Arab Protesters and Social Media: Need for Engagement


RSIS presents the following commentary Arab Protesters and Social Media: Need for Engagement by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link. (To print it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, at

No. 138/2011 dated 3 October 2011
Arab Protesters and Social Media:
Need for Engagement
By James M. Dorsey
Pro-democracy activists in the Middle East and North Africa have an edge
in the battle for hearts and minds because of their understanding of the    
power of social media. Engaging them on social media requires a degree    
of sophistication and mind shift that Arab autocrats lack.

IF THERE is one event or region that has highlighted the impact of
technology and social media on  policymaking, social movements and
protest, it is the Arab revolt that has been sweeping the Middle East and
North Africa since December last year. Many have dubbed the popular
revolts in Egypt and Tunisia a  “Facebook revolution” because of the
use by middle-class activists of social media in the build-up to the
mass anti-government protests that early this year toppled presidents
Hosni Mubarak and Zine el Abedine Ben Ali. Activists in Libya employed
social media to organise peaceful protests in February against the regime
of Colonel Moammar Gaddafi before they mutated into a civil war.
Similarly, social media and mobile telephony have played a key role
in Syria in circumventing news blackouts and censorship to get
news of the brutal crackdown by the government of President Bashar al
Assad to the outside world. They also figure in exacerbating sectarian
tensions between the country’s Sunni Muslims and Alawites, the
minority sect to which Assad belongs.

Technology does not spark revolts

Yet, despite the perception of many, it is not technology that sparks
revolts. No doubt, social media facilitate and accelerate the speed
and breadth of communication, and impact politics, social
movements, communications and the flow of news. But the
answer to the question whether the Arab revolt would have
erupted without Facebook is a resounding yes. To dub the Arab
revolt a Facebook revolution would require revising explanations of
past revolts such as the Islamic revolution in Iran and popular
uprisings in the Philippines and Indonesia.

To be sure, technology plays an important role in protests and revolts.
In Iran in 1979, it was the cassette tape that helped Ayatollah
Khomeini to inspire millions to overthrow the Shah, at the time the
most powerful symbol of US influence in the region. In Tunisia, a mobile
phone video of a young man setting himself on fire in desperation,    
tapped into widespread discontent and last December brought
thousands into the streets of Tunis. Cassettes and mobile telephony are
technologies that autocrats understand. Social media, however, is a
game changer. Pro-democracy activists understand social media
and the opportunities they offer in ways that autocratic Arab regimes
find difficult, if not impossible, to grasp.

Social media change the way communications and public affairs
are managed, particularly in a crisis. That requires a degree of
sophistication that many but particularly autocratic governments often    
find difficult, if not impossible, to marshal. In fact, employing 
that degree of sophistication would require a far-reaching revision of
the way most Arab autocrats do business. Syria is a case in point. The
government’s approach to online information warfare involved its
Syrian Electronic Army hacking hundreds of opposition and international
websites, to assert that it was battling terrorists. According to NPR
(National Public Radio) the websites targeted included  those of    
Newsweek, the US Treasury, and screen and television personalities.

Engagement replaces control

Perhaps what is most frustrating to Arab autocrats is the fact that the
combination of mobile telephony, the Internet and social media
has rendered censorship futile and fundamentally rewritten the
ground rules of communications policies. Social media have turned the
shaping of the narrative into something much more complex, in which
governments and institutions have to engage in ways they did not have
to in the past.

For one, communication has become a two-way street. Shaping the
narrative no longer means control, instead it means engagement.    
That is an approach that in the best of circumstances is a difficult one,    
but particularly for embattled autocrats, because it requires a mind
shift that few autocrats can make.

Even the Western media had problems in adjusting to technological
change. When newspapers shifted from broadsheet to tabloid formats,
not only did size change, so did the content, the story. Similarly,
moving the print edition of a newspaper on to the Internet
proved to be an unworkable formula. It failed to recognise that
technology had replaced one-way communication with interactivity and
changed the way news is consumed and what an empowered public
expects of news organisations.

As a result, governments and institutions, irrespective of the political
environment they operate in, are being forced to rethink their
approach to communications. They have to pay greater attention to
the way they project themselves, their policies and the way they relate to
the public in a new and increasingly complex communications
landscape. Technological change means that governments and institutions
have to be more attentive to public opinion because whether or not that
opinion can be freely expressed social media enable it to become part of
the public domain.

Discontent will find its Outlet

The international community looked to the Arab street in the wake of
9/11 for change that would eradicate the breeding ground of extremism. 
When the Arab street did not immediately revolt, government officials,
analysts and journalists wrote off the Arab street. Nonetheless, the
widespread discontent continued to simmer at the surface. It was palpable
if one put one’s ear to the ground.

If the current Middle Eastern revolt and its embrace of technology teach
anything, it is that where discontent exists but cannot be expressed openly,
it will be expressed elsewhere in what constitutes a truer reflection of reality.

It is a reality enhanced by technology that Middle Eastern and North African
autocrats ignore at their peril.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.  This
commentary is based on his remarks at the 2011 Singapore Global Dialogue.

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