One Year Later: Arab Spring Aftermath Offers Insights

The wave of protests that swept through the Arab world last year – what we all call the “Arab Spring” – involved various methods of mobilization and communication of citizens that have since led to region-wide, progressive instances of revolutionary upheaval. At MAP, we’ve of course been paying most attention to the use of digital technology throughout. I’ve pulled out a few insights – some obvious (but worth solidifying) and some big-picture/not-so-obvious. Let us know what else you think is important.

Digital technology usage has become more sophisticated.

  • Digital technologies offered a way for people to connect, communicate, and in many cases mobilize. This isn’t new per se, but the speed and proliferation that it occurred this time around was. Not only did the connections happen, but they led to mobilization quickly and perhaps more effectively than in the past, and instances of mobilization became very wide-spread throughout the region as well (so not just quicker and more effective in one instance, but more prolific).
More people are paying attention to and using the information of digital activists.
Another important trend to highlight, and one that isn’t going away, is that this type of digital communication is being used heavily for various purposes aside from the mobilization and communication of direct political or social actors. For instance, journalists and media outlets have turned heavily to these tools to get information for reporting purposes….which has it’s pros and cons (see below).

It’s not just to the benefit of the activists anymore.

We started to see this in Iran in 2009, when governments or anti-freedom groups started “fighting back” using digital technology. It happened slowly, and was not very effective or organized. We saw it more organized in the London Riots and othermovementssince.

The real notability of this shift came when I was speaking with a friend in Syria, asking him how things were, that it sounded rough from where I was standing (note: this was before it actually GOT rough), and he said point blank, “you can’t trust any of your media (by the way, he’s mostly American), or Twitter. They aren’t accurate, and we’re safe.” It turns out thatpeople had hijacked the hashtags to report fake bomb attacks andhyperbolizewhat was happening on the ground. Something we’d seen before, but to minimal degrees. (See below point).

Ok, who to trust….. Joe (that would be my first inclination, but…)? Twitter (this would be my second outlet, and first in the cases where I didn’t have a friend on the ground)? The press (but everyone tells you not to go there)?

And this leads me to the next high-level insight….one I’ve spoken about before

Verification is super important!

In case you didn’t know…. but what’s happened now if that because these tools are in the hands of several different actors, there will be these hashtag hijackings and manipulation of information that we all need to be very careful of. Combine that with the fact that this digital information is being used for multiple purposes, this really muddies the waters. When getting fast information becomes the name of the game, it becomes more difficult to practice discipline when we’re consuming and especially sharing that information.

This is so important, because if it isn’t streamlined or worked out, it has the potential to ruin whatever systems are put into place moving forward. If we’re presented with a pile of information, no way to sift through it, and no way to verify it, I ask you how useful that pile of information is at that point – to activists orothers.

It depends on who’s being challenged and how receptive they are to public outcry.

Mary recently described the Arab Spring within the context of aConstructive/Destructive framework of network affects on nation states:

“In this example, networked actors used social media like Twitter to broadcast elite anti-regime narratives. This mechanism of international agenda-setting made it difficult for other heads of state to oppose the movement publicly, giving the activists a conducive international environment in which to push for regime change. Activists also used social media to mobilize the actual street protests which forced the Tunisian and Egyptians dictators from power.

In this example we see networked technology being used to challenge state power at the highest level by challenging the legitimacy of state institutions and the authority of rulers.We can say that its overall effect was positive since the political orders emerging in Egypt and (moreso) Tunisia are likely to be more democratic and concerned with public welfare than those that preceded them.

We should watch out for Eastern Europe/Central Asia as a possible next hot spot for outbreaks.

Anyone who’s been following this region know 1) it’s highly volatile at the moment and 2) they’ve already used digital technologies to mobilize and communicate in the past, so they’re ahead of the curve.


Ok, do you have anything else for us? Also make sure to check out David’s thoughts on the matter.


Digital Media in Britain: A Boon and a Burden

Whether you agree with the rioters in London or not (I don’t, and I think it’s acolossal waste of time, a disruption of society, and unnecessarily destructive, but that’s just me… I also hated when my own beloved Red Sox fans ripped apart the Fenway area after the Sox won the ALCS in 2004), digital media played a definite role in both the mobilization of rioters, as well as the attempted suppression of violence.

The skinny

Mobilization of protesters, mostly teenage males, occurred through two main mediums:

  • Social networking sites, primarily Twitter and Facebook
  • Mobile communication, with a large portion of this being through Blackberry’s BBM service (beefed up text messaging)

The Boons

Depending on which side you’re supporting in the matter, social media was either a good thing or a bad thing for both.

If you’re the rioters, mobile technology and social platforms allowed for easy connectionto fellow rioters, fast flash mob organization, and a quick spread of sentimentto other parts of the country.

If you’re the police, in some cases these technologies offered you an easier way to find where riots were popping up, and, to some extent a trail to followwhile the sentiments spread.

The Burdens

If you’re the rioters, you’ve offered an easier way for police to trail you.

If you’re the police, unfortunately the speed that digital technology allows for connections to be made was too fast to followin most cases.

The Endgame

Not that there are actual winners, and not that digital technology was a necessary tool in the situation, but if I were to say which “side” was able to leverage social media fully, I’d go with the rioters. Despite the ability of the authorities to have some insight into actions and movements of the rioters, in many cases it was not soon enough to stop the spread of violence.

What Does This Mean

There are many things to consider when analyzing the role digital technologies play in activism/mobilization – number and type of connections, amount of publicly visible information, speed of information transfer– and these become increasingly important if we’re looking at a dual- or multi-sided situation.

From Our Book: The Future that Digital Activism Makes Possible

Today’s excerpt, by editor Mary Joyce, presents a theory of change for how digital activism could change the global politics of power. Previous sections in the chapter explain the practical changes that the field of digital activism will need to pass through to increase its effectiveness and achieve this future state. The book is available for free download here and for hard copy sale here.

…Perhaps the greatest motivator for this kind of collaborative creation would be a shared vision of what is possible if the great potential of digital activism is realized—of the potentially transformative power of ubiquitous and dense linkages between citizens across the world. A new power grid is available and it is us. Unlike a traditional electrical power grid—a network in which power is generated only at the central point of production and money flows into the center while electricity flows out—this new human power grid would have many points of generation and almost infinite interfaces.

The new power grid is a decentralized network of individuals, each of whom can both produce and consume information, interact with the media, take action, and engage in protest. At the edges of the network, the term “consumer” does not apply anymore. While the organizer of an action may be called a “producer,” supporters who participate in the action are producers as well. The action is its participants.

The infrastructure of this new grid is the cables and radio signals that make up increasingly interconnected Internet and phone networks. The infrastructure is composed of applications like SMS and social networks that allow us to connect to one another with astonishing speed, increasing ease, and greater complexity. What will we do with this new network of software and infrastructure that connects us? What will happen when the power of the individual is organized through the grid and begins to push back on the center, the traditional locus of authority? How will the center change? Or will it not change at all?

Central authority, in the form of both governments and corporations, has always functioned through the cooperation of individuals within those institutions. The institution gets its power from the reliability of cooperation among the individuals within the institution. This reliability of cooperation used to require intense capital investment—the payment of salaries to soldiers or bureaucrats.

Traditional institutions are resource-intensive because they are forced to use extrinsic motivators like fear and money to ensure a significant and reliable level of cooperation. Digital campaigns, in contrast, can achieve their cooperation goals with radically fewer financial resources because a permanent time commitment is not necessary and a cause appeals to the idealism of the supporter, a free and intrinsic motivation. If many people can be engaged at low time commitment and low cost instead of high time commitment and high cost, as Harvard professor Yochai Benkler has posited in his book The Wealth of Networks, new institutions will arise.

Today, free and ad hoc organizations have demonstrated their ability to cooperate on discrete projects—a worldwide day of action, for instance—but have rarely formed the durable institutions that make cooperation reliable and would give them real power. This is one reason why it is so important that strategic knowledge be created. Digital activism needs to improve. Today we see marches, tomorrow we may see alternative political structures.

From Our Book: Are New or Old Apps Best?

Today’s excerpt, by Dan Schultz, who will soon begin graduate studies at the MIT Media Lab, is from a chapter entitled “Applications: Picking the Right One in a Transient World,” The chapter offers practical advice for activists on how to choose the applications that will support their digital campaign.

…You can easily get caught up in technology hype, and sometimes that isn’t such a bad thing for an activist to do. Campaigns that use a new technology to accomplish something groundbreaking often end up generating positive attention for themselves. There is also no question that identifying and diving into what will become the next Facebook or Twitter would help you gain traction on the digital front. Using tools that are a bit further along the adoption curve, however, can have some real benefits.

Established systems have established networks, precedent, popularity, and brands. By using a brand that people recognize, trust, and use, you will increase your own credibility and remove some of the barriers to involvement in your campaign. If your intended use takes advantage of network benefits, then the larger user bases of popular sites are going to prove to be a vital asset. Even if the tool is going to be used for something private, like internal communication, you could find the robust support base that comes with established tools to be invaluable.

Another major blow against “cutting-edge” technology is the vast increase of added risk. The tool could disappear, it might be unstable, maybe its popularity is just a fad, maybe it just isn’t going to grow any more—the list goes on. If longevity and stability are important for your purposes, you’ll need to be careful before making commitments to a tool that has only been around for a year. If, however, you are OK with the risk of being forced to change directions at some point down the line, don’t give this concern a second thought.

Of course, completely new isn’t necessarily something to avoid. There will be times when new tools do something that nothing else can do or they are simply superior in the areas you care about. You should also recognize that even the most established tool could become obsolete in a week. What is important is that you know what you’re getting yourself into and assess and address your risks accordingly.

“New Hotness” Pros

  • If the service grows, you benefit as an early adopter.
  • The tool might provide something new or improved.
  • You might discover a groundbreaking way to perform digital activism.

“New Hotness” Cons

  • It could fall flat, leaving you without an audience.
  • It could die off completely, leaving you without a tool.
  • It could change dramatically, possibly in a way that causes it to lose its original appeal.

“Old Reliable” Pros

  • You probably aren’t the first one trying to use the tool for activism, so there will be precedent and best practices to learn from.
  • The larger user base provides network benefits.
  • Established brand means others will be able to understand immediately how and why you are using the tool.

“Old Reliable” Cons

  • Depending on your intent, you might have to fight for attention in an environment filled with noise from other causes.
  • You might find yourself invested in an obsolete technology.

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.