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Social media's role in the revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests that came to be known as the Arab Spring remains a highly debated subject. Uprisings occurred both in states with very high levels of internet usage (such as Bahrain, with 88% of its population online in 2011) and in states with some of the lowest internet penetration (Yemen and Libya).
Social media played a significant role during the Arab Spring because it facilitated communication and interaction among participants of political protests. Protesters used social media to organize demonstrations (both pro- and anti-governmental), disseminate information about their activities, and raise local and global awareness of ongoing events. Research from the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam found that online revolutionary conversations often preceded mass protests on the ground, and that social media also played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring. In some cases, governments used social media to engage with citizens and encourage their participation in government processes; in others, governments monitored internet traffic or blocked access to websites or the entire internet, according to a study conducted by the Dubai School of Government. The authors of the report analyzed various aspects of social media's impact on the Arab region, including the growth rate of Facebook and Twitter, changes in internet traffic, and demographic changes over time, coming to the conclusion that social media played a critical role in "mobilization, empowerment, shaping opinions, and influencing change" during the Arab Spring.
Social media's impact varied per country. Social networks played an important role in the rapid and relatively peaceful disintegration of at least two regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, where the governing regimes had little or no social base. They also contributed to social and political mobilization in Syria and Bahrain, where the Syrian "hacktivist" group, SEA (Syrian Electronic Army), was established in order to target and launch cyber attacks against the political opposition and news websites.
While nine out of ten Egyptians and Tunisians responded to a poll that they used Facebook to organize protests and spread awareness,the role of the social network wasn't central in countries like Syria and Yemen, where there is little Facebook penetration. Statistics show that during the Arab Spring the number of users of social networks, especially Facebook, rose dramatically in most Arab countries, particularly in those where political uprising took place. Libya was an exception to this statistic, which could be explained by the outflux of people from the country.
Government reactions to social media activism differed significantly from country to country. While the Tunisian government blocked only certain routes and websites through which protests were coordinated, the Egyptian government went further, first blocking Facebook and Twitter, then completely blocking access to the internet in the country for five days, beginning January 28, 2011. The Internet blackout in Egypt failed to stop the protests, and instead seemed to fuel them. However, although social media played a measurable role in gathering people to protest and spreading awareness of the unfair treatment of Arab citizens, it did not create a final solution to the unrest and was not a deciding factor in resolving the nations' conflicts.
In the aftermath of the Tunisian Revolution, young Egyptians spread the call to protest online with the help of a Facebook campaign, "We Are All Khaled Said," organized by the April 6 Youth Movement, Egypt's "largest and most active online human-right activist group." As the call to protest spread, online dissent moved into the offline world. The profile of the most active users of social networks (young, urban, and relatively educated) matches the description of the first anti-government protesters that emerged in the country in January 2011. Some analysts have translated this to mean that the Arab Spring truly began as a youth revolution meant to "promote a collective identity" and "mobilize people online and offline".
Social networks were not the only instruments available for rebels to communicate their efforts. In countries with the lowest Internet penetration and limited social networks, such as Yemen and Libya, mainstream electronic media devices like cell phones, emails, and video clips (e.g. YouTube) were used to cast light on the country's situation. In Egypt, and particularly in Cairo, mosques were one of the main platforms to coordinate protests. Television was also used to inform and coordinate the public in some countries. Some argue that the constant live coverage by Al Jazeera and other news agencies during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 prevented mass violence by the Egyptian government in Tahrir Square, as the cameras streamed the events to the outside world.
According to some experts, the initial excitement over the role of social media in political processes in the countries of the Maghreb and the Middle East has diminished. As Ekaterina Stepanova argues in her study concerning the role of information and communications technologies in the Arab Spring, social networks largely contributed to political and social mobilization but didn't play a decisive and independent role in it. Instead, social media acted as a catalyst for revolution, as in the case of Egypt, where the existing gap between the ruling elite and the rest of the population would eventually have resulted in some kind of uprising.
A literature review conducted by Robert Zepic et al. on the role of social media in political transition shows that there is no reason per se to expect that social media is a driver of democratization. In addition to demonstrators, autocratic governments themselves also use social media for their purposes, for example, to monitor citizens. Terrorist groups are also increasingly making use of social media, using the medium to recruit new followers or spread propaganda.
In his article "Small Change. Why the revolution will not be tweeted," Malcolm Gladwell outlines two main reasons why social media cannot be considered as a factor of real social change. First, social media leads to low-risk activism based on weak ties among participants, meaning that users can create the feeling of political action while not actually achieving anything. For example, in Syria, the "days of anger" announced on Facebook didn't actually cause large protests, even though they occurred just after violent clashes with the police resulting in the mass arrests of teenagers. Second, Gladwell argued that the decision-making process achieved through consensus is complicated by social media, which has no inherent hierarchy.