hosni Mubarak.
In the early hours of 28 January the Mubarak regime decided to take the ultimate
step in order to disrupt the movement’s communications: it pulled the so-called ‘kill
switch’. The Egyptian internet was shut down with only one ISP (internet service
provider) left functioning – the one serving the stock exchange, as though it was vital
that finance at least should go on as normal. At the same time mobile networks also
stopped working, sending the country into a situation of total electronic communication
blackout. However, this extreme measure failed to achieve its ostensible aims. If
Mubarak wanted to limit the turnout of people in the streets by disorienting them and
scaring them away he seemed to obtain exactly the opposite outcome. On that day
a huge mass of people took to the streets. In Cairo alone, compared to the estimated
20,000 to 50,000 people who had taken to Tahrir on the 25 January, more than
200,000 people flooded central Cairo. Instead of being de-mobilizing as Mubarak’s
men had hoped, the kill switch was met by a surge in mobilization. But how was that
possible? It is an established fact that internet and social media constituted crucial
mobilizing devices to publicize the demonstrations of 25 January, and in motivating
people to join (Wilson and Dunn, 2011). So why did Mubarak’s communication
blackout not achieve its aims?
In this article I want to delve into the apparent paradox of 28 January, as a case
28 29
study to explore the general question of the role of social media and mobile media as
a means for social movement mobilization. Current debates have overly emphasized
the positive impact of social media as means for protest mobilization (see for example
Shirky, 2010, 2011). However, the events of 28 January suggest a more complex and
ambiguous picture for the impact of social media on protest mobilization. Analysing
15 interviews conducted with middle-class Egyptian activists (those with the highest
degree of internet connectivity and mobile phone ownership), I will argue that the kill
switch turned into a ‘suicide switch’, which ended up giving more energy to the protests
that took place on 28 January and on the following days than would have happened
otherwise. This paradoxical effect is down to two fundamental reasons that will be
discussed in two separate sections in the article:
First, the kill switch shattered the consensus in favour of Mubarak of young, media-
savvy middle classes, the so-called shabab-al-Facebook (Facebook youth) for whom
internet connectivity and the use of mobile phones had amounted to a fundamental
symbol of individual freedom. The move made the regime appear rash and
irresponsible, and widened the gulf between the state apparatus and the population
and, in particular, internet-connected young people, winning new converts to the pro-
democracy movement.
Second, the kill switch made it practically impossible for movement sympathizers to
maintain a mediated interpersonal connection with what was going in the streets and
to keep in contact with their friends and relatives. As a consequence, the kill switch
contributed into sending these passive sympathizers to the streets, thus increasing
protest turnout.
Having discussed the reasons why the kill switch proved a mobilizing factor in the
protests of 28 January, the article concludes by advancing some general remarks about the
ambiguous role of social media as a means of protest mobilization and its implications.
Social Media and Mobilization
The year 2011 has been a year of protest and ‘the year of the protester’ as celebrated
by Time magazine, which famously dedicated its ‘person of the year’ cover to the
people taking to the streets from Tahrir Square in Cairo to Zuccotti Park in New
York. In the vibrant and sometimes frenetic debate generated in the news media and
in academia by this momentous wave of global protests, the lion’s share has gone
to the discussion about the impact of social media like Twitter and Facebook. The
protest waves of 2011 were ‘Facebook revolutions’ or ‘Twitter revolutions’, pundits
and journalists readily suggested, pointing to the importance these media played in
organizing and publicizing the protests. These assertions often posit the existence of
a positive correlation between the use of social media, with their capacity to channel
information, and the volume and intensity of people’s participation in protests (see,
for example, Shirky, 2011). Yet, it is precisely this casual link that has proven the most
difficult to demonstrate.
Current debates about social media and activism are, like other debates about the
connection between new media and society, characterized by a cleavage between
techno-optimists and techno-pessimists. Among the former, particularly influential has
been the work of Manuel Castells on network with its depiction of contemporary society
as a ‘network society’ (1996). For Castells (2004), networks constitute the dominant
morphology of contemporary societies, whereby the availability of cheap micro-
electronics make such organizational forms more efficient than highly hierarchical
‘pyramids’ of the state, the military, bureaucracy and traditional corporations. While
Castells’ analysis has been mainly developed during the initial phase of the web
– the late 1990s and early 2000s – some of his theorizing is also relevant for an
understanding of the so-called Web 2.0 characterized by an emphasis on interactivity
and user-generated content. Castells has tried to capture the logic of current internet
communications with the notion of ‘self mass-communication’ (2009: 416) to express
the way in which individuals and small groups can broadcast their messages to
large audiences. For Castells, the advent of self mass-communication bears promises
of autonomy from bureaucratic structures and increasing possibilities of flexible
organizing. A similar line of thinking has been followed in recent years by social media
gurus such as Clay Shirky. For Shirky, social media are new tools that make group-
forming ‘ridiculously easy’. According to Shirky, ‘now that group-forming has gone
from hard to ridiculously easy, we are seeing an explosion of experiments with new
groups and new kinds of groups’ (2008: 54).
While theorists like Castells and social media gurus like Clay Shirky (2008, 2010) are
convinced that new media, and social media in particular, automatically have a positive
effect on organizing and mobilizing operations, other authors are less convinced that this is
the case. In recent years a number of theorists have warned of the risks involved in the use
of these forms of communication. The king of techno-pessimists is the Belarusian Evgenyi
Morozov who, in his book Net Delusion (2011), has taken aim at those authors who see
widely available connectivity and devices as somehow automatically sparking street protests.
He criticizes techno-optimistic visions that maintain that ‘technology empowers the people
who, oppressed by years of authoritarian rule, will inevitably rebel mobilizing themselves
through text messages, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever tool comes along each year’ (2011:
xii). For Morozov, new media breed narcissism and laziness, as encapsulated by his term
‘slacktivism’, that is activism for slackers. Moreover, through the internet and social media in
particular – Morozov points out – state security can gather precious information about activist
identities and doings that can be used to repress social movements. While the internet was
expected to help people advance the cause of democracy it has often turned out to be yet
another instrument in the hands of the repressive apparatus of the state.
30 31
If the problem with Castells’ and Shirky’s analysis of the current media landscape
is unbounded optimism, in the case of scholars like Morozov we are instead faced
with an excessive pessimism. Morozov and writers of similar persuasion, like the New
Yorker’s Malcom Gladwell (2010), are right to highlight the fact that the use of social
media in activism raises a number of risks. However these scholars are excessively
dismissive of the opportunities these forms of communication offer to activists. Instead
of sticking to a techno-optimistic or techno-pessimistic position it is imperative to adopt
a balanced view of the effect of social media on activism, considering how these forms
of communication are adopted within specific social movements, rather than assessing
their properties in the abstract.
We know from a number of authors (Bentivegna, 2006; Mosca, 2008) that the
effects of the internet on social and political mobilization are complex, and present
both opportunities and risks. This is to a great extent because, while internet-based
communication and mobile media provide us with new forms of connection with distant
others, they also take attention and time away from our physical surroundings (Ling
and Campbell, 2011. In his research on mobile media, Ling has for example noticed
how the mobile telephone ‘sets up a barrier between ourselves and our physical
situation’, and thus contributes to the creation of ‘virtual walled communities’ and
‘supports the development of cliques’ (2004: 190). As Marshall McLuhan noted, while
electronic communication extends our senses, it also numbs our perception (1964: 51)
and can thus entrap us into a ‘closed system’ of communication in which we can lose
contact with anything lying outside of it. This tension between connection and isolation
that underlies mediated communication is a crucial element that must be taken into
account in trying to understand the impact of social media on contemporary activism.
Besides the ambiguous role of new media in facilitating social connections while at
the same time isolating people from their surroundings, we also need to bear in mind
the complexity of the process of mobilization and the presence of different stages within
it. Trying to capture the working of mobilization in social movements Klandermans
usefully distinguishes between two types of mobilization, what he calls ‘consensus
mobilisation’ and ‘action mobilisation’ (1984: 584). Consensus mobilization: ‘is a
process through which a social movement tries to obtain support for its viewpoints.
It involves (a) a collective good, (b) a movement strategy, (c) confrontation with
opponents, (d) results achieved’ (1984: 586). In this context media are seen as key
since, in order to confront opponents a ‘“paper war” is waged to promote or to
discourage the mobilisation of consensus’ (1984: 586).
The case is altogether different for action mobilization. This ‘is the process by which
an organisation in a social movement calls up people to participate’ (1984: 585).
Unlike consensus mobilization, this process is seen as firmly rooted in local and face-to-
face interaction. Nonetheless, while Klandermans observes that action mobilization is
partly independent from consensus mobilization, he maintains that ‘action mobilisation
cannot do without consensus mobilisation’ (1984: 586). In a later essay, Klandermans
and Oegema (1987) see the process of mobilization as characterized by different
stages, from a ‘generalised preparedness’ to act in support of a certain cause, to a
‘specific preparedness’ to participate, ending with ‘actual participation’. Comparing
the two analytical schemes, one can see generalized and specific preparedness as
pertaining to the category of consensus mobilization, leaving actual participation to
cover what Klandermans in his previous essay calls ‘action mobilisation’.
Building on Klandermans’ model, the question to be asked when discussing the
influence of social media and of modern technologies of communication in general is
which of these different stages – ‘generalised preparedness’, ‘specific preparedness’,
‘actual participation’ – are we talking about when positing the existence of certain effects
of social media on patterns of participation. In other words, when people claim that social
media were key in sparking a specific social movement are they arguing that they were
important for preparing people ‘in general’ and ‘specifically’ for the mobilization? Or
that they had an effect in sending them to the streets, or both? The kill switch provides us
with something akin to a reverse case study, allowing us to assess this question and to see
whether the unavailability of social media on 28 January really constituted an obstacle
for mobilization as techno-optimistic accounts would lead us to believe.
Sending Egypt Back to the 1980s
On the night between 27 and 28 January 2011 the Egyptian government took an
unprecedented move, switching off all internet communications in the country. Just after
midnight, in a matter of minutes, all the major service providers of the country – Telecom
Egypt, Link, Etisalat and others – were shut down. To do this, the government exploited
the presence of a series of infrastructural bottlenecks in the Egyptian network and its own
ownership of the cables that carry most Egyptian electronic traffic. The technical details of
how the government performed this operation is still an object of debate among researchers
and engineers, and has also been the subject of a trial, in which Mubarak and other
personalities of the regime have been fined tens of millions of dollars in damages. Only
one ISP, Noor Data Networks, which served the Egyptian stock exchange, was unaffected
by the attack, in order to allow the Egyptian ‘Bursa’ to continue its operations. On top of
the internet blackout, in the morning of the same day mobile phones were also shut down
(Vodafone, Mobinil and Etisalat) in most areas of the country and, in particular, in urban
areas, virtually sending Egypt back to the 1980s, when the internet and mobile phone yet
had to make their appearance as mass consumer services.
The communication blackout unleashed by the government was in some ways
unprecedented. Governments of authoritarian countries like China and Iran are well
known for their careful censorship and monitoring of internet communications, for their
adoption of ways of filtering, and for the temporary or permanent blocking of specific
32 33
websites that they believe will affect national security. Yet never had a government
of a major country carried out such an all-encompassing electronic communications
shut-down for such an extensive period of time. While the reasons for the Mubarak
government’s actions were clear, the decision proved to be counter-productive. Having
been confronted with the rise of a social movement that had skilfully used the internet as
a mobilizing and coordinating platform, the regime had legitimate reasons to believe
that by shutting down electronic communications it would strike a fatal blow.
The action performed by Mubarak government was one aimed at neutralizing what
in military terms is called C4 (command, control, communications and computers)
capabilities. In the military field, in the time of the so-called ‘information society’,
destroying the enemy communication infrastructure has become one of the fundamental
priorities of fighting armies, as recently demonstrated in the 2003 war against Iraq,
and before then in the 1998 NATO strikes against Serbia. In both cases, the military
gave priority to targeting the enemy’s telecommunication system in the very first
phase of the attack in order to stop it from acting in a coordinated fashion. In the
social movement field communication has become of similar importance for ensuring
the coordination of collective action (see for example Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 2001)
and it is therefore unsurprising that state authorities attempted to target movement
communications. By severing the communicative links allowing the pro-democracy
movement to move coherently, as one body or, to use a metaphor often employed by
contemporary activists, as one swarm of bees (Hardt and Negri, 2004), the regime
hoped to deprive it of its capacity to act coherently. But as we will see in this article, this
did not turn out to be the case.
To contextualize the impact of the kill switch, it is important to bear in mind that
this action did not take activists completely by surprise. This was due to a number of
reasons. First, for all its shocking proportions, the action taken by the government
the night before 28 January was just the culmination of a strategy of communication
disruption that the regime had set in motion since the very first day of protest. On the
afternoon of 25 January, when protesters were in Tahrir Square for the first time, the
government shut down Facebook and Twitter for several hours. But activists quickly
reacted by using mirroring services, and the government decided to restore access to
both social media websites later that evening. Furthermore, some activists had made
contingency plans to counter the possibility of such an occurrence by collecting email
addresses of peers, or by setting demonstration meeting points well in advance on the
movement Facebook pages. For example, Ahmed Samih, director of a human rights
non-governmental organization (NGO) in Cairo, recounts he had ‘prepared an action
plan about what we were going to do when internet and mobile phones are cut off.
It was not a surprise that in one day they would cut the internet and mobile phones’
(interview with Ahmed Samih, Cairo, 17 July 2011). Thus, while the action taken by
Mubarak’s government caused much disruption, as testified by the accounts of many
of my interviewees, who struggled to get in contact with their friends and comrades,
people took measures to mitigate its impact.
Bearing this point in mind we can now move to assessing the impact of the kill
switch on mobilization and coordination operations within the Egyptian revolutionary
movement by looking at the testimonies of participants in the protest. The analysis
draws on interviews conducted in Cairo between June and August 2011 with 15
middle-class activists (refer to the Appendix for details about the nature of the sample).
The interviewees were recruited through snowball sampling and the interviews lasted
for around one hour. In the following two sections I use passages from these testimonies
to assess the impact of the kill switch, first on ‘consensus mobilization’ and second on
‘action mobilisation’ (Klandermans, 1984).
Alienating the Internet Youth
The use of the kill switch ordered by Mubarak government had a positive effect on
the mobilization, first and foremost because it alienated from the Mubarak regime the
so-called shabab-al-Facebook, the ‘Facebook youth’ or ‘internet youth’, thus acting as
a source of consensus mobilization for the pro-democracy movement. This Facebook
youth was a section of the population that the same regime had carefully tried to
accommodate in previous years and, in particular, under the premiership of Ahmed
Nazif. Nazif who was premier from 2004 to 2011, had previously been Minister of
Communication and had put much effort into improving internet connectivity and the
internet penetration rate during his time in power had increased from 9 percent to 24
percent of households (Wilson and Dunn, 2011). The minister himself vaunted his effort
as one aimed at opening spaces for democratic expression. For example, when heckled
by a group of 6 April activists at Cairo University, he replied that they ‘are the same
young people who used the Internet to express their opinions!’ (Shapiro, 2009).
The promises of political liberalization that Mubarak’s regime had made had been to a
great extent tied precisely to promises of media reform, as exemplified by the limited degree
of interference of the regime on the internet in Egypt (Hofheinz, 2005). Therefore when the
regime decided to curtail both internet and mobile phones in order to halt the surge of the
pro-democracy movement, this move quite understandably produced a reaction of disdain
from that same internet youth that Nazif had tried to win over. The decision of the government
to shut down the internet basically deprived a crucial sector of society of the medium of
communication with which it had identified its desire for modernity and economic and cultural
advancement, and which it used in its everyday life for both work and personal purposes. By
shutting down internet communications the government made many people who, up to that
point been in the ranks of the undecided, tilt towards ‘generalised’ and ‘specific preparedness’
to participate in the pro-democracy movement, to use Bert Klandermans’ (1984) categories.
34 35
The type of psychological mechanism triggered by the government’s action is well
explained by Noor Ayman Noor, the son of Ayman Noor, who stood against Mubarak
as a presidential candidate in 2005.
Over the last several years the former regime had gotten us so addicted
to our mobile phones, so addicted to our computers, and to the internet
and so many things … and suddenly we wake up one morning and
we have nothing. Many people, also those who were not planning on
going down, decided that they had to come down and join the others.
(interview, Cairo, 14 September 2011)
Young middle-class people felt humiliated to be deprived of one of the small rewards
the regime had given them to maintain their loyalty or at least to defuse their antagonism.
Furthermore, many perceived the government’s action as utterly irresponsible. ‘What if
there is an emergency and I cannot call an ambulance? What if there is someone dying
and I cannot get a doctor to come down?’ (interview with Mustafa, Cairo, 5 September
2011) were some of the questions going through many people’s minds. Finally,
understandably, the government’s action did not go down well with business and, in
particular, with telecommunications firms. The communication shut-down meant an almost
complete standstill for many enterprises in the country for several days. All in all, the
decision appeared as one taken in a rush, without any official explanation, making the
government look not only repressive but also incompetent. As a consequence the action
contributed to eroding the consensus in favour of the government while at the same time
winning new sympathizers to the pro-democracy movement.
The working of the process of conversion facilitated by the kill switch is illustrated
in the testimony of Nora Rafea, an activist based in Cairo. Nora recounts how the kill
switch made her cousin, who had previously criticized the revolutionary movement to
switch sides and join the protests:
My cousin was initially very sceptical of the revolution. Before the 28th
he really criticized us and wrote on his status: ‘Are you guys joking?
A revolution through Facebook? What the hell, there is no hope.’ And
then the moment they shut down the communications this person turned
180 degrees and said OK, this is too much, I am going to take to the
streets. It was a changing point for him. He found that action ridiculous
and he joined the streets. And in the morning I saw his wife and she told
me that he had gone to the demonstrations. And I couldn’t believe it.
(interview, Cairo, 18 July 2011)
For Nora’s cousin as for many other people the kill switch was the proverbial last
straw that broke the camel’s back. If discontent with Mubarak’s regime was widespread,
few people thought that things could change and that the regime could fall. The fact
that the government wanted to shut down social networks became evidence not only of
its ruthlessness but also of the fact that it was scared of the capacity of common people
to self-organize. The show of force made by the government in using the kill switch
paradoxically cast in a clear light its actual weakness. If it was so strong, why would it
feel was necessary to resort to such an extreme action?
The action taken by Mubarak’s government also created serious inconsistencies in
the official version circulated by the regime’s propaganda. Until 28 January, when
the demonstrations had become so widespread that it was impossible to conceal their
existence even for those living away from central metropolitan areas, state-owned
newspapers and television channels had continued to pretend that nothing serious was
happening on the Egyptian streets. On 26 January the governmental el-Ahram daily
newspaper had reported that the people who had gathered in Tahrir Square had done
so in order to congratulate the police forces. The day chosen for the first demonstration
was in fact ‘Police day’, a national holiday across Egypt, but it had been picked to
denounce police behaviour rather than to celebrate it. As Sally Zohney, a 27-year-old
activist points out the regime was in a state of ‘complete denial’. According to Mustafa
Shamaa a 20-year-old student of Nile University: ‘the action of the government made
people really angry. How come you are doing this? On state TV you are saying that
there is no protest and then you are switching off the internet and mobile phones?’
(interview, Cairo, 5 September 2011).
The kill switch made evident the moral bankruptcy and bad faith of the Mubarak’s
regime. It was a stark demonstration that the state-owned media were spreading
false propaganda and at the same time it revealed in the clearest way possible that
some of the claims of the demonstrators about the regime’s wickedness were true.
Thus the event contributed to the movement’s ‘consensus mobilisation’, attracting new
sympathizers to the protests, some of whom would immediately make the leap from
‘general preparedness to participate’ to ‘specific preparedness to participate’, to ‘actual
participation’ by taking to the streets the following day. Thus the action taken by the
government contributed to alienating a constituency that was crucial in maintaining
the balance of consensus in favour of the regime. This sudden shift in the balance of
consensus to which the kill switch contributed among several other factors, including
police repression, was decisive in facilitating the fall of Mubarak’s regime.
Sending People to the Streets
Whenever there is a demonstration it is always understood that the turnout of people
on the streets does not exhaust the total number of those in favour of a specific cause. In
36 37
social movements there always tend to be more sympathizers than actual participants,
and the passage from general ‘sympathy’ to actual participation is not automatic at
all. In fact, often sympathizers end up not participating, given the costs associated with
actual participation, including, in the case of revolutionary action, the risk of being
seriously wounded or killed (Oegema and Klandermans, 1994). To use a technical
terminology widely adopted among social movement theorists, only a section of the
‘mobilisation potential’ of a social movement is transformed into ‘actual mobilisation’.
The extent to which this transformation takes place depends on a number of factors,
including the degree of one’s connection to thick social networks of friends and
comrades, and one’s reception of media and movement messages.
At a time of 24-hour live news coverage, live tweeting, and video streaming,
sympathizers of a cause have a number of possibilities that can allow them to earn a
vicarious experience of participation without taking directly to the streets. In fact, some
of my interviewees who had not taken to the streets on 25 January – often because
their parents would not let them go – recounted how they spent the day glued to their
computer screen following events on the internet, while continuously ringing their
friends who were in Tahrir Square. This availability of information and of mediated
personal connections arguably does not automatically facilitate actual participation
as some techno-optimists seem to believe. In fact, it can also set the conditions for a
pure spectatorship of a movement’s action in a way that can hinder actual protest
turnout and thus prove counter-productive for social movements. This situation strongly
resonates with the idea of ‘slacktivism’ as used by Morozov (2011) to talk about a form
of online activism that is never transformed into physical participation in the streets.
The pulling of the kill switch by Mubarak’s government precluded the possibility
of that distant and personalized spectatorship of protest action. All the channels of
communication available in a normal situation were not working. Live reporting on
the internet was shut down and no contact with friends and relatives on the ground
was available. The only available source of information about events on the ground
was through television reports. But apart from Al-Jazeera, which was initially taken
by surprise by the unravelling of events, the kind of extremely biased pro-government
reporting offered on the national channels, was becoming less and less believable by
the hour. If one wanted to get an understanding of what was going on, one had to take
himself to the streets. Thus, on 28 January many people were drawn to the protests
out of sheer sympathy and ‘curiosity’ as Noor Ayman Noor suggests, saying ‘curiosity
kills the cat’. An example of this phenomenon is the story of Kamal, a 23-year-old
accountant who initially was very reluctant to join the protests: ‘but then I heard that
there were many people in the streets … and I decided that I had to join … that I had
to come down and see what was going on there’ (interview, Cairo, 2 August 2011).
Apart from curiosity, what led many people who did not intend to take to the streets in
the first place, was concern about their own friends and relatives. The kill switch made it
practically impossible to be reassured as to their safety and thus forced many who were
worried about the condition of their loved ones to take to the streets. Abdallah a 24-year-
old militant supporter of the football club Al-Ahly, for example, recounts:
Some of my friends they ran into the protests because the phone was off
and they couldn’t get in touch with their brothers and sisters. So they went
to the protests to look for them and they made the numbers increase. I
know a lot of people who did that. (interview, Cairo, 24 July 2011)
Similarly Marwa, a 33-year-old journalist, recounts how:
On the 28th many people participated because of what they saw and
heard about Facebook. But on the 28th they participated and I guess
a lot of people were there just because there was no telephone. Some
people went out on the streets to see what was happening, to look for
other people. (interview, Cairo, 24 July)
Because of the unavailability of mobile phones, for many, finding their own friends
in the protests proved to be an almost impossible task. Many of my interviewees
report having found their friends or relatives only in the midst of Tahrir Square. One
of my interviewees recounts of having looked for several days for his brother who was
also in the protests. The communication blackout thus meant that many of the people
who were in the streets ended up being by themselves for much of the time. But this
situation did not seem to bother people too much, since, as Mohammed, a student of
political science sums up, ‘we are all brothers, we are all Egyptians. You don’t know
the others by name, but in the square it was as though everybody knew Mustafa, knew
Mohammed, knew Ali. Everybody acted as though he knew everybody else.’ To make
up for the disruption of the forms of ‘microcoordination’ (Ling, 2004) offered by mobile
media and new media alike impossibility people ‘made do’ by supporting one another
in the square regardless of whether they knew each other.
For all the practical problems the communication blackout unleashed, it was
remarkable for me to find out how, for many people, the event proved to be an
exhilarating experience that made them aware of their over-reliance on communication
technologies. The shut-down of electronic communications was taken by many as a
chance to concentrate fully on what was going on in the protests, rather than being
constantly distracted by distant people and events. An example of this experience is
offered by Mustafa a student and activist at Nile University in Cairo:
38 39
Of course I wanted to know about other people, for example about
marches coming from Giza. I wanted to know what was going on and
I wanted to.… My dad and my mother wanted to call me and they
couldn’t. And my dad was supposed to arrive that night at 12. He
didn’t know that phones in Egypt were off. He kept calling and calling.
But I don’t think that having phones would have fastened [sic] things
up. This was the day that ended this battle. I don’t think it would have
made things faster. It would have been the same. (interview, Cairo, 5
September 2011)
Sally, similarly reflects how:
It felt weird at some point. I want to … oh I don’t have my phone! I
want to call people … oh! But then you just.… It is just bigger than the
person. The whole situation is just beyond, you feel protected. You don’t
need to call anyone. Even if at times I was alone and my father was
elsewhere I don’t need to call him. You trust the trust and the unity and
everything was beyond expectations. (interview, Cairo, 22 July 2011)
As Sally’s quote suggests, the absence of mobile phones and internet connections created
an immersive experience of protest, in which the fact of not being engaged in mediated
connections, liberated energy to dedicate to an immediate context of proximity, and in
which to regain a sense of locality. Some people drew from that day some lessons about
the importance of focusing on what you have at hand, rather than continuously worrying
about what happens elsewhere, as illustrated by the testimony of Mustafa:
When I am in the protest, sometimes people call me and tell me come
back … and this leads me to think what should I do? Should I continue
or should I leave? But since the phones were switched off I was just
doing one thing and I am concentrating on what I am doing and there
is no distraction I continue until the end … and sometimes when I go to
protest I turn my phone off … (interview, Cairo, 5 September 2011)
The kill switch facilitated the development of a thick face-to-face experience that
was crucial in sustaining collective action for several days in Tahrir Square and central
Cairo, in which it did not seem to matter too much to people that they did not have
internet connection or working mobile phones. If social media had been important in
launching the protests they did not seem to be necessary in order to sustain it.
In this article I have analysed the consequences of the communication blackout during
the Egyptian revolution. I have demonstrated how, counter to the assumptions of
techno-optimists like Castells (1996, 2009) and Shirky (2011), this extreme action did
not negatively impact protest participation. In fact, as we have seen, on 28 January
participation was much higher than on the previous days of protest. This paradoxical
result was the came about for two different but connected reasons. As we have seen in
the course of the empirical analysis proposed in this article, the kill switch worked as a
means of ‘consensus mobilisation’, alienating the middle classes from the government
and pushing them into the arms of the pro-democracy movement. Moreover, it worked
as a means of ‘action mobilisation’, pushing many people to take to the streets in order
to get in contact with their friends and relatives, or out of curiosity, to see what was
going on with their own eyes. Because of these two reasons, the kill switch turned out to
be a ‘suicide switch’: a move that strongly contributed to accelerating Mubarak’s fall.
Instead of disrupting the movement’s mobilization and coordination operations,
the kill switch contributed to convincing those who were still undecided to sympathize
with the movement, and in pushing passive sympathizers to actively join street
demonstrations. By taking this extreme measure, Mubarak’s regime escalated the
situation, which turned out to be to its own detriment. In fact, less than 24 hours after
pulling the kill switch the regime had been virtually defeated, and would from that
moment experience a slow collapse, culminating with Mubarak’s departure on 11
February. Authoritarian regimes like Iran and China that might in the near future be
confronted by a crisis similar to the one confronted by Mubarak will now think twice
before pulling their own kill switch.
Having now summed the argument of this article and the different claims involved,
it is important to make clear its limitations and implications. Saying that shutting down
communications had a positive effect on protest participation does not entail asserting
that social media have in general a negative effect or no positive effect on protest
participation. It has been widely documented that social media like Facebook and,
to a lesser extent, Twitter played an important role in the phase of preparation of the
protests in Egypt as in other countries (Wilson and Dunn, 2011). The paradoxical effect
of the kill switch on the level of participation needs to be understood in the context
of a movement that had already taken to the streets for three consecutive days and
had been preparing for a big day of protest eventually supported also by established
organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. Arguably, at that point in its trajectory of
mobilization, the revolutionary movement no longer needed to resort to the power
of electronic communication, given that its ecology of communication had shifted
drastically from the internet to the streets. As Osama Nooh, an activist of the 6 April
movement, one of the key organizations in the revolutionary movement, puts it, ‘Before
the 25th it was 80 percent Facebook, 20 percent face to face, after the 25th it was 80
percent face to face, 20 pecent Facebook’ (interview, Cairo, 13 January 2012).
The consequences of the kill switch are thus instructive regarding the ambiguous
and complex relationship between social media and activism. They highlight how, as
already suggested by Ling (2004), our mediated connections go hand in hand with
isolation from our physical surroundings, a phenomenon that can negatively impact
actual participation in street protests. While providing information about protest events,
services like Twitter and live streaming can also allow sympathizers to maintain the
position of passive spectator, without having to participate directly in street protests. The
sudden breaking of mediated connections, as took place on the night of 28 January,
while severing us from mechanisms of collective mobilization and coordination, also
pushed people to regain contact with their physical surroundings, thus possibly acting
as a mechanism facilitating protest participation.
Apart from considerations about issues of strategic effectiveness, it is also important
to remark here how the case study considered in this article highlights the great symbolic
power of social media, and their capacity to invoke an imaginary of participation. As
we have seen, in the course of the article, the kill switch particularly angered middle-class
youth who had seen in the internet a promise of political emancipation and individual
freedom. Young people felt betrayed by the Mubarak’s regime, which had used the
relative degree of internet freedom as a small ‘carrot’ to win their support during previous
years. By depriving young people of internet connections and mobile communication, the
government’s action contributed to eroding its support within a section of the population
whose acquiescence was crucial for maintaining its grip on power.
Finally, the paradoxical effects of the kill switch are testament of the fact that, despite
the increasingly important role played by modern communication technologies, protest
continues to be, to a great extent, an ‘immediate’ activity, that is, an activity in which
participants are deeply immersed in the surrounding physical environment and which is
heavily dependent on face-to-face communication. The move taken by the government
revealed the extent to which the thickness of face-to-face interactions in Egyptian
society (Bayat, 2009) can quite easily make up for the elimination of forms of electronic
‘microcoordination’ (Ling, 2004). It is telling that, according to the Tahrir media project,
the medium that was most important for mobilizing participants in the Egyptian revolution
was word of mouth, whose importance was scored as over 90 per cent compared to
40 per cent assigned to Facebook (Wilson and Dunn, 2011). If the government wanted
to stop participants from communicating it would have had to stop them talking to one
another face-to-face rather than posting messages on Facebook. While this might well
be the ultimate dream of authoritarian governments, they have yet to invent a kill switch
capable of shutting down not only internet communication but also people’s mouths.
Appendix: Interviewees
Name Surname Age City Group Profession
1 Hannah El-Sissi 25 Cairo Student
2 Marwa 32 Cairo / Journalist
3 Ahmed Samih 38 Cairo / Human rights activist
4 Noor Ayman Noor 25 Cairo / Musician and activist
5 Kamal 28 Cairo / Accountant
6 Mohammed ‘Mido’ 22 Cairo / Journalist
7 Nora Rafea 25 Cairo / NGO worker
8 Nora Shalaby 32 Cairo Socialist Archaeologist
9 Sally Zohney 27 Cairo / NGO worker
10 Mahmoud Al-Banna 42 Cairo Socialist Architecture student
11 Mustafa Shamaa 21 Cairo / Student
12 Ahmed Sabry 41 Cairo / Event organizer
13 Osama Nooh 42 Cairo 6 April Unemployed
14 Abdallah 26 Cairo El-Ahly supporter Accountant
15 Salma Hegab 36 Cairo / Fundraiser
42 43
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Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann.
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Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann.
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Tearing Us Apart. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
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York: Public Affairs.
MOSCA L (2008) A double-faced medium? The challenges and opportunities of
the internet for social movements. In: Hayhtio T and Rinne J (eds) Net Working/
Networking: Citizen Initiated Internet Politics. Tampere: Tampere University Press,
pp. 41–73.
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participate: erosion and nonconversion of support. American Sociological Review
59(5): 703–722.
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44 45
Mohamed Ben Moussa is a Postdoctoral Fellow at McGill University, Montreal,
Canada. He holds a PhD in Communication from Concordia University, Montreal,
Canada. He also received an MA in Communication Studies from the University of
Leeds, UK. His research interests focus on the implications of ICTs for social movements
and political advocacy, international and intercultural communication, online
journalism, and media and development. His work has appeared or is forthcoming
in Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, Arab Media and Society,
Canadian Journal of Communication and Stream: Culture and Technology, among
others. He can be reached at
This article discusses the limitations of existing theorization of
collective action in Arab countries, and highlights new directions for
the analysis of the role of social media in the Arab spring. Underscoring
the linkages between collective action repertoire, new communication technologies,
and the politics of ‘recognition’ and ‘distribution’ in the region, the article discusses
how new forms of political activism in the context of these countries can be better
interpreted from the vantage point of a multidisciplinary approach that draws
on several theoretical paradigms, mainly radical democracy theory, alternative
media theory and, above all, social movement theory. It is an approach that aims
at transcending technology-centered approaches, as well as cultural and social
determinism in relation to Muslim-majority societies. In so doing, the article proposes
various conceptual and analytical perspectives that can help future researchers deal
with the multiple intersections between collective action and social media in the
context of these countries.
agonistic public sphere, alternative media, Arab spring, internet, social media, social movements
Mohamed Ben Moussa
McGill University, Montreal, Canada
MOHAMED BEN MOUSSA: McGill University, Montreal, Canada
46 47
Mohamed Ben Moussa
McGill University, Montreal, Canada
On 10 February 2010, Wael Ghonim, a prominent figure of Egypt’s 25 January
movement, tweeted ‘mission accomplished. Thanks to all the brave young Egyptians.’
The message became viral, not only on the micro-blogging and other social media
platforms, but throughout mainstream media outlets. Western media reports were
all keen on highlighting Ghonim’s job as Google executive, and the pivotal role of
digital media, from the Google search engine to social media, in bringing about this
‘happy ending’ to the first ‘Twitter’ and ‘Facebook’ revolutions. Of course the mission
was far from accomplished; nearly one year after Mubarak was forced to step down,
Egyptian militants are still trying to keep the flame of the revolution alive and burning
by reoccupying Tahrir Square in Cairo in their pitched battles against the military junta
running the country. Criticizing the overzealous praise of the role of social media in the
Arab spring, Harvard professor Tarak Barkawi (2011) pointed out that these grotesque
claims smack of eurocentricism because they credit the revolutions to ‘western’
technology rather than to the peoples of Egypt and Tunisia:
‘To listen to the hype about social networking websites and the Egyptian
revolution, one would think it was Silicon Valley and not the Egyptian
people who overthrew Mubarak.’
But the media are not solely to blame for the shallow interpretations and inadequate
understanding of the role of new communication technologies in political activism in the
context of Muslim-majority societies. In academia, research and writing on the subject
remains scant and generally inadequately theorized. In fact, analysis of collective action
in the context of Muslim/Arab societies as a whole has been characterized by what
Wiktorowicz (2004) qualifies as theoretical isolation since the bulk of studies in the field
fail to draw on existing theoretical paradigms and limit themselves mainly to descriptive
analysis of ‘Muslim’ politics. Indeed, until recently, public opinion and public sphere in
the region have often been framed in terms of an ‘Arab street’, an epithet that connotes
‘passivity, unruliness, or propensity to easy manipulation’ (Eickelman and Anderson,
2003: 62). Moreover, existing literature on the use of information and communication
technologies (ICTs) and the internet in political advocacy within these societies have
overwhelmingly focused on fundamentalist or Islamic-oriented groups and discourses.
Addressing the above limitations, the aim of this article is to extend theoretical
horizons for the conceptualization of political activism in the Arab world, and to suggest
new directions for analyzing the role of social media in the Arab spring, in particular.
While making a case for grounding this analysis in social movement theory, the article
also points out the importance of using a multidisciplinary perspective that draws on
political science, alternative media theory and network theory. Accordingly, the article
starts by shedding light on the potential and limitations of current conceptualizations of
48 49
political communication in the Arab countries. It then discusses how new forms of political
activism in the context of these countries can be better interpreted from the vantage
point of new social movement theory, highlighting in the process the interrelationships
between collective action repertoire, new communication technologies and the politics of
‘recognition’ and ‘distribution’ in the region. In the last part, the article explores various
theoretical and analytical perspectives that can help future research deal with the multiple
ramifications and interconnections between social movements and collective action, on
the one hand, and social media, on the other, in the context of Arab countries, in general.
The ‘Arab Street’: The Politics of a Metaphor
The Arab spring’s revolutions may have ended a plethora of deeply rooted stereotypes
about Arab countries and Muslim-majority societies, in general, but they failed to put
an end to one influential notion that has great currency in mainstream media and some
corners of academia, namely ‘the Arab street’. Thus, one National Review Online
article has this to say about the Arab spring:
Let us recall that politically significant outpourings of large crowds were by
no means unheard of in the bad-old undemocratic Arab world. In January
1952, thousands of young Egyptian protesters marched on downtown
Cairo, sparking mayhem and fires reminiscent of the early Cairo protests
of 2011. This is why we speak of an ‘Arab Street.’ (Kurtz, 2011)
The Arab spring is, then, less about activists, political groups and people militating for
freedom and justice than about hordes and unruly mobs ‘sparking mayhem’, even if the
ultimate objective may be noble. Until recently, the term has been the common reference to
‘native’ forms of public opinion, or public sphere in the region. Regier and Khalidi (2009:
23) argue that the term sometimes denotes ‘Arab public opinion’, while at other times it
refers to images of ‘an angry potential mob, a posited subset of Arab society’. Concurring
with them, Bayat (2003: 226) points out that the term invokes ‘a reified and essentially
“abnormal” mindset’. Along much the same lines, Eickelman (2003) explains that the
‘use of the term “street”, rather than “public sphere” or “public”, imputes passivity, or a
propensity to easy manipulation, and implies a lack of formal or informal leadership’.
The term, in fact, adheres to a neo-orientalist stance, holding that Arab/Muslim
countries’ social and cultural structures are incompatible with liberal values and
democracy, a view that has often been used to explain why the majority of Muslim
countries are still undemocratic today (see, for instance, Harik, 2006; Stepan
and Robertson, 2003). These interpretations constitute a real obstacle to a proper
understanding not only of the recent political transformations in the region but also of
the role of new communication technologies in these changes. Luckily, however, the last
few years have witnessed a burgeoning academic interest in the issue of democratic
development and transition within the Arab world. According to Sadiki (2004: 3), ‘the
study of Arab democracy has recently come into vogue, moving from near occultation
to prominence’. The bulk of this literature has centered on the diffusion and use of
new communication technologies, mainly satellite television and, to a lesser extent, the
internet, and their implications for political and social change in the region. But despite
the rapid spread of internet usage over recent years,1 and the central role it now plays
in the political sphere, the medium remains conspicuously under-researched and largely
ignored by successive works in this field (see Seib, 2007; Zeiri and Murphy, 2011).
The Arab Public Sphere: Potential and Limitations
The literature on the use of the internet in Muslim-majority societies is clearly under-
theorized in the sense that only a very limited number of theoretical paradigms
available have hitherto been applied to this subfield. This is not limited to the study
of the internet but extends to political communication and political advocacy in the
context of Muslim-majority countries in general. As Wiktorowicz astutely remarks, ‘the
study of Islamic activism has, for the most part, remained isolated from the plethora
of theoretical and conceptual developments that have emerged from research on
social movements’ contentious politics’ (2004: 3). The concept of the ‘public sphere’
dominates much of the theorization of online political communication in the region.
This is not surprising given the centrality of this notion in communication studies.
Bentivegna (2006: 336) contends that any ‘study of the impact of ICTs on politics
cannot be undertaken without dwelling on the concept of the public sphere’. Without
a doubt, the concept provides a powerful framework linking communication to politics
and deliberative democracy. Central to this notion, discussion and deliberation between
citizens, either face-to-face or through a medium, constitute the cornerstone of modern
representative democracy.
Compared to the wide currency of this notion in the literature, surprisingly few
studies provide in-depth discussion thereof and exploration of the way it can be applied
to Arab/Muslim societies. A rare exception is el-Nawawy and Khamis’ (2009) study
of online Islamic discourse. The authors point out that Habermas’s original distinction
between the private and the public sphere reflects a eurocentric bias that does not
necessarily apply to the experience of Muslim-majority societies and to Islam as a
religion that questions any rigid division between the two realms (2009: 30–2). Apart
from this reservation, however, the authors adhere to Habermas’s interpretation,
arguing that the aim of their study is to explore the extent to which the ‘virtual Muslim’
public sphere facilitates ‘rational and critical’ thinking and discussion.
To elaborate, not only does the conceptualization of online political communication
in Arab countries fail to use the vast theoretical possibilities available in the literature,
50 51
but even the use of the notion of public sphere remains insufficiently problematized.
Indeed, one major criticism leveled at Habermas’s interpretation is that it does not make
room for understanding the public sphere as a communicative space built on premises
other than those of rational dialogue and deliberation. Various commentators have
argued that the deliberation model tends to ignore key issues of power imbalances and
exclusion in society (Fraser, 1992; Mouffe, 1999). Moreover, the criterion of ‘rational
dialogue’ is an unsuitable one by which to judge online communication. Holt, for
instance, suggests that online conversations are most often expressed ‘in the vulgar
register, with slang, abbreviations, and profanity, and their composers frequently
seem to delight in disregarding traditional “rules” such as those governing syntax,
conventional logic, evidence, and idea development’ (2004: 78).
Contrary to the deliberative model of democracy, the radical or agonistic perspective
views politics as intrinsically conflictual and non-consensual, and thus places difference
and contestation at the heart of the democratic system. The dominant ontology of
‘consensus’ within liberal democracy, according to Mouffe is bound to fail, because
‘consensus exists as a temporary result of a provisional hegemony, as a stabilization
of power, and … always entails some form of exclusion’ (1999: 756). Hence, building
democratic politics on consensus and reconciliation ‘is not only conceptually mistaken,
it is also fraught with political dangers’ (Mouffe, 2005: 2). For this reason, Mouffe
argues, politicians and theorists should instead aspire to creating ‘a vibrant “agonistic”
public sphere of contestation where different hegemonic political projects can be
confronted’ (2005: 3). This requires an approach that places the questions of power,
antagonism and adversarial relationships at its very center. The role of democracy,
however, is to turn antagonism into agonism:
While antagonism is a we/they relation in which the two sides are enemies
who do not share any common ground, agonism is a we/they relation
where the conflicting parties, although acknowledging that there is no
rational solution to their conflict, nevertheless recognize the legitimacy of
their opponents. They are adversaries, not enemies. (2005: 20)
Drawing on this model, various commentators have argued that the internet’s main
contribution to democracy is its promotion of agonistic politics (Atton, 2002; Carroll
and Hackett, 2006; Dahlberg and Siapera, 2007; Kahn and Kellner, 2005). As an
affordable, non-hierarchical and interactive communication medium, the internet
has allowed antagonistic politics to mushroom, as countless oppositional and often
persecuted groups and individuals have been able to voice dissenting opinions online.
But the internet also has the potential to link adversaries through webs of hyperlinks,
thus facilitating the development of agonistic politics. The agonistic potential of the
internet has been clearly demonstrated during the Arab spring, through the role
of various online platforms in fostering subaltern and oppositional politics, and,
simultaneously, in supporting linkages between different political groups. This notion is
also better suited to analyzing the type of discourse supported by social media, where
communication and interactions often expressed in soundbite format rarely rise to the
level of genuine deliberation and discussion.
Despite the importance of the notion of the public sphere, and the many venues
it opens for exploring various intersections between media, politics and citizens, it
still has several key limitations. First, the concept allows us to shed light on the role
of communication and media in politics; it does not allow us, however, to explain
the link between mediated political discourse, on the one hand, and direct forms of
contention and political transformation, on the other. While this link is often assumed
or taken for granted in the literature, it is rarely explained or theoretically grounded.
Stated differently, how can we conceptualize and analyze the role of media and
communication in online and offline collective action? How can we go beyond viewing
the internet, and social media in particular, as other, albeit sophisticated, ‘vehicles’ for
public sphere communication? How can we transcend the instrumentalist perspective on
the role of media inherent in the concept of the public sphere to explore much deeper
intersections between communication, material resources and organizational structures
on the one hand, and the ideational and symbolic dimensions of collective action on
the other? To explore these issues, social movement theory, applied concomitantly and
consecutively with other theoretical perspectives derived from political science and
media studies, can be used to highlight the multiple intersections between new forms of
communication technologies and platforms and collective action structures, strategies
and frames that have led to the ongoing Arab revolutions.
From the Public Sphere to Social Movements: A New Paradigm
The theorization of collective action as ‘social movements’ began in the 1960s with
the appearance of new forms of collective action and protest groups that were
unaligned with traditional civil society organizations, such as trade unions. Initially,
social movements were mainly associated with feminist, civil rights, anti-war groups
and student protest groups. In the decades that followed, many social movements
emerged, including human rights movements, gay and lesbian rights movements,
and environmentalist movements. Consensus over the definition of ‘social movement’,
however, is yet to be reached within the existing literature. As de la Piscina maintains,
‘the wide-ranging typologies of social movements that currently exist complicate the
ability to offer one definition that results in a consensus’ (2007: 65). Despite conceptual
multiplicities, Snow et al. (2004: 6) assert that it is possible to organize existing
definitions of social movements around five main axes: (1) ‘collective or joint action’; (2)
52 53
‘change-oriented goals or claims’; (3) an ‘extra- or non-institutional collective action’;
(4) a ‘degree of organization’; and (5) a ‘degree of temporal continuity’.
One common feature shared by the social movement theories is that they have been
articulated mostly to analyze forms of collective action that emerged in industrial and
postmodern societies. Thompson and Tapscott (2010: 2) point out that despite the
vast literature on social movements that extends over almost a century, ‘it remains a
truism that by far the bulk of the writing and theorizing in this field has been oriented
to the analysis of movements in the global North’. In the same vein, Shigetomi (2009:
6) holds that ‘few researchers take the context of developing countries seriously in
an attempt to identify the salient features of and approach to social movements’. The
scarcity of scholarly works on social movements in southern countries is even more
noticeable in the context of Muslim-majority societies. With the exception of a few
scattered studies that have appeared over recent years (Ben Moussa, 2011, 2012;
Sidi Hida, 2007; Wiktorowicz, 2004), surprisingly scholars have for the most part
shunned the application of social movement theory in studying collective action in
these countries.
Furthermore, scholars have called for the development of a comparative theoretical
paradigm that takes into consideration the particularities of social movements in
southern countries. Assessing the usefulness of social movement theories to the study
of collective action in Latin America, Escobar (1992: 63) has observed that within
developing countries, social movements have emerged largely ‘in response to the
failure of development’. Accordingly, social movements in these countries should be
placed ‘within a reinterpreted context of the crisis of development and modernity, [so]
it becomes impossible to see them only in economic or political terms’ (1992: 64). As
an alternative, and complementing the existing theoretical paradigm, Stekelenburg
and Klandermans (2009: 36) propose a multidisciplinary approach that highlights
the ‘interaction between structure and action’ that can ‘connect the micro level of
individual protesters with the meso level of social movements, and macro level of
national political systems and supranational processes’.
The Arab Spring through the Lens of Social Movement Theory
The emergence of oppositional social movements in the region is not a recent
occurrence. Contrary to some neo-orientalist claims, Muslim-majority/Arab countries
have never been bereft of civil society institutions and movements that are outside the
sphere of state authority and power (Eisenstadt, 2002). In modern times, an array
of social movements has marked the political sphere in many of these countries,
from trade union movements, nationalist and leftist ones, to Islamic/fundamentalist
movements. While these movements have had different degrees of success and impact
on Arab societies, the majority failed to survive either state repression or insufficient
support and access to resources. There are, however, numerous characteristics
that distinguish the recent social movements behind the Arab spring from those
that were active in the past. Unlike in past decades, where oppositional political
activism revolved around highly structured forms of collective action, mainly trade
unions, political parties and, increasingly during the last decade, non-governmental
organizations (NGOs), the ongoing revolutions are marked by the participation of
groups and individuals mobilized around very broad coalitions and networks that
escape rigid hierarchical structures and institutions.
These new trends in collective action can be related to socio-political and
technological transformations at the local and global levels. Givan et al. (2010)
argue that the diffusion of any social movement at a specific time can be linked to
two primary causes: behavioral and ideational. While ‘[t]he behavioural dimension
involves the diffusion of movement tactics or collective action repertoires’, the
ideational one includes ‘the spread of collective action frames that define issues, goals,
and targets’ (2010: 4). At the behavioral level, the diffusion of new communication
technologies, from satellite television, transnational TV channels and mobile telephony
to the internet and social media, have revolutionized social movements’ collective
action repertoires and permitted the development of new organizational structures
marked by translocal linkages, horizontal communication and highly flexible and
non-hierarchical configurations. The changes at the behavioral level have direct
implications for transformations at the ideational level in the sense that when ‘people
make collective claims, they innovate within limits set by the repertoire already
established for their place, time, and pair’ (Tilly and Tarrow, 2007: 16). Thus, the new
repertoires have facilitated the formation of collective action strategies and modes of
thinking favoring coordination, coalition and alliance building, and networking that
do not necessarily follow rigid ideological paradigms and organizational structures.
These new paradigms in collective action can be best conceptualized through new
social movement theory. Unlike classical social movements, new social movements
‘tend to lack clear organizational structures and internal bureaucracies, and effectively
function by coalescing political identities and agendas both nationally and globally’
(Thompson and Tapscott, 2010: 4).
If new social movement theory is to be used to interpret the Arab spring, however,
it must be recalibrated to the setting and realities of Arab societies. Indeed, new social
movements represent ‘a specific progression in civil society organization in the post-
industrial North’ (Thompson and Tapscott, 2010: 4). But while new social movements in
post-industrial societies mark ‘a shift from conflicts over material well-being to conflicts
over cultural fulfillment’ (Habermas, 2008: 193), conflicts in Arab countries and the
developing world are still deeply shaped by struggles for social and economic justice.
Nonetheless, these struggles have shifted from being predominantly class-related and
oriented towards economic justice to ones in which material and cultural fulfillments
are increasingly seen as intrinsically interconnected and fused, and in which the
achievement of one does not occur without the attainment of the other. In other words,
new social movements in the Arab world can be best seen through Fraser’s (1995)
distinction between politics of ‘recognition’ and ‘redistribution’, whereby she questions
the reductive attribution of injustice to either cultural or economic causes alone.
So far, the majority of commentary and reports on the Arab spring have interpreted
the latter as revolutions against tyranny, corruption and social injustice. What is
absent from this analysis is the role of identity politics in sowing the seeds of revolt and
building the momentum for the continuing popular uprisings in the region. In fact, the
Arab spring is equally about various expressions of collective identities that have been
suppressed under nationalist, religious, ethnic and patriarchal ideologies and cultural
trends for decades, and even centuries. This regime could not persist in the age of
globalization and network society. As sociologist Manuel Castells (2004: 2) explains:
along with the technological revolution, the transformation of capitalism,
and the demise of statism, we have experienced, in the past twenty-five
years, the widespread surge of powerful expressions of collective identity
that challenge globalization and cosmopolitanism on behalf cultural
singularity and people’s control over their lives and environment. These
expressions are multiple, highly diversified, following the contours of
each culture, and of historical sources of formation of each identity.
As one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse regions on the globe, the Arab
world has been deeply affected by these transformations. In the last two decades, we
have seen an intensification of identity-based collective actions and claims, some of
which have turned violent, while others have been awaiting the right time to go public.
Since the beginning of the Arab spring in December, many of these movements have
gained momentum, from the Islamic-oriented movements and the Amazigh movement
in North Africa, to minority movements2 in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, Syria
and Lebanon, among many others. In addition to these traditional identity movements
specific to the region, there are others that are equally rooted in local and global
cultural trends, namely the feminist and youth movements. The most prominent and
influential of these new movements in recent decades are, of course, the Islamic-
oriented movements, a perfect embodiment of the close interconnection between
the politics of recognition and redistribution. Sociologist Manuel Castells points out
that ‘the explosion of Islamic movements seems to be related to both the disruption
of traditional societies, and to the failure of the nation-state, created by nationalist
movements, to accomplish modernization’ (2004: 17).
Another new social movement that has played a prominent part in the Arab spring is
the ‘youth movement’. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to claim that the Arab spring is
the young people’s spring. Young people constitute the backbone of the movements that
overthrew Ben Ali’s, Mubarak’s and Gaddafi’s regimes, and form the vanguards of those
that are now threatening other autocratic regimes in other countries. It was the act of a
26-year-old Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set fire to himself, that ignited the uprising
in Tunisia. In Egypt, the majority of the prominent figures and symbols of the 25 January
uprising are young. In Yemen, the journalist and Nobel Prize winner Tawakol Kerman
became a symbol, not only of the country’s peaceful revolution, but of all young Arab
women who ‘have been and often remain at the forefront of those protests’ (Cole and
Cole, 2011), struggling for democracy as well as for gender equality.
Youth movements in Arab countries are not necessarily represented by structured
NGOs or institutions, nor do they form homogeneous groups; they are social
movements in the sense of ‘a set of opinions and beliefs in a population representing
preferences for changing some elements of the social structure or reward distribution, or
both’ (Zald and McCarthy, 1987: 20). Broad coalitions, such as the 6 April movement
in Egypt and 20 February movement in Morocco, may provide some loose structures
for these movements. By and large, however, youth movements are characterized by a
high level of cross-membership and fluidity of structures insofar as many of the people
who belong to them are members of various existing NGOs and political parties that
do not necessarily subscribe to the same ideologies. In many cases, young people and
youth sections inside political groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and
the Socialist Union of Popular Forces party in Morocco, defied their senior leaders to
join the protests in the streets. Moreover, while the youth movements are marked by
an intense level of ideological diversity, young people still share common beliefs and
opinions rooted in demography, world vision and everyday life experience.
There is more than just economic dispossession behind the younger generation’s deep
resentment of existing regimes and systems, however. In most Arab countries where
revolutions took place, mobilization and protests were led by highly educated, middle-class
young people who were not necessarily suffering from the hardships of unemployment
and social marginalization. The youth movement in the region is, in fact, an outcome of
the confluence between identity politics through which young people are trying to make
their voice heard, and distribution politics, as they seek a better life commensurate with
their education and aspirations. As such, young people are as much rebelling against
unemployment, tyranny and corruption as they are against political, social and cultural
conservatism and stagnation, as well as older generations’ and elites’ preference for the
status quo and compromise.3 Indeed, ‘there are also deeper cultural factors at play in a
region where respect for elders is a sacrosanct value and where young people feel their
ideas, their creativity, their energy is stifled’ (Shenker et al., 2011).
56 57
The contribution of communication technologies to this process is not insignificant.
Young people constitute the majority of internet users in these countries, which has
deepened generational divides (Ben Moussa, 2012). The internet and social media,
in particular, have allowed young people to become exposed to global cultural flows
and, more importantly, to express themselves in unprecedented and creative ways
that reconstructed collective and individual identities and questioned rigid dogmas,
interpretations and discourses. Such creativity has been given a full public display during
the ongoing uprisings as reflected in the slogans, music, actions, arts, body language and
clothes in the streets of Cairo, Tunis, Sanaa and Casablanca during the last year.
The role of new media and the internet in paving the way for the Arab spring is
typical of new social movements’ formation, where the potential for the production of
action becomes increasingly contingent on ‘the ability to produce information’ (Melucci,
2008: 219). According to Melucci (1994: 101), conflicts now ‘tend to arise in those
areas of the system that are most directly involved in the production of information
and communicative resources but at the same time subjected to intense pressure
of integration’. In the context of Arab countries, new communication technologies
have allowed various segments of society not only to access free and uncensored
information, but also and more importantly to compete in the production of information,
narratives and frames that are recreating collective identities and the meanings of
personhood and citizenship. In so doing, they are also reshaping power relationships
between gender, ethnic and religious groups and generations. This process is most
likely to intensify in the coming months and years, and the need to understand and
analyze it as a social and political and cultural phenomenon is more urgent than ever,
and this is an endeavor to which social movement theory can immensely contribute.
The Arab Spring and the Role of Social Media
The Arab spring has clearly signalled a major shift in collective action within Arab
countries. The key question that remains to be investigated is the extent to which the
internet and social media, in particular, have generated this shift. There is no doubt that
the profound transformations in collective action in the region are intrinsically linked
to the fast and ubiquitous diffusion of information and communication technologies
(ICTs) in these countries during the last two decades. The impact of technological
innovations on social movements and collective action in general is well discussed in the
literature (Castells, 2001, 2004; Downey and Fenton, 2003). Garrett identifies within
the literature three types of ‘mechanisms’ linking the technology to social movements,
namely ‘reduction of participation costs, promotion of collective identity, and creation of
community’ (2006: 204). Similarly, Stein (2009: 757) summarizes existing literature on
the subject and points out the internet’s six functions for social movements: (a) providing
information; (b) assisting action and mobilization; (c) promoting interaction and
dialogue; (d) making lateral linkages; (e) serving as an outlet for creative expression;
and (f) promoting fundraising and resource generation.
These functions, however, do not provide enough theoretical insights into the link
between social media and social movements. They should, therefore, be further
grounded in social movement theory. Resource mobilization theory, for instance, pays
greater attention to institutional and organizational factors within collective action.
Resource mobilization theory theorists consider grievances as one such factor and
place more emphasis on the conditions under which grievances are translated into
action, and the resources and external support that are needed to sustain such action
(Zald and McCarthy, 1987: 16). The existence of particular injustices and grievances is
not enough to explain the development of social movements; in fact, ‘control over actual
and potential resources is a more important determinant of the emergence as well as
the likely success of collective action’ (Buechler, 1993: 221). Thus, a key question that
needs to be answered from the perspective of this theory is the extent to which social
media have enhanced the capabilities of social movements and allowed them to master
enough resources to lead successful campaigns against repressive regimes. Contrary
to the much celebrated virtues of social media, the post-Mubarak clashes between
protesters and the army in Egypt, and the poor results achieved by secular political
parties in the elections have demonstrated that social movements can only achieve
long-lasting impact by mastering various types of resources, an objective that only
Islamic-oriented movements have been able to achieve in an effective manner so far.
The use of social media in the political sphere in the region does not date back
only as far as last year, however. ‘Social media’ is a generic term that comprises a
large number of technologies and platforms sharing some key characteristics, mainly
allowing users to connect with others and share with them a variety of data, including
their connections online. While Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are among the platforms
that were used most during the Arab spring, many others pre-date them and are still
widely used by activists, including blogs, email-lists, forums and instant messaging
platforms. These technologies and platforms have, in fact, played a critical role in
expanding the limits of agonistic public spheres and collective action repertoires over
the last decade. In Egypt, for instance, where the use of the internet in political activism
has developed faster than in any other Arab country, there is a genealogy of online
activism that has contributed to the success of the 25 January revolution. A case in
point is the Egyptian Movement for Change commonly known as Kifaya, launched in
2005, that paved the way for the emergence of the 6 April movement that spearheaded
the revolution against Mubarak regime. Oweidat et al. (2008) succinctly point out that
it is possible to attribute the relative success of Kifaya movement to two main factors:
one is its ability to unite diverse political groups under its banners; second, its efficient
use of ICTs, particularly mobile SMS and the blogosphere (Oweidat et al., 2008).
58 59
Thus case studies and longitudinal approaches are necessary to examine not only the
development of social movements, but also the contribution of various social media
platforms and technologies to the eruption of the Arab spring.
In fact, in the domain of democratic media and political activism, media are
rarely used as single platforms. Indeed, notwithstanding the importance of their role,
social media are not stand-alone tools in the Arab spring; rather, they have only
been effective because they operated in synergy and complementarity with a huge
array of media, from placards, leaflets and graffiti to digital cameras and 3G mobile
phones. Thus, even when the internet service in Egypt and Tunisia was completely
shut down or severely curtailed, the revolutions continued as people resorted to other
more conventional media, as well as to offline societal networks and interpersonal
communication. Moreover, state surveillance of social media platforms compelled
activists to use alternative media and tools of communication. During the Egyptian
uprising, for instance, activists resorted to distributing leaflets asking ‘recipients to
redistribute it by email and photocopy, but not to use social media such as Facebook
and Twitter, which are being monitored by the security forces’ (Black, 2011). In addition
to small digital media, print media and interpersonal communication, mainstream
media, mainly satellite television, such as Al-Jazeera, played a critical role in the
success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Al-Jazeera’s 24-hour coverage of
Tahrir Square in Egypt broke through the media blackout imposed by Mubarak’s
regime, and perhaps enabled the revolution to escape brutal repression by the army.
As such, an important issue that needs to be investigated at this level is the multiple
configurations of media convergence and complementarity, and the position of social
media within them. Are social media replacing older media and platforms, or are they
merely redefining their role and contribution to the media ecosystem as a whole?
Grasping the full complexity of the implications of the internet and social media for
new social movements in the Arab world, however, requires researchers to move beyond
the study of users and their immediate practices to include the study of national, regional
and global contexts and structures shaping this use. In fact, the link between technology
and social change is neither automatic nor linear. For this purpose, social movement
theory, particularly political process theory can shed light on the interconnections between
social media diffusion and appropriation, on the one hand, and the political and social
conditions under which these media can contribute to social and political change. The
theory of ‘political process’ designates ‘the degree of openness or closure of a political
system in a way that might facilitate or discourage the rise of social movements’ (Ruggiero
and Montagna, 2008: 139 ). Instead of focusing on the role of organizational resources
in generating collective action, the political process model stresses the historical context
and political environment that can either empower social movements to or hinder them
from ‘getting access to established polity’ (Diani, 2000a: 158).
Thanks to this perspective, the focus can move away from investigating the
technology-centered question of how social media generated the Arab spring to
probing the political and social contexts and conditions, both at the local and global
levels, under which successive technology innovations have contributed to political
and social change. Unlike in the context of northern countries, where research focuses
on the political structure at the national level, social movement theory analysis in the
context of developing countries needs to adopt multidisciplinary perspectives that
account for various processes, including economic, social and cultural disparities and
divides, in addition to technological divides. Thus, issues of media censorship, media
ownership, access to hardware and networks, problems of software and language,
costs and skill of usage, and gender divides should be investigated to see how they
shape the role and use of social media in Arab countries. Commentators, for instance,
have noted that digital divides and sustainability are two major issues shaping the
use of the internet and informatics systems in developing countries (Merkel, 2005).
Accordingly, an important part of understanding the role of social media in the Arab
spring is to explore their impact on various forms of divides and variables shaping
diffusion of ICTs in the context Arab societies in general.
A multidisciplinary approach is also needed to examine a fundamental dimension
shared by social media and the internet on the one hand and social movements on the
other, namely networking. According to Castells, the internet:
fits with the basic features of the kind of social movements emerging in
the Information Age.… The Internet is not simply a technology: it is a
communication media, and it is the material infrastructure of a given
organizational form: the network. (2001: 135–6)
The parallelism between the two stems from the fact that both the internet and social
movements can be described as ‘networks of networks’, where rapport between
nodes/members is built on non-hierarchical, non-linear and highly flexible structures.
According to the latter view, social movements can be defined as ‘networks of
informal relationships between a multiplicity of individuals and organizations, who
share a distinctive collective identity, and mobilize resources on conflictual issues’
(Diani, 2000b: 387). Combining social movement theory and network analysis is
thus essential to shed much needed light on how social media affect, transform and
support networks that are primordial to the development of social movements and
collective action. One of the merits of such an analysis is that it can account for socio-
political and structural factors shaping collective action, while underscoring human
agency by identifying the location and contribution of each individual within online
and offline networks and relationships.
60 61
Social Media as Alternative Media
It is impossible to study the linkages between social movements and social media
without looking into ‘alternative media’ scholarship (Atton, 2001, 2004; Carroll
and Hackett, 2006; Couldry and Curran, 2003; Downey and Fenton, 2003;
Downing, 2001). Alternative media are often defined by comparing them with and
contrasting them to mainstream media and to what the latter stand for. The emphasis
on the form of organization and process of work rather than just on the content is a
widespread argument among critics of mass media who contend that mainstream
media are undemocratically organized and at the same time they are predominantly
commercialized. One of the first critics in this field was Raymond Williams who
argued that communication is ‘the means by which social relations are constituted
and practiced’, and therefore, the alternative media ‘must also enable alternative
communication, which together make possible the articulation of a social order different
from and often opposed to the dominant’ (quoted in Hamilton, 2000: 362). It serves no
purpose to change just the content of the message as Baudrillard contends (1981); if an
alternative communication is to be established, the receiver/reader must be empowered
to escape ‘the trap of controlled communication’ (1981: 183).
Accordingly to be able to promote democracy and social justice in society, media
must embrace a different form of organization. Carroll and Hackett (2006: 84)
formulate this idea clearly by differentiating between two distinct but related concepts,
namely that of ‘the democratization of the media’ and that of ‘democratization through
the media’. While the first demarcates a field in which media activists try to promote
different or ‘alternative’ forms of organizing media, the second is not limited to the
latter but can also be the aim of governments and civil society bodies and institutions
that try to promote democracy within society.
Commentators have equally observed that social movements make strategic use
of mainstream media in their action ‘to broaden the scope of conflict’ (Gamson and
Wolsfeld, 1993: 116). However, because of the asymmetrical relationship between
mainstream media and social movements, social movements have to use alternative
communication strategies and tools to bypass mainstream media, in order to support
their struggles and communicate with actual and potential constituents. Scholars have
argued that alternative media involve more than just bypassing mainstream media.
Hamilton, for instance, maintains that if communication is ‘the means by which
social relations are constituted and practiced’, alternative media ‘must also enable
alternative communication, which … make[s] possible the articulation of a social
order different from and often opposed to the dominant [one]’ (2000: 362). In the
same vein, Carroll and Hackett (2006) point out that the use of alternative media by
progressive and oppositional social movements involves two key processes. On the one
hand, these movements use alternative media to achieve various objectives in domains
outside the mainstream media sector. On the other, they endeavor to democratize
the media themselves by implementing and incorporating non-commercialized and
non-professionalized communication practices and structures that challenge those of
mainstream media.
The role of mainstream and state media in supporting and perpetuating autocratic
regimes throughout the Arab world has been much discussed in scholarly studies
and media reports. That is why when the Arab spring broke out, symbols of state-
controlled or - funded media, such as the Maspero building in Egypt, hosting state
radio and television, were among the main targets of militants and activists because
they were always considered among the most visible tools of oppression. But building a
democratic media system requires more than dismantling state propaganda apparatus
and ensuring the independence of media outlets and their functioning. For social
movements, the main guarantee for such a system to flourish is the use of alternative
media capable of fostering democratic communication and culture, and resisting the
infringements of the state and capital. As such, studies of the role of social media in
Arab spring should definitely aim to explore not only how they were used to achieve
social movements’ objectives in political change, but also the extent to which they are
contributing to constructing more participatory and democratic communication. A
main issue in this subfield of enquiry is to examine the use of social media to promote
dialogical discourse and a multiplicity of voices through full interactive communication
that forms the basis of an agonistic public sphere and pluralistic democracy. For
McMillan (2006: 213), full interactivity only happens when there is a ‘mutual dialogue’
which is not only ‘responsive’ but ‘also gives more egalitarian control to all participants
so that sender and receiver roles become indistinguishable’.
Alternative media theory can also shed light on new forms of collective action where
the bulk of activism involves online groups and communities that do not necessarily
have offline structures and presence. Prior to the eruption of street protests and
popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, for instance, social media, mainly Facebook,
were the main arena of political dissent and mobilization. Facebook pages, such
as the one launched by Wael Ghonim to protest against the torture and killing of
activist Khaled Said, amassed tens of thousands of members located in Egypt and
the diaspora, thus forming an online community that extends over geographical and
political borders. One useful interpretation of this phenomenon is provided by Carroll
and Hackett (2006), who propose analyzing media activism through the lens of new
social movement theory. They argue that democratic media activism, in general, shares
with new social movements a number of features, since the latter ‘[contest] not only
the “codes” of communication but the entire complex of social relations and practices
through which the codes are produced and disseminated’ (2006: 95). Consequently,
democratic media activism can itself be portrayed as ‘an archetypically new social
movement: a reflexive form of activism that treats communication as simultaneously
means and end of struggle’ (2006: 96).
To sum up, while the notion of the ‘Arab street’ dominated scholarly and non-scholarly
writings on collective action in the context of Arab countries for a long time, recent
scholarly works have widely adopted Habermas’s concept of the public sphere to
analyze political activism and the implications of new communication technologies
for it. Existing literature, however, is marked by numerous lacunas, chief among them
an insufficient number of studies in the field, their overly descriptive aspect, and the
excessive focus on religion-oriented political groups and discourses.
To address these shortcomings, and in order to better conceptualize and analyze
the role of social media in the Arab spring, multidisciplinary theoretical perspectives
built around social movement theory are a very strong alternative. First, interpreting
collective action in Arab countries through the lens of social movement theory can better
shed light on the social, cultural and political rootedness of political advocacy and
activism. It can also link collective action to local and global transformations marked by
heightened transnational interconnections, as well intersections between recognition,
or identity politics, on the one hand, and redistribution, or social and economic
justice politics, on the other. Second, the social embeddedness of new communication
technologies, particularly social media, and their use necessitate moving away from
a mainly instrumentalist interpretation of these media to one that explores complex
linkages between technology, collective action, and their local and translocal settings.
In this sense, social movement theory provides a better approach through which to
theorize and analyze the link between political groups’ organizational structure, access
to resources and framing strategies in relation to technological innovation and the
adoption of social media. Such an analysis can be further supported through other
theoretical paradigms, such as alternative media theory and network theory.
Scholars interested in studying collective action and the role of social media in the Arab
spring, whether from the perspective of communication studies, sociology or political
science, have a huge gap to fill, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Not only is there
a need for many more studies dealing with the implications of new media technologies
in political and social transformations in the region, but, perhaps more importantly,
such research has to try to end the conceptual isolation characterizing this sub-area by
engaging with vast theoretical paradigms that have developed in social sciences and
humanities. The importance of this task transcends the mere need to analyze current
political events in the Middle East and North Africa. Fulfilling this task will undoubtedly
contribute to deconstructing centuries-old hegemonic representations of Muslim-majority
societies and countries.
Arabic is the fastest growing language on the
web, for instance (
In the case of Bahrain, and Iraq, the Shi’a
movements represent the majority.
For a detailed discussion on the origins of the
youth movement and culture in the Arab world,
see Herrera and Bayat (2010).
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Marc Owen Jones began his PhD at the University of Durham in 2011 after
securing a studentship from the North East Doctoral Training Centre. He worked briefly
as a graduate research assistant at Leicester University following the completion of an
MSc in Arab World Studies from Durham University in 2010. This two-year MSc was
funded by the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World and involved a year of
intense Arabic tuition at both the Universities of Edinburgh and Damascus. He received
his BA in Journalism, Film and Broadcasting from Cardiff University in 2006 before
spending a year in Sudan teaching English. He tweets and blogs regularly on Bahrain
and his research interests include critical security surveillance, cultural geography,
public space, social justice, systemic control, policing and social media.
This is a study of how the Bahraini regime and its supporters utilized
Facebook, Twitter and other social media as a tool of surveillance
and social control during the Bahrain uprising. Using a virtual ethnography
conducted between February 2011 and December 2011, it establishes a typology
of methods that describe how hegemonic forces and institutions employed social
media to suppress both online and offline dissent. These methods are trolling,
naming and shaming, offline factors, intelligence gathering and passive observation.
It also discusses how these methods of control limit the ability of activists to use
online places as spaces of representation and anti-hegemonic identity formation.
While there is considerable research on the positive role social media plays in
activism, this article addresses the relative paucity of literature on how hegemonic
forces use social media to resist political change.
Bahrain, Facebook, social control, social media, surveillance, Twitter
Marc Owen Jones
University of Durham
MARC OWEN JONES: University of Durham
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70 71
Marc Owen Jones
University of Durham
On 14 February 2011 thousands of pro-democracy activists took to the streets of Bahrain
to demand political and social reform. While such unrest is not new, the sheer scale was
unprecedented, as was the brutality of the crackdown, which as of 16 April 2012 has
resulted in the death of up to 76 people (Bahrain Centre for Human Rights – BCHR, 2011)
and the incarceration of an estimated 2929 (Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry
Report – BICI, 2011: 409). Despite initial support for the pro-democracy activists among
both Sunni and Shia (Ulrichsen, 2011), the resulting crackdown has led to the increased
polarization of Bahraini society. This is now primarily articulated along a pro-government
versus anti-government divide, and the question ‘Are you pro- or anti-government?’ has
become both a conversation starter and, inevitably, a conversation stopper.
Irrespective of political stance, both government supporters and activists alike turned
to social media and the internet to follow unfolding events. The number of Twitter users
in Bahrain shot up (Al-Wasat, 2011), and dozens of Facebook groups materialized, the
majority of which were posting updates, information, photos and events related to the
revolution. Indeed, media coverage of the Arab spring tended to popularize the social media
aspect of the struggle, with many news outlets focusing on the role of Twitter and Facebook
in the revolutions. Much of their discourse subscribed to the ‘technological utopian’ position,
which views social media and the internet as a positive force that democratizes information,
reinvigorates citizens’ political engagement, encourages freedom of expression and brings
people together (Castells, 1996; Grossman, 1995; Rheingold, 1993; Saco, 2002).
Others were somewhat cynical, arguing that social media were merely a tool, and not
necessarily integral to the efficacy of the revolutions as whole. Few, however, fully assumed
the ‘technological dystopian’ or ‘Neo-Luddite’ position, which posits that technological
developments such as the internet simply serve to ‘confound the problems of space,
access and interaction by alienating people from each other and even themselves’ (Saco,
2002: xv). In addition to fears that technology may actually work against integration, the
dystopian position describes the fear that Web 2.0 technologies may be used to as part of
the ‘informational-control continuum’, and thus shape media content through ‘propaganda,
psychological operations, information intervention, and strategic public diplomacy’ (Bakir,
2010: 8). The dystopian potential of technology has recently been examined by Evgeny
Morozov (2011), who highlights the failure of cyber-utopians to predict how authoritarian
regimes would use the internet as a tool for propaganda, surveillance and censorship.
The internet cannot be reduced to a simple dystopian versus utopian binary,
however. Instead, one must acknowledge that it can work simultaneously as a tool of
both empowerment and control – depending on who is using it and what objectives
they are seeking to achieve. As Rebecca MacKinnon (2012: 27) states:
People, governments, companies, and all kinds of groups are using the
Internet to achieve all kinds of ends, including political ones.… Pitched
battles are currently under way over not only who controls its [the
internet’s] future, but also over its very nature, which in turn will determine
whom it most empowers in the long run – and who will be shut out.
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Examining the nature of these ‘pitched battles’ on a case-by-case basis is a useful
endeavour, as temporal and contextual factors influence the manner in which the
internet and social media are used. This statement is not an implicit rejection of
technological determinism, but rather an acknowledgement of the importance of social
constructivism, which is important in examining the influence of power relations and
socio-historic factors in influencing internet use (Franklin, 2004).
In this respect, regional case studies can help us determine the uses and outcomes of
social media in specific cultural and political environments. How social media is used in
Bahrain might differ markedly from how it is used in Egypt for example.
Given that the uprising in Bahrain has not succeeded in achieving regime change, it
makes sense to focus on how hegemonic1 forces have utilized social media to subjugate
both dissent and dissenters in the months following 14 February. This article therefore
focuses more on the dystopian potential of technology, and looks at how social media,
and in particular Twitter and Facebook, have assisted the Bahraini government,
hegemonic institutions and those representing the hegemonic order in maintaining
their position of dominance. In particular, it examines how hegemonic forces use social
media for the purposes of surveillance, censorship and propaganda. The results are
arranged according to the following typology: trolling, naming and shaming, offline
factors, intelligence gathering and passive observation.
This article concludes by discussing how attempts to marginalize dissent in cyberspace
mirror similar processes in urban space, which are aiming to render public spaces in
Bahrain ahistorical, safe and generic. These processes, which range from the destruction
of Shia mosques to the demolition of the Pearl Roundabout, all represent attempts to limit
the ability of ‘resistance identities’ to flourish through the evisceration of both symbols
and places (Castells, 2004). Indeed the uprising in Bahrain is also a war on symbols,
one which is being fought in both cyberspace and urban space in an attempt to limit the
existence of what Foucault (1986) described as heterotopias, that is, places that challenge
‘safe space’ and allow for the flourishing of new, potentially dangerous identities that
challenge the existing order. These heterotopias, which are spaces of crisis, deviance,
abnormality and transformation (Kern, 2008: 105) embody a threat to the production of
safe space if they are unregulated and uncontrolled. Political protest, which by its very
nature poses a challenge to hegemonic order, appropriates space and in it creates crisis
and abnormality. Thus the control of space, whether it be urban space or cyberspace, is
fundamental to ensuring the longevity of any authoritarian regime.
Space, Surveillance and Control
Ever since the internet arrived in Bahrain, it has been used by political activists as a
space for resistance. Forums such as were used to post photos of
rallies and acts of government oppression carried out by the state security apparatus
(Desmukh, 2010) . Since the start of the protests all of these forums have assumed
either a pro- or anti-government identity. In a very real sense, Bahraini cyberspace has
become segregated. This segregation is not formalized, yet the nature of interactions in
Bahrain’s forums is very much based on political and social loyalties, and as such there
are often implicit expectations of what one should and should not say.
Twitter, however, is a different format, and its functionality made it an extremely
useful tool in the Arab spring. The surge of users generated by protests on the street
resulted in a proliferation of interactions online, the basis of which was often the
political context that inspired the user to join. Unlike forums however, Twitter is not a
closed community. As a result, interactions between those of opposing opinions and
political allegiances are not restricted. On the contrary, they are common. In Bahrain,
the resulting interactions were often characterized by volatility, hostility and aggression.
Despite these aspects, Twitter is perhaps the most effective place for activists and
Bahrainis to communicate in real time with both local and global actors who might be
outside their immediate networks. This is especially important in light of the state’s tight
control of the national media, which increased during the 2011 crackdown. Indeed,
the regime temporarily closed down Al-Wasat, which was the only Bahraini newspaper
that was remotely critical of the regime. Its editor Mansoor al-Jamri was charged by
the general prosecutor for publishing false information that ‘harmed public safety and
national interests’ (Trade Arabia, 2011). Opposition figures have also been excluded
from the state media, which creates ‘frustration … and results in these groups resorting
to other media outlets such as social media’ (BICI, 2011: 422).
This inability to seek representation through official media outlets inevitably increases
the importance of digital spaces and social media. This was especially apparent
following the declaration of the National Safety Law in Bahrain on 15 March 2011
(Bahrain News Agency, 2011). The law, which was the precursor to a broader
crackdown, saw the destruction of important political and religious structures, as
well as a clampdown on public gatherings of any sort. Examples of this include the
demolition of the Pearl Roundabout, which was Bahrain’s ‘freedom square’ and the
symbolic location of the uprising. In addition to this, at least 30 Shia religious structures
were torn down. While the government claimed that the buildings were illegal, ‘five
of them had both the requisite royal deed and building permit’ (BICI, 2011: 328). In
all cases, the government of Bahrain ‘did not follow the requirement of the national
law concerning the notice and issuance of a judicial order for demolition’ (BICI, 2011:
328). Instead, it simply relied on the National Safety Law, which essentially gave carte
blanche to carry out repressive measures in the name of national security.
The demolitions symbolize the destruction of important representational spaces for
Bahraini activists, many of whom are members of the country’s Shia community – a
community that, despite being the majority, has long been marginalized politically and
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economically (Cordesman, 1997; Khouri, 1980; Shanahan, 2008). Having said that,
the uprising included both Sunnis and Shia, and consequently represented a major
threat to the Al-Khalifa regime, who are never more fearful than when both sects come
together to unilaterally oppose specific policies or measures (Khouri, 1980). Despite
the government’s attempts to paint the uprising as a Shia-inspired, foreign-backed
sectarian coup, the demolition of such structures seems to be indicative of sectarianism
among Sunni hardliners in the loyalist camp. The destruction and regulation of public
space illustrates an attempt to marginalize resistance and dissent. By regulating and
exercising control over urban spaces the regime are eliminating important spaces in
which identities of resistance can form.
The same is true of digital spaces, which are new frontiers for activism, and are the
location from which people can challenge the homogenizing power of authoritarianism.
In order to counter the threat embodied by these digital spaces, the Bahraini
government and those representing the hegemonic order are employing tactics to
control them. These tactics are numerous, yet can generally be seen under the umbrella
of ‘surveillance’, for they are all attempts to instil normative and acceptable repertoires
of behaviour through both observation and creating a fear of observation.
Surveillance versus Sousveillance
Surveillance is the process by which organizations and governments observe
individuals or groups of individuals. It is an asymmetric process that affords power to
the observer but not the observed, and is therefore a process by which the surveiller
asserts his domination over the surveilled. The means by which an organization
conducts surveillance is multifaceted, yet technological developments have facilitated
the speed and efficacy of the process, allowing for more efficient and pervasive
observation. Indeed, the rise of what Jan van Dijk (1991) first termed the ‘Network
Society’ has given both organizations and the state unprecedented opportunities to
carry out surveillance. As Lyon (2001) argues, the information society is also the
surveillance society.
The historical role of technology in surveillance is perhaps most famously illustrated
by Bentham’s Panopticon, a buildings whose geometry allowed a prison guard to
watch the inmates without them knowing. Timothy Mitchell (1991: x) describes the
Panopticon as the ‘institution in which the use of coercion and commands to control a
population was replaced by the partitioning of space, the isolation of individuals, and
their systematic yet unseen surveillance’. Mitchell’s (1991) work on Egypt draws heavily
on the work of Michel Foucault, who outlined the importance of the power differential
within the context of the ‘unseen’. Ben and Marthalee Barton (1993) summarize
Foucault’s (1983) argument, stating that the ‘asymmetry of seeing-without-being-
seen is, in fact, the very essence of power’, and the ‘power to dominate rests on the
differential possession of knowledge’. As well stressing the importance of asymmetry,
Foucault states that: ‘[the] major effect of the Panopticon is to induce in the inmate a
state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of
power’ (1977: 201). He adds that surveillance should be ‘permanent in its effects,
even if it is discontinuous in its action’ (1977: 201). In other words, it is not just being
watched that is enough to induce obedience to authority, but rather the possibility of
being watched.
An example of such an apparatus could be seen in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where
a mosque with an unusually high minaret was built in order to keep track of the Shia
in Karbala (Bakir, 2010, 17). The Hassan mosque, itself a modern-day Panopticon,
functioned alongside a highly repressive state intelligence apparatus (mukhabarat),
which is a common presence in the majority of Middle Eastern countries. Bahrain
is no exception and, although it is a liberal state by regional standards with fewer
restrictions on internet access (Hofheinz, 2007: 60), it still suffers from many of the
same repressive measures that serve to limit both dissent and political mobilization.
Even before 14 February Bahrain had blocked websites deemed to be politically
controversial and arrested on a number of occasions the well-known blogger Ali
Abdulemam (Desmukh, 2010).
This censorship indicates the threat that new technologies pose to regimes around
the world. They must therefore adopt new methods of observation, ones that
preferably permit coercion with minimal resort to violence. While such observation
was traditionally carried out via the naked eye, ‘surveillance techniques have
increasingly become embedded in technology’ (Mann et al., 2003). Oscar Gandy
(1993) and Mark Poster (1990) argue that the growth of information technology
and databases has led to an asymmetrical monitoring of behaviour. This surveillance
allows particular organizations, whether they be corporate or bureaucratic to ‘not
only commodify the personal information of those observed, but also use such
information to inform practices of social control and discrimination’ (Humphreys,
2011: 576). Facebook and Twitter are therefore a potential opportunity for
organizations to extract information which can be used to further the agenda of the
particular institutional body collecting the data.
So, just as the Panopticon allowed the asymmetric observation of a prison’s inmates,
the modern-day neo-Panopticon (Mann et al., 2003: 332) can be seen as the use of
observational technologies to discourage certain forms of behaviour in a wide range
of places, from malls to high streets, to forums and social media. While the essence of
this surveillance is based on the fact that it is asymmetrical, the use of new technologies
by individuals to observe those in authority represents a sort of inverse Panopticon, one
where citizens can challenge the government’s monopoly on information (2003: 333).
This idea is described as ‘sousveillance’, ‘from the French words for ‘sous’ (below)
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and ‘veiller’ to watch’ (2003, 332). ‘Sousveillance’, itself a form of ‘reflectionism’, is a
term invented by Mann (1998: 93–102) to describe the process of using technologies
to confront organizations by documenting their actions or the consequences of their
actions. In other words, it gives those who are observed the power to become the
observer, and the power to resist the authority of the state. Mann also discusses the
idea of ‘personal sousveillance’, which is the use of technology such as social media to
document one’s own day-to-day experience. An example of this might include Bahraini
activists who photographed themselves at the Pearl Roundabout. However, such
seemingly banal ‘personal sousveillance’ can be re-appropriated by the regime and
its supporters and used as part of its own surveillance apparatus (Bakir, 2010; Mann,
2002; Mann et al., 2003). This is nowhere more evident than in Bahrain, where the
increasing polarization of society has resulted in citizens using social media as a tool of
peer-to-peer to surveillance.
In order to assess how hegemonic forces are attempting to use social media as a tool
of surveillance and social control, a virtual ethnography was carried out. A virtual
ethnography is similar to a traditional ethnography and can:
involve the ethnographer participating, overtly or covertly in people’s
daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens,
listening to what is said, asking questions – in fact, collecting whatever
data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of the
research. (Hine, 2008: 259)
Doing this on ‘social media’ is not an easy task and, for months, involved the daily
monitoring of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (the subjects of the study). Integral to
this virtual ethnography was Twitter, which served as both a locus of interactions and
conduit of vital information that led to relevant news, videos and images. Conducting
this virtual ethnography moved beyond just ‘lurking’, and very much involved becoming
part of Bahrain’s online community. In some ways this was for the sake of establishing
trust and credibility, but it was also an inevitable part of online activism, of which I have
become a part.
The importance of building trust within what can only loosely be termed a Twitter
‘community’ cannot be overstated, for it formed the basis of establishing relationships
that led to interviews, discussions and chats. It was also these relationships that
developed through the virtual ethnography that formed the basis of investigative
collaborations that were important in identifying potential surveillance tactics used by
hegemonic forces. This is particularly true of the information regarding the company
Olton and Liliane Khalil, both of which will be discussed later. Through a combination
of observation, participation and interviews spanning an 11-month period (February
2011–December 2011), it was possible to gain a deeper insight into the potential
role of social media as tools of surveillance and social control. The most notable
factors highlighted have been categorized as trolling, naming and shaming, passive
observation, intelligence gathering and offline factors.
The ethical considerations for this research are, of course, voluminous: not only in
the sense that people in Bahrain are fearful of the potential ramifications of speaking
out about politically sensitive issues, but also because this research is fundamentally
about surveillance and privacy. Indeed, Marc Smith (1999: 211) makes a point about
new technologies that is still pertinent today, and asks if the analysis of such data is
simply the extension of the means of surveillance that is already a disturbing trend in
the information age. In his succinct paraphrasing of Mark Poster, Smith (1999: 211)
suggests that observing such interactions can ‘uncover social spaces, subjecting them to
a kind of Panoptic surveillance’.
While it impossible to allay all of these concerns, measures have been taken to
preserve the privacy of those involved. All information received in confidence has
been anonymized and only included with the express consent of those who provided
it. Furthermore, information disclosed in private has only been accepted from
those whose identity I have verified. This stems from what is perceived to be a huge
proliferation in anonymous accounts, the implications of which will be discussed in
the findings of this study.
Trolling or Flaming
Broadly speaking, trolling can be defined as a form of aggressive internet
communication where people using anonymous accounts engage in abusive behaviour
towards other users. It is a form of what MacKinnon (2012) calls ‘cyber-harassment’,
and can vary in severity, ranging from provocative comments to outright bullying.
Contrary to Yochai Benkler’s (2006: 374) suggestion that ‘flame wars’2 might dissipate
as people become more familiar with new technologies, they have shown little sign of
abating in Bahrain.
Trolling in Bahrain ranges from spiteful personal comments to death threats. For
example, one Twitter user feared for the safety of her child when an anonymous troll
started tweeting about how he (the troll) knew where the child went to school. He even
named the school and gave details of its layout and location. Another activist reported
how trolls created five parody accounts, all of which were dedicated to ridiculing her.
In an attempt to rectify this, the victim had to send to Twitter on each occasion proof of
identity to get rid of the anonymous accounts. Tiring of this, Twitter eventually suggested
78 79
she just tweet under a separate or anonymous identity, essentially admitting defeat at
the hands of the troll(s).
Bahrain’s Twitter trolls have acquired such a reputation that they have prompted
many international journalists or activists reporting on Bahrain to write/blog about
them, including Jillian York, (2011) David Goodman (2011) and Brian Dooley (2011).
Following the release of the BICI report on 23 November 2011, Al-Jazeera reporter
Gregg Carlstrom tweeted: ‘Bahrain has by far the hardest-working Twitter trolls of any
country I’ve reported on’.3 Global Voices editor for the Middle East and North Africa
Amira Al Hussaini tweeted:4 ‘Yawn: cyberbullying = censorship! Welcome to the new
era of freedom in #Bahrain’. A number of people told me how trolling stopped them
from tweeting politics, with one user stating:
Don’t know how long Marc, my heart is heavy. Even my moderate views get attacked
by trolls.
Few people who engage in trolling have accounts that reveal their true identity, and
it is precisely this anonymity that makes many people suspicious. There are perhaps
thousands of anonymous accounts, all of which have very few followers, and usually
have an avatar that symbolizes their support for the regime (such as a picture of one of
the Royal Family). Despite the fact that the regime enjoys some degree of legitimacy in
Bahrain, there is a belief that many of these accounts are created by the security forces
or PR companies to bully activists and give the illusion of widespread support for the
government (Halvorssen, 2011).
Given that the US military is developing software that will allow it to ‘secretly
manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet
conversations and spread pro-American propaganda’ (Fielding and Cobain, 2011),
it comes as no surprise that the private sector might seek to profit from it. Indeed, it
was revealed that BGR Gabara, a British PR firm reportedly working for the Bahraini
government, planned to organize a ‘Twitter campaign’ on behalf of Kazakh children
(Newman and Wright, 2011). This exacerbated fears that they were conducting similar
operations in Bahrain.
What these findings illustrate is that trolling can result in people changing their
tweeting habits. A number of people interviewed said how they were less likely to tweet
anything against the regime after being trolled. Others changed their Twitter privacy
settings so that their tweets would not be seen by the global public. This demonstrates
how hegemonic forces can use social media to influence the flow of anti-government
rhetoric, thus contributing to the state’s censorship apparatus Dissuading people from
tweeting also creates an informational vacuum, one that can then be filled with pro-
regime propaganda/PR.
Name and Shame
Perhaps one of the most pernicious things to come out of the uprising is the Hareghum
Twitter account. Hareghum, which literally means ‘the one that burns them’, is a self-
proclaimed defender of Bahrain, and spends his days disclosing information about
traitors in Bahrain. This includes posting photos of people seen at anti-government
rallies, circling their faces, disclosing their addresses, their places of work and their
phone numbers . Unfortunately, the account has achieved such notoriety that it has
become well known in Bahrain. An example of his impact was revealed to me by one
informant, who said:
My friend she left the country after her husband who works in a bank
became a target of this 7araghum [sic]. I don’t think she’ll ever come back.
While many have tried to unveil Hareghum’s identity, no one has been successful. It is
believed to be a number of people taking it in turns to manage the account. Hareghum
has become an institution in itself in Bahrain, with people using it both to ‘report’
suspected ‘traitors’, and also to find information about ‘traitors’. One such example
was provided by someone whose father used to have a high position in a Bahraini
company. He was contacted by someone who had information about a potential
‘traitor’ working in the company.
this guy sends a message to my Dad pasted from Hareghum about
an [insert company name] employee.… He was sending it to my dad
because my dad is still well connected, so can make things happen.…
So he was telling my dad ‘Do the needful’ (i.e. get him fired).
The climate of fear that existed when this message was sent should not be
underestimated, for it was a time when thousands of Bahrainis were being fired from
work for taking in part in strikes, even though the strikes were ‘within the permissible
bounds of the law’ (BICI, 2011: 420).
Prior to Hareghum, there were other examples of people with anonymous Twitter
accounts receiving messages disclosing their name and identity. (e.g. imagine you
had gone to great lengths to protect your identity on Twitter and then someone you
don’t know contacts you and tells you your name, phone number and address). On
describing Hareghum, the Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry
(2011) stated:
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In some cases, a photograph of a protester was posted with a comment
asking for the name of the person, and other Twitter users then posted
the requested information. Witnesses reported to the Commission that
persons who had been named or identified by Harghum [sic] would then
avoid sleeping at their home address for fear of an attack. Harghum
[sic] also allegedly advertised a MoI [Ministry of the Interior] ‘hotline’,
which people could call in order to report on persons engaged in anti-
government activity. (BICI, 2011, 381)
The Harghum [sic] Twitter account targeted anti-government protesters
and even disclosed their whereabouts and personal details. Harghum
[sic] openly harassed, threatened and defamed certain individuals,
and in some cases placed them in immediate danger. The Commission
considers such harassment to be a violation of a person’s right to
privacy while also amounting to hate speech and incitement to violence.
(BICI, 2011: 391)
As of November 2012, the government have done nothing about the account, even
though the Commission stated that Hareghum ‘produced material that international law
requires to be prohibited and which is in fact prohibited under Bahrain law’. It is interesting
to note that similar ‘name and shame’ groups existed on Facebook (al-Qassemi, 2011;
Facebook ‘used to hunt down Bahrain dissidents’, 2011; Reuters, 2011), yet it is easier
to have Facebook remove these groups. Twitter, on the other hand, makes it hard to
remove such groups unless they are reported for spam. What this has led to is many pro-
government supporters leading campaigns where they get people to report human rights
activists such as Nabeel Rajab and Maryam al-Khawaja for spam. Despite Facebook’s
more sympathetic policy in getting rid of such groups, it was reportedly used to identify the
workplace and home of 20-year-old poet Ayat al-Qurmezi, who angered authorities by
reading out a poem that criticized King Hamad. Visitors to this Facebook page were told to
write the ‘traitor’s name and work place’. Soon afterwards masked men arrested her (Al-
Jazeera English, 2011; Facebook ‘used to hunt down Bahrain dissidents’, 2011).
Offline Factors
‘Offline factors’ refers to a number of pressures that do not necessarily occur online,
but still work to encourage self-censorship by discouraging people from using social
media. In March a photo of ‘web terrorists’5 was circulated on Twitter. This included
Manaf al-Muhandis, Mahmood Yousif and Mohammed Maskati – all prominent Twitter
users or bloggers who were subsequently arrested (Reporters without Borders, 2011).
They were all detained for varying lengths of time, and none of them tweeted anything
controversial or very political for a considerable time following their release. Prominent
blogger Ali Abdulemam, who is currently believed to be in hiding, was sentenced in
absentia to 15 years in prison for ‘spreading false information and trying to subvert
the regime’. In addition to this, blogger Zakariya Rashid Hassan Al Asheri was tortured
to death in prison on 9 April 2011 (BICI, 2011: 238). As a result of the above arrests,
important representatives of the activist community disappeared, further diminishing the
visibility of credible online activism, and also prompting much fear among other online
activists, who were far more reluctant to tweet anything critical of the regime. The
death of Zakariya also resulted in Reporters without Borders putting Bahrain on a list of
‘enemies of the internet’ (BBC, 2012). Other offline factors include family pressure not
to use social media (particularly Twitter), and widespread fear that the government is
able to hack accounts and access personal information. One informant stated:
I used to tweet but then when some of my friends got arrested my father
sat me down and gave me a looong [sic] talk, guilting me into deleting
all my tweets.
The fact that the Tunisians used phishing techniques to obtain the Facebook account
details of political activists strengthened this anxiety (Ryan, 2011).
Intelligence Gathering
Other, perhaps more sinister elements faced by activists are the clandestine operations
undertaken by companies such as Olton, a UK-based intelligence-gathering/PR firm that
has a contract with the Bahrain Economic Development Board. One activist told me:
There’s this British company called Olton. I don’t know exactly what they
do except that they employ Bahrainis loyal to the regime to do something
with social media. The person recruiting them is ex-UK military.
Despite the government of Bahrain’s Tender Board’s description of Olton’s work being
‘to develop an electronic system to track international media’, one of their employees
is known to have worked for the Ministry of the Interior, the body responsible for
Bahrain’s security forces (Desmukh, 2011a). Furthermore, Olton was at the IDEX Arms
Fair in Abu Dhabi where the company was reported to be marketing its ‘web-trawling’
software as something that could head off unrest in the Middle East. It would do this
through monitoring social media in order to identify ringleaders (Desmukh, 2011a).
Fears that Twitter and Facebook were being monitored were further exacerbated
after at least 47 students were dismissed from Bahrain Polytechnic for ‘participating
in unlicensed gatherings and marches’. This was ‘based on evidence mostly obtained
82 83
from social media pages like Facebook’ (Yasin, 2011) Some were dismissed for simply
‘liking’ an anti-government post on Facebook (Yasin, 2011). Many reported that they
were dismissed after authorities showed them printouts of their Facebook pages.
Blurring this line between propaganda, PR, ‘data-mining’ and intelligence gathering was
‘Liliane Khalil’, a hoax journalist who used blogs, Twitter and email to build up a convincing
online persona. Although she had claimed to be the US editor of a pro-government blog
called the Bahrain Independent, an investigation revealed that she was a hoax (Jones,
2011). Although Liliane Khalil’s exact identity remains unknown, there is evidence that links
her to Task Consultancy, a Bahraini company that was paid by the Bahraini government to
formulate a PR plan (Desmukh, 2011b). Liliane Khalil also interviewed a number of activists
on the understanding that she wanted to hear ‘their side of the story’. However, several of
those interviewed reported that she passed on their personal information to a pro-regime
Twitter user – who then broadcast it on Twitter stating that the interviewees were traitors.
‘Passive’ Observation
In anticipation of the protests, the Bahraini government created a number of Twitter
accounts, most notably one for the Ministry of the Interior (MoI) – the body responsible
for Bahrain’s security forces. While the MoI’s account tended to publish news without
interacting with other people, this did not stop people from interacting with the MoI.
Between the months of February and April, it was common for pro-regime supporters to
use Twitter to ‘report’ people they thought were traitors to the MoI. The following tweet
is an example of this:
@hussainm89 Dear @moi_bahrain can you please arrest this MOFO
Hussain Mirza born 1989, he is a traitor
Although it is doubtful that the ministry takes such complaints seriously, the impact that
the potential threat of surveillance has is very real, as someone once made clear.
Be careful Marc. Don’t argue a lot. A lot of people from Moi on Twitter.
And if you mention the king justice etc, you might be unable to enter the
country. Just be careful plz.
For activists, using social media as a tool for activism or representation is fraught with
danger. The tactics adopted by hegemonic forces in Bahrain contributed to a climate of
fear and distrust, one that disrupted social media space by assimilating it as part of the
regime’s surveillance apparatus. Trolling, for example, is not only a form of social control
that exercises its power through intimidation, but also serves as a reminder that one’s
behaviour is always being watched, and that any potential dissent will never be without
fear of observation. Even the mere presence of an MoI Twitter account was enough to
regulate some people’s behaviour by reminding them that they were being monitored.
The incarceration of key online activists also reminded Bahrainis of the potential costs of
utilizing social media for dissent, and thus asserted that the transgression of a certain set
of normative behaviours (in this case acquiescence ) would not be tolerated.
The impact in Bahrain of trolling and naming and shaming illustrates the dangers
of these forms of ‘cyber-vigilantism’, which will only become more detrimental as
social cohesion in Bahrain is further eroded. Hareghum is a particular worry, for it has
become a quasi-official institution, one whose continued existence and endorsement
by some supporters of the regime represents tacit support of its utility as a method of
social control. Just as plain-clothes thugs operate alongside the police in suppressing
protests, accounts like Hareghum’s worked alongside the regime’s intelligence-gathering
apparatus, appropriating citizens’ ‘personal sousveillance’ and using it to persecute,
vilify and threaten. Although Hareghum’s identity still remains unknown, the opaque
way in which the regime has so far conducted the crackdown, and the blurring of
lines between law enforcement and state-endorsed vigilantism have heightened the
suspicions of activists, many of whom believe that Hareghum actually operates with MoI
approval. Whether or not this is the case is in many ways, irrelevant. This is because
perception plays a fundamental role in surveillance – for what we perceive and what
is actual form the underlying mechanism of the Panopticon, which seeks not only to
watch, but to make people believe they are being watched.
Another alarming trend is the clandestine role played by predominantly western PR and
security firms, many of which are ‘exploiting the burgeoning but unregulated surveillance
market’ (Doward and Lewis, 2012). Bahrain also enlists the services of companies like
Nokia Siemens, whose SMS monitoring technology was used by the state’s security
apparatus to intercept the communications of suspected dissidents (Silver and Elgin, 2011)
. Olton, the British company offering expertise in social media, also offers a ‘reputation
management’ service. This aims to promote ‘positive’ online commentary while ‘mitigating
the negative’ (Olton, 2012). The fact it is also an ‘intelligence-gathering’ company has
serious implications for freedom of speech. As I have stated elsewhere:
The threat posed by unscrupulous PR companies to freedom of speech
should not be underestimated. It is bad enough that they distort the public
sphere in exchange for money, yet it is the rise of companies like Olton
that is the most alarming, for when does intelligence gathering become
evidence gathering? Furthermore, when does ‘reputation management’
involve facilitating the silencing of those narratives that oppose the
desired rhetoric of the paying client? (2012)
The recent revelation that that British PR firm Bell Pottinger was offering to help
84 85
companies hijack citizen petitions in order to influence European Union law raises
questions about a similar incident that occurred in Bahrain last year (Rawlinson, 2012).
This involved the circulation of a petition on Twitter that claimed to be a proposal listing
the demands of Bahrain’s youth for an upcoming reconciliation initiative called the
National Dialogue. Over a thousand people signed it, though many of the signatories
were anonymous, sock-puppet accounts. The following day the National Unity
Gathering (Bahrain’s new pro-government political party) used the petition as a basis
for determining what Bahraini youth wanted (unsurprisingly, they did not want political
change – just security) (Gulf Daily News, 2011). The notion that anonymous online
accounts might be rubber-stamping policies in order to give them a veneer of democratic
legitimacy illustrates the ease with which social media can be used to manufacture
consent. Although this might seem like the stuff of Orwellian fantasy, one must not
underestimate the dangers of a growing surveillance industry, one that capitalizes on the
desire of authoritarian regimes around the world to monitor, control and suppress dissent.
Through trolling, naming and shaming, ‘passive’ observation, intelligence gathering
and offline factors, the hegemonic order is able to utilize social media in a manner
that serves its own interests. Specifically, it helps the government and its supporters
to preserve the status quo through extending the means by which they conduct
surveillance. Such methods are attempts to impose normative forms of behaviour in
spaces that allow for the performance of identities that challenge the hegemonic order.
These spaces, which include Shia religious structures, the Pearl Roundabout and social
media, all represent what Foucault (1986) described as heterotopias, that is, places
that challenge ‘safe space’ and allow for the flourishing of resistance identities that
challenge the hegemonic order. This capacity of social media to function as a space
of resistance did not go uncontested in Bahrain, and hegemonic forces also used it to
enhance and ‘mobilise identities to facilitate the extraction of resources from the society
to confront the external (and in Bahrain’s case, internal) threat’ (Saideman, 2002:
170). So while social media allows activists to ‘overcome the powerlessness of their
solitary despair … and fight the powers that be by identifying the networks that are’,
it also allows hegemonic forces to resist change (Castells, 2009: 431). Furthermore,
Bahrain illustrates how it is not simply faceless authoritarian regimes that resist political
change, but citizens too, especially those who benefit both economically and socially
from maintaining the status quo. Indeed, just as those advocating political change can
use social media to create networks of resistance, those representing the hegemonic
order can mobilize their own networks of domination.
Perhaps one of the saddest aspects of all this was how information shared amid a
climate of optimism, such as photos of peaceful protesters at the Pearl Roundabout, was
re-appropriated by the likes of Hareghum and re-framed within a context of treachery,
terrorism and betrayal. Such abuses of social media not only remind Bahrainis of the
potential costs of sharing information publicly but also demonstrate how trust is an
increasingly scarce commodity. The nature of this breakdown of trust was nowhere
more evident than on Facebook, and numerous interviewees shared stories of how they
purged their ‘friend lists’ through both anger at their newly developed political outlook,
and through fear that that person might gain access to potentially ‘incriminating’ photos
or information. The erosion of trust is itself a crucial part of the effects of surveillance,
for the inability to trust others promotes increased isolation of the individual, which can
work against social cohesion and discourage the formation of strong networks that may
potentially pose a threat to the incumbent order.
Although it must be emphasized that these negative effects are very real, they by
no means undermine the importance of social media as a tool for sousveillance. It is
an instrument of both empowerment and control, yet the extent to which it functions
as either depends very much on the cultural, geopolitical, technological and temporal
context in which it is being used. The role of social media is ambivalent, and although
it has been an incredibly positive force in Bahrain, documenting its successes would
necessitate a separate article.
As it stands, pro-democracy activists still face a great many obstacles when it comes
to finding spaces from which to represent themselves. The brutal daily crackdowns
in the villages, the destruction of the Pearl Roundabout, the demolition of mosques
all represent attempts to control space and render it ahistorical, conformist and
safe. For the regime, these are all spaces of crisis, transformation and change, or
heterotopias. Social media are no different, and can also be regulated and controlled.
As the struggle for democracy continues in urban space, so does it in cyberspace.
In many ways, the battle is for cyberspace, for it is a battle between the principles of
empowerment and control, the continuation of which underlines the argument that
social media are a tool of both emancipation and repression.
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Juliette Harkin, M.Phil Oxon, is a researcher and consultant on the Arab media
and a PhD student undertaking research on Syria in the School of Political, Social and
International Studies at the University of East Anglia. Her M.Phil thesis (2009) focused
on the changing practice of journalism in Syria.
The aim of this article is to explore a renewed and radical ‘media
culture’ that has developed in the extraordinary conditions of the
Syrian revolution. The article quickly dismisses the focus on the technology and
platforms while using small-scale ethnography to examine social networking sites like
Facebook and to underscore the diversity of content being produced by Syrians. It
notes how the Syrian media revolution is clearly well under way and how radical,
alternative forms of media production are flourishing.
media, radical alternative media, revolt, semi-published, social media, social networking sites, Syria
Juliette Harkin
University of East Anglia
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JULIETTE HARKIN: University of East Anglia
94 95
Juliette Harkin
University of East Anglia
The Arab revolutions have reminded the world that radical change can be effected by
the people, rather than by top-down regime change or ‘transitology’ models that have
prevailed in much academic literature (see critique in the Latin American context by
Sparks, 2010). For Syrians irreversible transformations happened in the maelstrom of
the revolt; they did not wait for the regime to fall or for discussion to commence about
media reform blueprints.
The revolution has resulted in some important changes to the Syria media landscape.
Research undertaken for this paper suggests that there has been a continuing growth
in the use of social networking sites by Syrians (see Preston, 2011), with over 400
Facebook groups focused on Syria as of November 2011. Also, user-generated
content produced by Syrians and disseminated on social networking sites such as
Facebook and content-sharing platforms such as YouTube have been major sources for
international media outlets reporting on Syria (Harkin et al., 2012).
This high visibility and use of social media has served to foreground it in much analysis
on the causes of the so-called Arab spring, including the Syrian revolt. But if the notion of
a top-down transition to democracy seems out of step with the lessons of the 2011 Arab
revolutions, it would also be foolhardy to suggest that isolating social media as a unit of
analysis is possible or desirable in understanding the Syrian revolutions.
A few scholars are rightly employing a healthy scepticism and problematizing the
idea of ‘putting the internet central in our analysis’ (Aouragh and Alexander, 2011;
Lawson, 2011). Important too are critiques of the implicit or explicit neo-orientalist
tendencies in the ‘Facebook revolution’ narrative (Burris, 2011). As David Gauntlett
(1996) has pointed out, media researchers seeking to link cause and effect in society
never managed to prove it.1 Likewise, convincing evidence has not been forthcoming
in the immediate studies into the role of social media in causing or amplifying the Arab
uprisings (as exemplified by Dubai School of Government, 2011a, 2011b; Howard et
al., 2011; Lotan et al., 2011).
Nevertheless, this article argues that if we situate the (social) media in their historical
and political milieu, social networking sites can be one of a number of online and of-
fline sources for researchers seeking to understand the Syrian uprising. This brief study
is an exploration into examining content from social networking sites without making
technologically determinist assumptions or, even more problematically, taking an Ori-
entalist stance that Arabs could not possibly rise up against tyranny without the help of
tools made in the USA.
In the form of a small-scale ethnography, as well as drawing on secondary material and
informal interviews with media practitioners and Syrians outside their country, this article
explores the changes in Syria’s media ecology and the role of social media as a publishing
platform and communication tool. In doing so the author acknowledges the limitations of
drawing on material from social networking sites – necessitated in part by the difficulty of
foreigners travelling to Syria but also by the dangers for Syrians inside the country to talk to
96 97
foreign researchers. Some of the ethical dilemmas for researchers in conducting research on
social networking sites are considered in the methodology section.
Alongside ethnographic research, this article draws on John Downing’s (2001)
work on radical alternative media and concludes that the revolt has nurtured some
small-scale but important revolutionary media production which privileges people
rather than elite power and rejects the dominant power structures of the state. As will
be shown with examples in this article, the creative currents in the Syrian uprising and
their survival strategies are evocative of Guy Debord’s Situationists, who influenced
the enragés’ student occupation groups that emerged in 1968 (Viénet, 1968),2 in their
utter rejection of the established order. In some small ways a state of anarchy does exist
in Syria and the efforts of some Syrians to grow the ‘intellectual culture’ of their society
is happening in the eye of the storm.
Research Methodology
Utilizing computer-mediated-communication (CMC) as defined by Hine (2010), mainly
through the social networking site Facebook, but also through blogs, Twitter, content-
sharing sites such as YouTube and websites, I observed how Syrians are producing rebel-
lious ‘cultural artifacts’ offline and online (Durham and Kellner, 2006), and disseminating
them via social media platforms. The research for this article was conducted through a
small-scale ‘virtual ethnography’ and in doing so recognizes and concurs partly with
Hine’s assessment that such research might be ‘necessarily partial and inauthentic be-
cause it only focuses on the online aspect’ (Hine quoted in Kozinets, 2011: 5). I observed
content posted on public Facebook pages during September to November 2011; content
surveyed was random and not a representative sample. This tentative exploration served
rather to gain insight into the kind of content being posted on social networks in relation
to the uprising. This limited study could be developed further drawing on the research
methodology set out by Kozinets, who convincingly argues that online ethnography which
follows a ‘specified, distinct, common set of methodological procedures and protocols that
have been agreed upon by a community of scholars’ should be regarded as a particular
practice which he terms ‘netnography’ (2011: 60–1).
More research on Syria needs to be done to pursue some of the questions raised
in this article; this would necessarily encompass field ethnography that would engage
face-to-face with Syrians using the internet to disseminate information (as in Aouragh’s
extensive and detailed online and offline research for Palestine Online, 2011a). So, it
is important not to over-interpret the observations made in this study but rather to use
them to point to possible further avenues of research.
Despite the limitations set out above, Facebook is being used on a number of levels
and it is useful to outline some developments here. Social media sites have been a plat-
form for contestation between Syrians with opposing and differing political positions
on the revolt. Discussions, far removed from a Habermasian ideal on many levels, are
reflected through status updates, extensive comment strands posted on walls and notes
shared by friends in the network.3 I had originally wanted to communicate with journal-
ists and writers inside Syria, via my own established online social networks, to discuss
their ‘semi-published’ (see below, Bruckman quoted in Kozinets, 2011: 145) discus-
sions on the pages of Facebook and to seek their ‘informed consent’ (Rutter and Smith,
2010) to use this material. Ethically I felt it was not the right time to be contacting Syr-
ians inside the country to conduct academic research, not least because I was unsure of
how safe communications would be (see York, 2011), during the period of my online
research, so I necessarily had to shift my research focus.
The dilemma of privacy is nicely illustrated in relation to an exchange between the
prominent political commentator Asad Abu Khalil and Syrian dissident Yasin Haj Saleh.
In articles published in a left-leaning Lebanese newspaper, Yassin admonished Asad for
quoting his private status update from Facebook in his article.4 Facebook has become
a site of intense political debate, as opposed to a social chat site (MacManus, 2011;
Salem, 2011) and so there are rich pickings but real ethical and security concerns too
(as well as challenges for virtual archive research). In the age of the internet, this grey
zone which Bruckman (quoted in Kozinets, 2011: 145) termed ‘semi-published’ has
made binary distinctions between published and unpublished ‘obsolete’. As well as
the research ethics there are also the considerations of corporate policies on privacy;
Facebook’s stated privacy policy is that those wishing to take content from their friend’s
pages must approach them, explain what they want to do and then get express permis-
sion to use friends’ content on Facebook before they disseminate it to the wider public
(this was before Facebook introduced more open functions in September 2011, which
offered users the option to have public subscriptions).
The second level at which Syrians have actively been using Facebook, and the focus
of this article, is the very publicly listed groups and publications that appear to have
mushroomed as a result of the intensifying repression of public demonstrations and civil
disobedience in Syria during 2011. The social networking sites on Syria looked at here
provide merely one small way to gain information on changes to Syria’s information
ecology, given that the Syrian community in and outside of Syria is using it as a com-
munication and media tool.
I highlight here some of the most popular Facebook pages, measured by the number
of people who have liked them (members) and how active the comments section of the
wall has been when I accessed these sites during September and November 2011. All
these pages are set up as ‘public’ and anyone can ‘like’ them. With certain caveats
(no citation of individuals), researchers can treat this content as ‘published’.5 As with
the established media, it can be assumed that social media platforms and content
might also suffer from an elite bias, reach only a tiny amount of the population, and
98 99
present only one or a small number of the possible narratives for how Syrians are living
through the uprising. Additionally, in the case of the internet and Syria, there is little
easily available data on who is using the social networking sites and from where – so
many of the groups discussed here might be populated with conversation strands and
the views of expatriates, exiles or refugees – this smallness of scale and geographical
diversity does not detract from the significance of the content and I argue that it is
reflective of revolutionary changes for the Syrian media landscape.
The Syrian Revolt and Media, in Context
To properly situate Syria’s media, in the context of the 2011 uprising, it is useful to think
about the media landscape in historical context. Some of the writings of the revolution
evoke Syria’s political and cultural history and yearn for the perceived expressiveness
and political activity that preceded the Ba‘ath regime. Syrians remember a lost sense of
citizenship, as detailed in Amal Hanano’s (2011) series on Syria’s former leaders and
in Mohammed Atassi’s (2011) opinion piece in the New York Times. Numerous articles
have detailed the activism of Syrians inside and outside their country (Abu-Assali,
2011; Allaf, 2011; Marrouch, 2011; Zeitouneh, 2011b).
Despite some notable periods of increased freedom for the press since the Syrians
achieved independence in 1946 (Provence, 2005: 24–5), the Syrian media has mainly
been characterized by its state control and the advent of a ‘hybrid’ private media
(Harkin, 2009) established under Bashar al-Asad. As with business and political
elite networks (documented by Haddad, 2012; Heydermann, 2004; Perthes, 2004),
media owners and elites are also tied into the political structures and obtain economic
and political benefits, including licences to operate and distribute their publications,
favourable advertising deals and more freedoms, because of their connections to
prominent members of the government, army or security (Kawakibi, 2010). Nominally
‘private’ publications have become mouthpieces for the regime during the revolt and
newspapers like al-Watan have been burnt by demonstrators in YouTube video clips,6
others, like the web news site, have been at pains to try to
represent the views of the demonstrators as well as the regime – a dangerous task for
journalists working inside Syria and, some might argue, a futile one.
Studies of Syrian cultural production have sought to understand the human relations
involved in the ‘negotiations’ between the state and cultural producers (Dick, 2006,
2007; Harkin, 2009). Research has indicated that state-led changes can have some
positive unintended consequences, as well as the more negative aspects of self-
censorship and compromises necessary to maintain operations (Harkin, 2009).
The regime’s decision to allow internet news sites to operate, mostly focusing on the
economy, allowed new kinds of journalistic practices for internet news sites – such as
writing original copy rather than taking it from news agencies, having on-the-ground
reporters doing local stories from all the provinces, and encouraging less bureaucratic
editorial and management processes (Harkin, 2009). But these changes did not herald
any real political or media freedoms. Commentary on Syrian Ramadan dramas
has raised important issues around the negotiation of freedoms and the chances for
boundaries to be pushed in ways that might be irreversible (Dick, 2006). Generally, the
argument boils down to the extent to which people might subvert or seek to challenge
or change the system from within (Kawakibi [2010] sets out the structural confines for
private media).
In other analyses of Syrian cultural production, relative freedoms have been seen
merely as instances in which the regime is allowing tanfiseh (letting air out, or letting
off steam), as problematized by Wedeen (1999) and Cooke (2007). Both Wedeen
and Cooke recommend caution about ‘licensed criticism’ and ‘commissioned criticism’
as only serving to create a ‘democratic façade’. These arguments do not account for
unintended outcomes and neither do they give enough room to the role of human
agency; in any case, such arguments have been superseded by the Arab revolutions of
2011, including Syria’s, in which the role of human agency and a person’s potential to
‘act otherwise’ (Pleasants, 1997) is firmly back in the picture.7
The Syrian state’s strategy of placing very severe restrictions on foreign media
and persisting in a brutally repressive crackdown certainly has had some unintended
consequences. In Syria, while the old propaganda machines of the state were
increasingly creative in spreading misinformation (an early example being the state-
supported Duniya TV claim that Al-Jazeera Arabic had built a Syrian film set in
Qatar so it could fabricate videos of protests),8 new forms of media took shape. In the
context of the uprising we now need to look at more radical models for media and
communications in times of change. We can see similar intellectual struggles at play
in Egypt in its revolutionary phase, where counter-hegemonic media outlets have been
launched, for example the web television service 25TV and Tahrir newspaper.
Syria Online
Syrians have had access to the internet since 1997 but this was only extended to the
general public in 2002 (Eid, 2004). By 2004 there were approximately 500 internet
cafes in Syria and all these small-scale internet access points were monitored by the
Syrian authorities (Eid, 2004). There are two licensed ISPs (internet service providers)
in Syria, both controlled by the government, or by those with close family ties to those
with power, such as Rami Makhlouf (Ismail, 2009), who owns Syriatel and has the
monopoly on telecommunications in Syria. In terms of access to PCs at home, estimates
in 2004 put the number of PCs in Syria at 300,000, mainly owned by the organs of
state (Eid, 2004).
100 101
The Arab world has seen a significant growth in the signing up to and use of social
networking sites. In 2010 the most common use of the internet was to access email,
closely followed by logging on to Facebook (SpotOn PR/Effective Measure, 2010). A
report by the Dubai School of Government (2011a) tracked Facebook penetration in the
Arab world9 using Facebook’s official data. It showed there had been 78 percent growth
from 11.97 million in January 2010 to 21.36 million in December 2010 (2011a: 4) and
by June 2011 there were nearly 30 million Facebook users in the Middle East.10
Because of the 2004 US technology sanctions11 on Syria (which pre-date the 2011
sanctions and have since been part rescinded to allow certain technology inflows),
figures from Facebook’s advertising arm are not available for Syria. For its 2010
figures, the Dubai School of Government works to an estimate of 241,859 Facebook
users in Syria, based on undefined internet sources. That would be a 1 percent
penetration in 2010, compared to just over 23 percent in Lebanon in the same year. It
could be argued that Facebook penetration in Syria is now significantly higher than this
figure. First, Syria follows the regional trend, which has witnessed huge growth in the
number of people using social networking sites and a youth demographic which has
an affinity for social networking sites like Facebook. Second, the Syrian regime lifted a
formal ban on Facebook on 8 February 2011 (this was not to allow more freedoms but
to make social media easier to monitor – the common practice in Syria of using proxies
to access banned sites hindered government monitoring). Nevertheless, perhaps
knowing that the ban was formally lifted encouraged new users of Facebook and
other social media in Syria. Indeed the Dubai School of Government May 2011 report
shows a significant spike in YouTube (as Facebook data is not available) use from Syria
soon after the ban was lifted (2011b: 2). Also, as a result of the Syrian government’s
decision to shut down broadband in Syria, users resort to dial-up facilities and there
is also a growing use of 3G mobile technology, where it is accessible (Kassab and
Lane, 2011). Where it is not accessible some activists have used satellite phones (such
as Thuraya). In summary, it seems clear there have been marked increases in the use
of social media sites in Syria after February 2011,12 but that access is uneven inside
Syria, suggesting an urban bias.
A search, in Arabic text, on 10 November for ‘Syria’ groups on Facebook revealed
over 400 ‘pages’ or groups dedicated to the political, cultural, academic and leisure
spheres. Further observation of the Facebook sites that are engaging on the topic of
the Syrian revolt revealed that the social network is a growing source for Syrians inside
and outside their countries. Views represented range from the pro-regime sites liked
by over 1000 users such as We Are All Shabiha13 to sites set up by anti-regime groups
including We Are All the Child Martyr Hamza Ali al-Khatib14 which had over 362,000
likes at the end of 2011 and by August 2012 had over 570,000 likes. I will elaborate
on some of these virtual groups in the remainder of this article.
Syria’s Media and Information Ecology
In seeking to understand how people attempt to circumvent hegemonic discourses to
get radical and alternative information out, this article draws on the work on radical
alternative media undertaken by John Downing (2001). In seeking to define exactly
what radical media is, Downing offers a typology that sets the radical alternative
media apart from mainstream, dominant media forms. Radical alternative media all
share one thing in common: ‘they break someone’s rules’ (2001: ix). This might be
operationalized by expressing opposition vertically from subordinate quarters directly
against the power structure and its behaviour, as well as building support solidarity and
networking laterally against policies, or even against the very survival of the power
structure. Importantly, Downing notes that radical alternative media is often small-scale,
underfunded and unnoticed, ridiculed or feared (or both) and might be short-lived or
last for decades. Key to an understanding of such forms of media is the necessity not
to look at and judge in a given moment but to consider it in the ‘slow burn’ of time
(Downing, 2001: 6).
While it is too early to make pronouncements on Syria’s growing radical media
sphere, it does pose the question as to whether the Syrian use of social media during
the uprising might fit Downing’s conception of a radical alternative media. In itself
Facebook, as a commercially supported platform, is not radical and alternative at all.
But context, as well as consequences are important to Downing, and perhaps help in
avoiding the trap of falling into a binary separation of mainstream or radical. As can
be seen in this article, in the review of the Syrian media, context can take a seemingly
benign action and transform it into a radical departure from the (enforced) norms
in society. With questions about form and meanings for radical alternative media in
mind, this article will now make some observations about the ways in which Syrians
are using social media platforms to communicate, network, debate ideas and publish
A vibrant albeit small-scale production of weekly newspapers, published via blogs,
Facebook groups, as well as in print form, has been a significant development during
the Syrian revolt that started in March 2011. Publications such as Hurriyat,15 which
was established in August 2011 and edited by a Syrian living in Europe, are effectively
tapping into the ideas and actions of the demonstrators and activists. Of course the
newspapers reflect differing political positions, with some leaning more towards what
has been grouped as the ‘internal’ Syrian opposition and others that have a clear
agenda which supports opposition groupings such as the Syrian National Council.
The content is mainly in Arabic and the newspapers seem to have genuinely local
content from their activist contacts around Syria. Hurriyats Europe-based editor-in-
chief, Kareem Lailah (he uses a pseudonym), indicates the mobilizing nature of the
publication in an interview with France24, in which footage was shown of newspapers
102 103
being delivered anonymously to Syrian residents – trying to reach out to the ‘silent
majority’.16 Other newspapers have joined Hurriyat, including al-Haq (The Truth) in
postings on YouTube and Facebook, as well as a website that has been established
for al-Badeel (The Alternative).17 On 26 September 2011 Souriatna (Our Syria), a
weekly newspaper, was launched and available in multiple formats for download via
a Wordpress blog and on its Facebook page.18 The site announced that it was in the
service of the revolution and that it was produced by the Free Syrian Youth. Its front
cover hosted a colour picture of shahid (martyr) Ghaith Matar and a poem dedicated
to his memory. Ghaith was a very visible signifier of the values of the peaceful
protest movement – he was known for handing soldiers flowers and urging his fellow
demonstrators to ensure the protests stayed peaceful. Each week Souriatna dedicates a
column to an historical figure from Syrian history. These have included Khalil Mardam
Bey (1895–1959), Sa‘ad Allah al-Jabri (1891–1948), Hashim al-Atassi (1875–1960)
and Adeeb al-Shishikli (1909–64). Souriatna also publishes updated figures for civilian
deaths city by city, commentary on the wider Arab spring, revolutionary and anti-Asad
graffiti in Syrian cities, commentary by established human rights activists such as Razan
Zeitouneh (e.g. Zeitouneh, 2011a) and views about the external opposition meetings
taking place regarding the formation of the Syrian National Council.
These new e-magazines and social media groups are meeting a latent need for
Syrians to be able to publish their narrative on the revolt, as well as the practical
sharing and dissemination of information. The limited – in terms of access to the
internet and security considerations – social media context in which I am reviewing
published and semi-published information suggests that we are seeing only a small part
of an ever-changing and dynamic process. New groups and initiatives are constantly
emerging, such as the new Syrian Writers Association,19 announced in January 2012,
followed by the announcement of a new independent journalists association.
There has also been the formulation of alternative news sources from Syria, which
have become more organized over the course of the revolt and have become a main
source for the international media covering Syria, mainly from afar. Chief among the
various groups is the Sham News Network, which has its own YouTube channel as well
as Facebook group.20 With nearly 200,000 Facebook followers by November 2011, it
remains a major source for the Arab satellite channels (its logo can be seen regularly
on air) and many other international media outlets. It was joined by a now equally
ubiquitous news source in the form of a news agency called Ugarit,21 providing footage
from within Syria.
Another leading Facebook group, now a highly organized activist and political
network that also launched a humanitarian fund in December 2011, is the Syrian Local
Coordinators Committee (LCC)22 – with around 14,300 likes in November 2011. This
site posts daily YouTube videos of demonstrations from around Syria, information on
martyrs and figures for those killed, injured, kidnapped, tortured or arrested across
Syria. There are also committee and media groups on Facebook for all the major
towns which have been the most active in the revolt, including Hama, Idlib, Homs23 and
Dera‘a.24 This committee system is reminiscent of the writings of Hannah Arendt’s On
Revolution (2006 [1963]).
However, there have been concerns about the veracity of the information posted at
different times. One of the activists involved in posting content from sources around
Syria has been based in Beirut, in hiding. Omar Edelbi was interviewed for al-Akhbar
newspaper in Lebanon and explained how he had fled from Homs but continued to
keep in touch with a network of activists to get content straight from the demonstrations.
Edelbi said he refused to post any footage of protesters calling for international military
intervention as this was not in the interest of the revolution (Marrouch, 2011). So it
should be noted that, not surprisingly, activist communication is not necessarily benign
or without an agenda. Edelbi is now a member of the Syrian National Council, which
represents particular positions of some parts of the Syrian political opposition. Some
Syrians interviewed during the writing of this article also say that the Sham News
Network is influenced by Islamist and Salafi currents. While it is difficult to see how a
loose network of activists can be labelled as ‘Islamists’ it is clear that some caution is
required in dealing with user-generated content. Because of the situation in Syria there
are ethical considerations in contacting committees/activists for academic research
purposes to discuss these issues in more detail (the risk of exposure for the Syrians,
the time constraints and need for activists to prioritize getting information into the
mainstream media rather than an academic journal), but if the conditions were right it
would be a rich research project.
Political alignments in communication and media are to be expected, but the new
sense of plurality and an attendant idealism is to be welcomed in any case. On 9
November, the Facebook site Liberal Intellectuals for a Free Syria posted an article by
Samera Tayara (2011) entitled ‘Optimistic’. In it she describes how she is now ‘free’.
The revolt is not only against an authoritarian system, but also a rejection of the notion
of the Arab state as a body worth mediating with at all. In small ways Syrians are
‘acting otherwise’(Pleasants, 1997);25 for example, by placing recordings of revolution
singer Ibrahim Qashoush, the martyr whose throat was hacked open before his dead
body was dumped in Hama, in dustbins blaring out his song26 in Damascus’ souqs
and thoroughfares. Syrian citizens communicate their messages to Syria’s ‘silent
majority’.27 On 5 October 2011 Syrian activists filmed a fountain coloured with red
dye to represent the Syrians murdered by the security forces and army; the activists
were in a car driving around the roundabout at close range to film, at great personal
risk. The footage was posted on the Facebook page of the Coordinators for the Syrian
Revolution in the District of Midan (Damascus).28 Other acts of defiance have included
hoisting Syria’s historic independence flag (see programme on Al-Jazeera,29 in Arabic,
for the significance of the flag) on major buildings such as universities, or releasing
balloons30 in a Damascus suburb, Kafar Souseh, and the commercial capital of Aleppo
and Idlib.31 Activists have filmed the dangerous delivery of revolutionary newspapers
in Syria.32 All these expressions are representative of ‘cultural artifacts’ (Durham and
Kellner, 2006) that present at once a reconnection with a pre-Ba‘ath revolutionary past
(Provence, 2005) and a return to civil disobedience and dissent, as evidenced by the
calls for strikes that have taken place in some towns and cities.33
Leading Syrian intellectuals, such as Burhan Ghalioun and Suheir Atassi, can be
followed on Facebook’s new subscriber pages and Syria’s other ageing but respected
dissidents, such as Michel Kilo and Hussein Odat, have ‘semi-published’ social
networks on Facebook, sharing publications, information and views within their own
social networks and on some of the sites mentioned in this paper. The Syrian Library34
is another example of this renewed flurry of intellectual discourse. With over 2000
members, it is a pro-revolution site that gives links to pertinent information, such as a
2010 book for download on Bashar’s Syria, by long-time dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh,
as well as day-to-day commentary by Syrians such as Rosa Yassin Hassan, Faras
Atassi, Hisham al-Hamawy and Ala Malas (some writers are using an alias), as well as
Lebanese writer Elias Khouri and the editor of al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, published
from London, Abdel Bari Atwan.
Alongside established names, who get coverage in the international media, are less
well-known views from human rights activists, liberal intellectuals, students and other
segments of the uprising inside Syria. The Facebook group for Liberal Intellectuals for
a Free Syria,35 carries detailed expositions of, for example, visions of a more equitable
society, as written by Anwar al-Bunni, president of the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies
and Research. It is worth noting that al-Bunni, a lawyer who represented the Damascus
Declaration signatories in court, was writing from inside Syria, as are many others who
publish via social networks.
In a similar vein, the Syrian Intellectuals and the Voice of Syrian Thinkers36 Facebook
group had over 7700 members during the period of research and re-publishes articles
calling for support of revolutionary causes, such as the resumption of a trial of Syrian
intellectuals who were arrested on 13 July 2011 for demonstrating without a permit
from the Ministry of the Interior. This group included well-known intellectuals and elites
such as film-maker Nidal Hussan (since kidnapped and then released in December
2011) and actress May Skaf (arrested and released at time of writing).
This article has set out to illuminate the smaller-scale cultural production by activists
and demonstrators who have recorded and disseminated history, as well as taken
part in it. These patterns of ‘media culture’ (Durham and Kellner, 2006) are forming in
reaction to the existing media structures, which is now not only a means of propaganda
but also nurtures rumour as a ‘means of control’ (Sharabajee, 2011). The deepening
repression of the Syrian regime (Human Rights Watch, 2011; United Nations General
Assembly, 2011) has highlighted how a diverse resistance, from farmers to doctors and
young students (see Al-Zubi, 2011) are creating what Downing (2001) describes as
‘radical alternative’ media; people seeking ways to disseminate information under the
extraordinary conditions that prevail in Syria.
Although Syria may lack the more established activist structures that had been well
established in Egypt prior to its revolution (Beinin, 2001; Pratt, 2007), my research
suggests a resolutely growing engagement and organization in Syria of new activist
committees, intellectual and political groupings and protest movements, as well as
pro-regime37 social media activity. Syrians are taking advantage of the uncertain
environment to create counter-hegemonic intellectual and activist currents online
(Barney and Grimes, 1997) and offline.
The notion of revolutionary communications during Syria’s 2011 revolt opens a
connection with its history of revolt against colonial rule. More research is needed on
how demonstrators and civilians in isolated Syrian towns and cities are communicating
and sharing information. This will of course be difficult to do in the foreseeable future. It
would be interesting to compare what happened in 2011 with past revolutionary forms of
disseminating information. We can see examples from history re-emerging in today’s Syria.
In looking at forms of ‘media culture’ it seems we need to expand our conceptions
of media, from its narrow sense of broadcast and print media, to include radical and
diverse forms of cultural production and information dissemination. Certainly the kind
of grassroots cultural production that has been explored in this study requires us to
think about how we understand radical and revolutionary media forms. This might help
us to get a clearer picture of the potential for where Syrian ‘media’ might be heading.
The danger is that, when populations revolt and topple authoritarian regimes,
resort to neoliberal and liberal media models will crush any hope of a truly free and
unfettered media culture, thus stunting the growth of the people’s revolution.
The Arab world has had a wholly negative experience of a media that has been
situated within or controlled by the state structures. The revolt has required activists to
seek alternatives to this under the most extreme conditions. Under the brutality of the
regime fight-back there has been an ironic renaissance of cultural, artistic and political
trends that might eventually agitate against the imposition of a ‘media system’, either
from within or from without.
The author acknowledges Henry Allen for pointing
out Gauntlett’s work on media and effects.
I am grateful to Nuno Coelho for discussions
about the Situationist International.
Both pro-regime and revolutionary social
networking sites users have stoked some vitriolic
and, in some cases, dangerously sectarian
discussion strands on Facebook groups. See
for example a posting which lists the names of
doctors accused of killing protesters admitted into
hospital in Homs, together with the comments
strand. See:
606&type=3 (in Arabic; accessed August 2012).
Both pro-regime and revolutionary social
networking sites users have stoked some vitriolic
and, in some cases, dangerously sectarian
discussion strands on Facebook groups. See
for example a posting which lists the names of
doctors accused of killing protesters admitted into
hospital in Homs, together with the comments
strand. See:
606&type=3 (in Arabic; accessed August 2012).
(in Arabic; accessed December 2012).
The research methodology is somewhat
contested, with differing interpretations on what
constitutes public (and therefore freely citable)
and private when posting content online. In sum,
researchers should err on the side of caution to
avoid ethical and legal pitfalls. Kozinets (2011)
summarizes the main arguments well.
This video was posted on Facebook by Syrian
activists and can be accessed on YouTube at:
(accessed August 2012).
The author is grateful to Dr Rupert Read for
introducing her to this literature.
See the report posted on YouTube on 17
September 2011 (in Arabic) at: http://www. (accessed
September 2011) and other clips at: http://www.
ayer_embedded (accessed September 2011).
Definitions can vary slightly, refer to specific
reports. It should be noted that the data includes
GCC countries such as the UAE and Qatar,
which include majority expatriate communities.
The Dubai School of Government’s (2011a)
report ‘analyzes data on Twitter and Facebook
users in all 22 Arab countries, in addition to
Iran and Israel’. Its May 2011 report (2011b)
includes data from Turkey as well.
For a summary and update of the statistics
D=24&mnu=Cat (accessed August 2012).
For more information see: http://www.treasury.
pages/syria.aspx (accessed August 2012).
A look at Google data from 2010 to December
2011 further illustrates the rise in use of Google
and access to YouTube from February to June
2011, with a drop from June 2011 onwards
(presumably due to deeper electricity and
telecommunications cuts):
(accessed December 2011).
This page was accessed via a Facebook account
(accessed August 2012) but it was removed
before the publication of this article.
This page can still be accessed via: https:// (accessed
August 2012).
The Facebook group is available at: https://
(accessed August 2012).
The article and video clip can be viewed at: http:// (accessed August 2012).
Not active by the time of publication; not to be
confused with the Egyptian publication of the
same name.
There have been changes in accessing the content
and has access to
earlier publications while latest editions are available
via and at https:// (accessed August 2012).
See: (accessed August 2012).
(accessed August 2012).
(accessed August 2012).
Available at
(accessed August 2012).
Access via
7omsrevolution?sk=info (accessed August 2012).
Group information at
DaraaCoordination (accessed August 2012).
See this round-up, which discusses activists
planning for strikes and the dangers from security
monitoring their social networks, published on
(accessed December 2011).
Hosted on YouTube at:
(accessed August 2012).
There is a pro-revolutionary Facebook group called
Syria’s Silent Majority, https://www.facebook.
com/SyriaSilentMajority (accessed August 2012).
The Facebook group is at: https://www.facebook.
com/Midan.Revolution (accessed August 2012).
The programme has been posted on
watch?v=chSl5pQdG3s (accessed August 2012).
Footage available at:
watch?v=4hC6Il1EajY (accessed August 2012).
See the image (red balloons with the word irhal,
which means ‘Go!’ or ‘Step down!’) from Idlib
at: (originally posted
on 6 November on the Facebook site E.N.N.;
accessed August 2012).
Posted on YouTube at:
(accessed August 2012).
See footage at:
watch?v=CHgMY851eE0 (accessed August
2012). These strikes have been called since at
least October 2011, gaining common ground
and media coverage by the end of the year as
‘dignity strikes’, which resulted in security forces
attacking any shops that observed the strikes.
The Facebook group is at: https://www. (accessed
August 2012).
The site now has a website at: (accessed August 2012).
Available at:
Syrian.Intellectuals (accessed August 2012).
A good example is the Facebook group for the
satellite TV channel addounia, at: https://www. (accessed
August 2012).
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Editors’ note: Syrian blogger Hussein Ghrer wrote the first draft of this article on
14 February 2013, shortly after he was released from his first arrest for 37 days in
December 2011. In it the writer sheds light on the role that social media have so far
played in the Syrian revolution. Two days later, on 16 February 2012, Ghrer and 15
of his colleagues at the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)
were arrested during a raid on their office by the Syrian security forces. Over a year
has now passed without trial, indictment or court referral. Maurice Aaek, a friend and
Syrian online journalist, added his comments as an afterword in February 2013, a
year later.
Hussein Ghrer
Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression
HUSSEIN GHRER: Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression
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Hussein Ghrer
Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression
Social media played a substantial role in the Arab spring, with some going so far as
to call the events across the Arab world the Facebook revolutions, in reference to the
crucial part social media played in them. In an attempt to put things in perspective
and give the factors involved their proper weight, I would like to pose a question:
would there have been revolutions if there were no social media? The answer to this
question is a step towards giving the factors that were part of starting the revolution
their proper significance.
History has documented a number of revolutions where dictators were toppled
without the aid of social media. The Arab revolutions have been no different. The
natural progression of things led to the day when people raised their voice against
dictatorial regimes and corruption, and gave great sacrifices in the name of freedom,
dignity and social justice. When Bouazizi burnt himself he wasn’t planning on getting
his footage on YouTube nor to start the Tunisian revolution, and when Wael Ghonim
started his page ‘We are all Khaled Saeed’, his specific goal was to shed light on the
inhumane practices of the police apparatus in Egypt and to pinpoint responsibility for
Khaled Saeed’s death.
Since the oppressor and the oppressed are the main elements in these revolutions,
the media played the key role of portraying the sense of injustice and mobilizing the
people against the oppressor or tyrant to become the defenders of the oppressed.
Previous revolutions used flyers and held secret meetings to ask people to protest and
to disseminate the news of the protests. Are the social media a propaganda tool or are
they used simply to convey the news?
Tunisian Revolution Model
As the story goes, a policewoman slapped Mohammad Bouazizi, so he burnt himself,
which was in turn filmed by someone on his phone and uploaded on YouTube.
Consequently, some of the residents of Sidi Bouzid, the remote city where Bouazizi
lived, protested over what had happened to that young man; likewise someone shot
a video of the protest and uploaded it on the internet. Activists circulated these videos
among themselves while the protests started to build momentum in the forgotten
southern area of Tunisia. This is the story of a revolution.
As activists we followed the news out of our own interest in what is published on
social media networks but none of us knew that this would be the beginning of the first
Arab revolution in modern history.
The Tunisians were able to attract media attention through uploading and circulating
videos of the protests, and commenting on them through YouTube, Facebook, Twitter
and blogs. Since traditional media, and particularly audiovisual media, are more
widespread than social media, every home was watching these events unfold, which
resulted in the protests spreading to more cities and fuelling a revolution against Bin
Ali’s regime.
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The Egyptian Revolution Model
In mid 2010 activist Wael Ghonim started a page on Facebook called ‘We are all
Khaled Saeed’ to shed light on the routine torture and violent practices of the Egyptian
security apparatus, using Khaled Saeed’s case to highlight this violence. After the fall
of Bin Ali’s regime in Tunisia, Egyptian activists felt that the time was ripe to call for
mass protests against the Ministry of Interior and the practices of the Egyptian security
apparatus. The location and time were chosen and the invitation to protest spread
exponentially, with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians interacting within social media
networks, especially Facebook. And since there is more freedom in Egypt compared
with Tunisia and Syria, activists were also able to distribute flyers, and even use certain
interested traditional media outlets that discussed and/or promoted the idea.
The protests started and videos flooded the internet. Soon, activists started to report
the news live from the streets, mainly using Facebook and Twitter, with even the
media using activists’ live accounts, since they were considered reliable sources with
backgrounds as former activists and bloggers using their actual names. This escalated
throughout 18 months until Mubarak finally stepped down.
In reviewing the evolution of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions and the use
of social media we must differentiate between (a) using these media to promote an
idea before turning that idea into action and (b) using them as a tool to convey these
actions. In the Egyptian case, social media were used to spread the idea of protesting
against the inhumane practices of the Egyptian security forces and encouraging activists
to come down to the streets in addition to broadcasting news of the protests. As for the
Tunisian revolution, social media were used mainly as a tool to convey details of the
protests and in helping the people to interact as a response to suppression of protests
by the Tunisian regime.
Social Media and the Syrian Revolution
Many say that Syrian activists did not use social media in their revolution against the
regime, but the opposite is true. I believe that whoever said this considered the Egyptian
revolution a standard model for using social media, and their beliefs were substantiated
by the protests in Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States that were
successfully organized via social media. However, the Syrian revolution is considered to
be unique in that it was innovative in its use of social media, and this in itself should be
examined. I am not implying that the Syrians are uniqu