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The Arab revolutions will not be tweeted

The revolutions that toppled Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak were not planned on Facebook, and they did not gather momentum on Twitter. Social media is a useful tool for many things, but critical mass can only be achieved through old-fashioned, face-to-face people power

By Maath Musleh

Cairo revolutionary graffiti (photo: Sarah Carr/Flickr)

As the youth revolutions flourished in the Arab world, many people started referring to them as Facebook revolutions. The young generation was called the Facebook generation. The social media did cross the imaginary borders between Arabs, but how much did social media influence the revolutions in the Arab world?

As a social media specialist, I believe strongly that the influence of Facebook and other social media tools is completely over-rated. Let’s go back to the year 2009, the Iranian elections. Following the elections, a “green” revolution erupted. It was literally the first revolution that used the social media tools, primarily Twitter. Iranians living abroad, in the U.S. and Europe, tried to overthrow the regime using social media, but they failed. Their failure can be ascribed mainly to the fact that those Iranians using social media were not out in the field. A lot of brave Iranians lost their lives for that failed revolution.

The Arab revolutions were different. They were not triggered by the social media. The Tunisian revolution  was triggered by Mohamed Bouazizi, the semi-employed fruit vendor who immolated himself in desperation after his fruit cart was confiscated by a police officer. I doubt he even had an internet connection at home. Later, the demonstrations against corruption and poverty turned into a massive revolution in response to the excessive force used by the police.

The Libyan revolution began on February 16, with a demonstration in protest of the arrest of a lawyer named Fat’hi Terbel. Mr. Terbel brought a lawsuit to the Libyan courts on behalf of the families of about 1,200 Libyan prisoners that were killed in 1996 and buried in an unknown location. The families petitioned the court to release the location of the dead prisoners’ burial place.  Via social media, Libyan youth announced that February 17 would mark the beginning of their revolution. On that same day in 2006, more than 10 Libyans were killed by police bullets when they demonstrated in front of the Italian consulate in Benghazi. The revolution started earlier and for a different reason. Again, excessive force used by the Libyan police  turned the 2011 demonstrations into a massive revolution.

The Egyptian revolution teaches us that social media is not the trigger;  in fact, the very absence of social media is what ultimately led to the overthrow of Mubarak. The demonstrations of January 25 were relatively small, similar to many Egyptian demonstrations over the past few years. Three days later, those relatively modest demonstrations gained a critical mass and turned into a revolution. Why? Social media was certainly not the factor here. The three main factors were: overcoming the psychological barrier caused by fear; the shock of seeing people lose their lives on January 25; and the government’s decision to block internet access on January 27.

The absence of the internet provided enormous momentum for the revolution. If access to Facebook had not been blocked, the critical mass of Egyptian youth would have stayed at home, passively supporting the demonstrations online, even as they continued to chat and play Farmville. True, some were able to access Facebook through proxies. But the majority were cut off, and this acted as a call to go to the streets.

The demonstrations that began with small groups of friends of the young leaders turned into a revolution. These young leaders did not plan it on Facebook. They met face-to-face long before January 25. So social media neither triggered the revolutions nor provided momentum. It did provide the world with insight into what was happening on the ground during the revolution, but we received the same information from Aljazeera. Social media is not a good source for facts on the ground anymore. The flood of contradicting information is confusing, and it takes several days to verify the credibility of information posted online. Given the rapid pace of these revolutions, that is far too long. Even a few hours is too long.

It is time for social media to be used for business purposes in the Arab world. It is certainly not an effective tool for political activism. If it had a part to play in politics, its role would not be to organize local demonstrations. It could be used to make people abroad aware of what’s happening in their societies. But who did not know that Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years? Who did not know that most Egyptians lived in extreme poverty? Who did not know about the corruption in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and the rest of the Arab world? Who did not know that Palestinians live under occupation? This is not a Facebook revolution, it’s a youth revolution. It was not planned on Facebook, it was planned in the field, face-to-face. And now the wall of fear has collapsed. Those who spend their time in the imaginary world of social media will achieve  imaginary freedom. Those who work on the ground will achieve groundbreaking freedom.

Maath Musleh is a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem who was employed for two years as a social media specialist for the United States Consulate General in Jerusalem. Currently he is a freelance social media consultant and producer.

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    1. Ben Israel

      This comment was deleted because it does not address the content of the article. Please keep your remarks brief and to the point in order to facilitate an interesting and relevant discussion.

      Reply to Comment
    2. I think very few people are claiming that social media ‘triggered’ the revolution, but I would argue that few would believe it has not ‘facilitated’ it, that it did not play a decisive role in shaping, catalyzing, aiding decision making, opening new opportunites for organization and coordination. A political movement has objectives, it has organizational challenges, it is a business just like any other business.

      Those who blocked the internet were certainly aware of its facilitating potential. Like the midwife delivering a child, media is necessary for the birth of a political movement. Sure, in and of themselves, neither midwife nor media are a ‘trigger’ or cause, but without them the possibilities for a successful birth or a sustainable revolution would diminish dramatically.

      Reply to Comment
    3. One more comment, really depending on your definition of social media – though I for one cannot think of a communication-media which is not ‘social’: numerous researchers would disagree that the green revolution in Iran was “literally the first revolution that used the social media tools”.

      A good review of the history and the role of social media in social movements/revolutions is available in the 1994 book: “Small media, big revolution”, written by Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi, Ali Mohammadi

      Reply to Comment
    4. Maath Musleh

      Dear Engelo,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes you’re right, maybe if we go global, but I’m talking about the societies where the revolution is taking place, mainly the Arab and middleastern societies. It’s a fact that “many” people refer to these youth as the internet and the facebook youth. I used many not majority to be more accurate, although I believe it’s the majority.

      And yes you’re right Social Media has been there in the first revolutions in the world. The most primitive form of social media is word of mouth. Or in a more philosphical definition, some would consider the sign language as the first form of social media. Social Media is simply any form of media that includes interaction. The websites are part of the new media, it’s not Social until it has interaction features. Ofcourse when I mention Social Media, I refer to the modern definition of Social Media. The commonly used.

      Lastly, I don’t believe social media did even facilitate the revolution. They did actually block the internet in the case of Egypt, and its revolution turned to be one of the most beautifully organized revolutions.

      Thanks again.

      Reply to Comment
    5. sh

      A Tunisian friend who was in the middle of it told me it was Wikileaks that sparked it, not poor Bouazizi, who incidentally was not the first to self-immolate. Another guy had set himself alight in Monastir a couple of months before that for similar (economic) reasons and after the initial shock, the story had died. According to my friend Tunisians all knew about the corruption and repression, but seeing the extent of the Ben Ali-Trabelsi family assets inventoried together in black and white was what did it.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Elaine Meyrial

      The master of the slippery phrase and mixed metaphors, Tom Friedman of the NY Times, has the answer as to why the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt took place. Very simple. (1) The US elected Barak Hussein Obama (Friedman emphasizes the middle name),(2) Google Earth (3) Israel indicting corrupt politicians (4) Beijing Olympics and, (5) the appointment of Salam Fayyad by Abbas in the occupied territories.

      Classic Friedman.

      Reply to Comment
    7. So, title aside (and I do think the title is both ridiculous and contradictory to your own statements), I found myself agreeing with you…until this paragraph:

      “The demonstrations that began with small groups of friends of the young leaders turned into a revolution. These young leaders did not plan it on Facebook. They met face-to-face long before January 25. So social media neither triggered the revolutions nor provided momentum. It did provide the world with insight into what was happening on the ground during the revolution, but we received the same information from Aljazeera. Social media is not a good source for facts on the ground anymore. The flood of contradicting information is confusing, and it takes several days to verify the credibility of information posted online. Given the rapid pace of these revolutions, that is far too long. Even a few hours is too long.”

      Where do I start? Well, first, although you’re right that leaders met face-to-face prior to Jan 25, many of them admittedly met online in the first place. Many of the “young leaders” as you reference them are active bloggers and Twitter users, who collaborated on their ideas across online platforms.

      Second, you conclude after that statement that, “So social media neither triggered the revolutions nor provided momentum.” Though you’re mostly right that it wasn’t a trigger, where’s your evidence that it didn’t provide momentum? Though the leaders may have been inspired with or without social media, what about the hundreds of thousands who, over the course of the past year, became politicized following the murder of Khaled Said (and really, how do you think they learned about it?)

      Third, though we did in fact receive the same information from Al Jazeera during Egypt’s revolt, even Al Jazeera was late to the game when it came to Tunisia. In Tunisia (and in some parts of Egypt), social media/blogs were vital in disseminating information to the rest of the world. And even Al Jazeera relied heavily on sources gleaned from social media for their reporting; they’ve stated that themselves.

      And then this? “Social media is not a good source for facts on the ground anymore”

      Yeah, no. If anything, social media has become a BETTER source for facts on the ground because we’ve learned to verify our Twitter (or what have you) sources before using them…that was a mistake made in 2009 during the Iran protests by a number of media: they trusted Twitter as if it were a traditional source. Whereas in Egypt, there was an established blogosphere and Twittersphere already; people knew who to trust and who not to.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Also – a second note, in response to your comment, Maath – Egypt blocked 92% of the Internet, leaving one ISP (Noor) open for all but one day. That single ISP happened to host a strangely large proportion of the revolt’s leadership, including Hossam Hamalawy, Mona Seif, Sarah Carr…people who are well-known in the blogosphere and who write largely in English. I found myself relying on their tweets heavily during the Internet blackout, and so did plenty others, here in the US, in the Egyptian Diaspora, and elsewhere. The “Internet shutdown” as you stated certainly inspired more people to take to the streets, but it was not a shutdown, entirely.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Maath Musleh

      Dear Jillian,

      Thank you for your comments.

      Yes you’re right, many of the leaders met online, but I would argue, that they have polished their stands and plans in their meetings (face-2-face). There’s a lot that you can’t risk exposing online, especially, on the tactics used during the demonstrations. They did not meet only with their fellow Egyptians, but they also met with their fellow Arab youth during Leadership camps and other pan Arab camps and forums. Which had the most influence? Online meetings or Face to face meetings? On my observation of the Arab Social Media trends, amount and quality of info on social media vs. what happened on ground and post-info, and personal facts I know about Youth activism in the region and personal friends, I stick to my argument that what mattered by far is the face-2-face meeting. I should also point out that most of the Arab bloggers started their blogs in 2005, 2006 mostly. Some started earlier. The Youth of April 6 was formed in 2008. Khaled Saeed’s incident was 8 months ago. What’s the difference between back then and now? Why did not the previous demonstrations in the past 5 years get anywhere? What makes 2011 special? I think it’s the collapse of the wall of fear when Tunisia set an example to everyone else. And then the Egyptian example just added it to it. The regular people in the Arab world have always been politicized. They just didn’t have the courage to speak out. This brings us back to the collapsing of the wall of fear. The Egyptian revolution: Jan 25 – small revolutions with deaths followed by the internet service shut down this lead to huge demonstrations in Jan 28, some more deaths and bad political handling by the Egyptian gov’t, it gave momentum to the revolution, Mubarak’s speech was about to defuse the momentum, until the famous Horses and Camels battle.
      I believe that the revolution added momentum to Social Media not the other way around.

      Yes I agree with you Al-Jazeera came late to the game in Tunisia. Though, they came just in the right time unlike other TV channels that were still indecisive even after the fall of Ben Ali. But in Egypt, Al-Jazeera was a main player. I still remember the activist Noara Fuad Najim on the day of Mubarak’s fall. Her first words were “Thanks Tunisia, Thanks Al-Jazeera, no more oppression, no more fear”. And yes Al-Jazeera relied on Social Media (and basically their own platform Sharek) to get the facts on ground out.

      Well and I was referring to the post-Egypt revolution when I said Social Media is not a good source for facts on ground. There’s now a lot of contradicting reports because gov’ts have also found there way to these Social platforms. Even if you go to pro-revolution Facebook pages, the anti-revolution people are very active in posting there. The flood of information has confused the people. It did confuse them at some points within the Egyptian revolution. Again, thanks to the stupid political decisions on the part of the gov’t, they managed to keep the balance to the side of the rebillions.
      On the block of internet service, what’s important is not the leaders to have access but for the regular people to have access. Otherwise, how would they recruit people?
      By the way, there’s one point that we have to keep in mind. Yes bloggers who blog in English would reach a more global audience, but the local audience here should be addressed in Arabic. Although, there’s a high number of bilinguals amongst the youth, but the majority still feel more comfortable reading blogs and articles in their mother tongue. It’s very important to blog in both languages, but the most important is to know what to blog in each language. Like in the case of the Palestinians, the majority of blogs in Arabic talks about how bad the occupation is. Well, guess what Palestinians agree on that, such topics should be addressed to the English speaking audience abroad.
      Again, thanks for your comments; they were very useful for me to pick up my brains, a lot of Social Media issues are still disputable especially in the Arab world.

      Reply to Comment
    10. nirmeen

      If we are talking about the fact that the revolution is an output for the society reaction, then I totally agree.
      We can’t say that the social media was the reason for all this events all around the world but we can say for sure it was not only a tool but also a very helpful tool to encourage and protect the revolutionist.
      Even the Social media is not the reason of the revolution; the classic media is the reason why those regimes live all this long black years with us.
      The classic media didn’t publish the truth all that long years, but they did published what the regimes wanted them to publish, and that was the number one reason why the regimes lived in peace all the years before Tunis revolution.
      Back before facebook and twitter the regime killed many people of their nations, but no one heard a bit about them, before facebook and twitter; many revolutions failed to continue and were totally distorted in less than 3 hours.
      The idea that social media wasn’t a reason, it’s totally not, the social media was the first tool used as the protector for the nation revolutions and the first side gave the nation to feel secure, and to keep all the people connected with each other, knows that the world is listening to their voices, sure they are not alone, and sure they can tell the world in seconds the truth of what is happening right now in the street.
      The government can’t lie anymore to the people or to the world, because social media can bring us the truth in seconds.

      Reply to Comment