Mobile phones, social media and the Arab Spring


Mobile phones, social media and the Arab Spring

Current events are making clearer the fact that new technologies, such as the spread of the internet, social media and new mobile software applications are impacting in developing fast and lasting social changes.
Recent riots in the UK have certainly been a clear example of the effectiveness and rapidity of these tools in engaging communities around certain topics and values. Considering UK riots it is worthy to note how specific patterns characterising the Arab spring are developing in a similar way, yet with different causes and social settings.
The so-called Arab Spring not only has challenged years of dictatorship, but also enabled people to realise how powerful the use of new technologies and media is in creating shared values able to support revolutions. As a matter of fact, the socio-political unrest that took place in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt first; Libya, Syria and Yemen then, have been shaped by new technologies, yet in different ways.  

With this paper not only we aim to look at the different ways new technologies have impacted on the development of revolts in the MENA region, but also the extent to which mobile phones have been used to tackle governments’ restrictions.

Did mobile phones and social media really enabled revolutions?
Answering this question is far from easy. Many would argue that the importance given to social media has been overstated, since countries like Libya, Syria and Yemen, characterised by similar patterns than Egypt and Tunisia, did not manage to realise a successful revolution, even though the use of new technology has been, and still is massive.
However, it is important to recognise that although the Arab Spring has not been created by new technologies, yet it has spread through them. Indeed, if we compare and analyse the events that took place in these countries, we could assert that not only have social media and mobile phones enabled the crowds to organise and coordinate themselves, but also provided a valuable means to tackle governmental control over information.
If we look at statistics, it would be immediate to notice how high internet and mobile phones penetration in developing countries is. Although in most of the Arab states governments are trying to control mainly the whole net of telecommunication infrastructures, still the development of internet access is giving people an immediate and less controlled means of communication.  As the Centre for International Media Assistance states in his report on Social Media in the Arab World, broadband high-speed internet is available in countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, while 3G mobile services are already developed in the North African region, as well as countries like Sudan and Syria (Ghannam, 2011). The global penetration rate of simple mobile phones is currently over 70%. Just to quote few numbers, only in 2009 Saudi Arabia  had a mobile penetration rate of 103%, Tunisia 87%, Egypt 72%, Syria 45%, Yemen 34% (Ghannam, 2011), while the whole Middle East region has currently seen a total rate of 285 million mobile subscribers (Africa and Middle East telecom-week report, July 2011).
By analysing and comparing the social unrest in different countries, we will highlight here the role played by mobile phones and social media in determining successful or unsuccessful revolutions.

The positive role of mobile phones in victorious revolutions: Egypt and Tunisia
Egypt and Tunisia represent the two main countries where the social revolution has succeeded. In both nations the coordination of masses and the insurgent action plan have been spread through main social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. While riots and revolutions in the past were developing and spreading by word of mouth, nowadays social media and mobile phones seem to be the main tool to give protesters information about how to counteract security controls, decreasing the risk of being captured and amplifying the achievement of the main objectives.
Therefore, the initial success of these two big revolutions is given by the powerful channels, which, by permitting to avoid the conventional media and governmental surveillance, gave voice to people’s needs. As many have already highlighted, the internet provided the means for both gathering and disseminating information, social media for connecting and organising groups of individuals spread across the country, and mobile phones played a huge role in both coordinating local groups and recording events through videos and pictures.
The power residing in these tools has also been recognised by the governments themselves, to the extent that they both decided to block internet sites and cut all the communication systems. This action, however, gave the opposite result and increased the number of participants protesting in the streets to claim their freedom of information back, so that both the Tunisian and the Egyptian governments had to apologise and re-establish communication infrastructures.  
Although the events described above already emphasize the relevance of new media and communication, it is important to highlight the prominence of mobile phones in reporting information. As a matter of fact, as it is true that social media had a massive influence in bridging distant areas and bringing people together, it is also true that mobile phones represented the main tool that provided protesters with the opportunity to spread their voices and share their values with the entire world.
For months we have been seeing massive amounts of images on television, newspapers, or the internet, and all those images were originated directly by personal headsets and mobile phones belonging to each individual involved in the revolts. If it is true (as many commentators have stated) that Twitter and Facebook are just an intermediary tool to share pre-created information, it is also true, and really important to mention, that mobile phones were creating those news and information. Mobile phones enabled people to broadcast themselves, factor that could be depicted as one of the most powerful resource for social change.
As Nabil Al Sharif, former Minister of State for Communications, stated: “The most important outcome of the Arab Spring has been the destruction of the old media regime”. As a matter of fact, the high level of media censorship in Arab countries brought citizens to increasingly distrust National media and information, leading them to rely on self-generated news, easier to spread both on a national and international level. One protester said: “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate and YouTube to tell the world”. This sentence fairly expresses the power embedded in mobile phones for developing freedom of information and creating a two way communication with the world. Not only were the millions of camera phones recording events to be uploaded on the internet, but also represented the main source of information for international newspapers, such as BBC and Al Jazeera.  Indeed, as many commentators have stated, videos and pictures taken by mobile phones represented the sole record of the violent scenes picturing governmental repression.
Furthermore, new technology also played a massive role after the revolution, as a powerful resource to write history. As a matter of fact, an Egyptian filmmaker Amr Salama has recently posted on Twitter a call for footage in order to create a documentary about the Egyptian revolution. So far, he has received over 300 gigabytes of images, mainly created through mobile phone devices. Therefore, mobile phones can be seen as the main tool that gave transparency, freedom and fairness to international information.
These testimonies highlight the development of a new form of civil engagement in society, a new way for communities to be involved and play an active role in lasting social change and development of rights and liberties. A new and more effective way because it broadens quickly, it brings together people who might feel different one another, yet who share same values on the basis of one shared community. A new way that is transparent and gives the opportunity to people to be heard on a large scale and therefore makes it worthy to try, as the outcomes can be seen; and can be seen immediately, without censorship or control. As Ghannam (2011) states

“Social networking has changed expectations of freedom of expression and association to the degree that individual and collective capacities to communicate, mobilize and gain technical knowledge are expected to lead even greater voice, political influence and participation over the next 10 to 20 years.”

And social networking starts from mobile phones. If we think about our daily life and the activities that we undertake regularly, it becomes immediately obvious that we spend a lot of time using our mobile phones. Whether undertaking work related or personal functions, communication becomes easier through mobile phones and I-phone and I-pad applications. Whether we are running late to appointments or whether we just want to say a quick “Hi” to someone we have not seen in a while, these technologies are becoming essential. Indeed, SMS is one of the quickest and easiest ways to communicate and this simple mechanism was a key driver in sweeping thoughts and communications in the Arab Spring across the Arab World.

The role of mobile phones in unsuccessful revolutions: Syria and Libya. 

Considering unsuccessful revolutions also contributes in demonstrating that, although mobile phones and new technologies cannot determine the outcome of a revolution, yet they can make it happen. As a matter of fact, although both Syrian and Libyan governments represent oppressive regimes, characterised by a cruel military force, which hardly leaves any hope for a socio-political change, yet Mr Radwan Ziadeh, executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Washington DC affirmed that it is the first time that Syria assists to this kind of popular uprising.

Many protesters have confirmed that what gave power and voice to their resistance is digital technology (Somaskanda, 2011, Spreading the Word: Syria’s digital revolution). Images of popular uprising in Tunisia and Egypt and broadcast news mentioned above, reached the Syrian and Libyan citizens, transmitting them that spirit of protest. One Syrian protester stated:

“This couldn’t have happened earlier […] now we have cell phones and can talk to each other, and we know what is happening in other towns.”

It is therefore obvious to note that the increasing penetration of simple mobile headset in the Arab society has made drastic changes in considering and developing opportunities for social action. The immediate communication among individuals belonging to a given community and sharing a certain set of values provides them with a strong feeling of companionship. Mobile phones and social media give the opportunity to concretely acknowledge the amount of people engaging in the same battle and increase citizens’ involvement.
The part played by mobile phones in Libya is to a greater extent astonishing. As a matter of fact, unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian governments, when Ghaddafi shut the whole communication network and internet he did not step back and based the hub of the communication infrastructure in Tripoli, to give the regime full control over any kind of internal communication. Given the impossibility of interacting, rebels have been forced to develop a plan to hack a new hub to create a new and independent network. Thanks to the financial help from the U.A.E. and Qatar, a group of Libyan engineers managed to successfully integrate their new equipment to the existing hub in Tripoli and restore communication. The satellite network provided by the U.A.E. telecom Etisalat, enabled rebels to have their own mobile phone network, which gave them the opportunity to organise subsequent actions (The Wall Street Journal, 13/04/2011).
Moreover, the easiness of communication given by mobile phones and social media not only has enabled citizens and rebels in countries like Syria, Libya or Yemen to follow the North African events, but also led governments to follow the same path and approach the equivalent method. 
As the Tunisian blogger Sami Ben Gharbia acknowledged, “Governments are using social media to their benefit” since many groups supporting the Algerian President Bouteflika or the Egyptian President Mubarak’s son have been created during presidential elections or in rioting times (Ghannam 2011). Furthermore, in Libya text messages stating “We congratulate those who understand that interfering with national unity threatens the future of generations” have been sent from the Ghaddafi regime to millions of mobile phone subscribers (The Telegraph, 20/02/2011), while Egypt is known to have forced the telecom company Vodafone to send pro-governmental SMS.   

Positively or negatively, supporting or opposing revolutionary actions, mobile phones and new technology have played an impressive role in reaching and influencing people globally. Although talking about immediate social change might be too optimistic and quite unrealistic, it should be admitted that mobile telephony and the spread of the use of social media in socio-political related issues is providing the basis for gradual and long term social transformations. Already people feel increasingly comfortable in taking action because of the power embedded in these tools. Distances have been shortened and times have been restrained. While in the past organising a revolution was requiring years of personal and secret meeting on a small scale, today events like those we have witnessed can be organised in few days, thanks to the inputs and contribution that every single and each person can easily introduce every minute.

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