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.

Rethinking Social Media

Today’s web is social, we all know that. But it may be more social than we think. Some platforms, like Facebook, are obviously social: we see the group of peers who are creating our experience through content creation or recommendations. Other platforms, like Google search, are “phantom social” – you don’t see the group of peers that have created your experience, but they are there nonetheless.

Let’s start with the obviously social: Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, blogs, Twitter, Yelp, Reddit, Meetup, 4chan, YouTube…. Whether you are looking at a restaurant review, a photo, a video, or a post, you know who has written or created it. The creator has an identity, even if it is just an online identity. You are constantly aware that your experience is being created by your peers.

Phantom social applications like Google Search or Cleverbot are more tricky. It may seem that you are interacting with a computer, but the responses you receive are still created by your peers, you just don’t see them. In the case of Google Search, the ranking of a search result is determined by the number of incoming links. Who creates those all those links? Other people. Notice how Google can predict possible queries as you type? Again, those suggestions are gleaned from other people’s common searches. And instant search? You get the idea. Each Google Search is made possible by millions of user actions collected and crunched by Google algorithms, yet few of us think of a search as a social activity.

Cleverbot is an application that allows you to carry out a text chat with a computerized personality. It seems the archetypal anti-social online experience: talking to a computer. Yet Cleverbot is also phantom social. According to Wikipedia:

Cleverbot differs from traditional chatterbots in that the user is not holding a conversation with a bot that directly responds to entered text. Instead, when the user enters text, the algorithm selects previously entered phrases from its database of 20 million conversations. It has been claimed that, “talking to Cleverbot is a little like talking with the collective community of the internet.”

Then there are the hybrids, platforms that have some features where peers are visible and some features where peer input is hidden and you seem to be interacting with a machine. The classic example here is online shopping sites like Amazon and, which incorporate user reviews (visible peers) along with product recommendations and star ratings (phantom peers). All three are based on the input, buying, and browsing patterns of other users. All three are social.

What does this mean? It means the web is a lot more social than we think. We know that interacting with hundreds of friends on Facebook or thousands of followers on Twitter is social , but when we are interacting with millions through an algorithm we forget the social aspect. Whether through a email from Mom or a recommendation gleaned from millions of strangers, the web is becoming an ever more elegant medium for meaningful human interaction.

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