Social Media for Political Change: The Activists, Governments, and Firms Triangle of Powers during the Arab Movement

Social Media for Political Change: The Activists, Governments, and Firms Triangle of Powers during the Arab Movement

Mohamad Alkhouja (University of Maryland – College Park, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8614-4.ch004
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Abstract

This chapter discusses the role of social media in the uprisings of the Arab world. It argues that the seemingly democratizing impact of online activism is not due to the inherent nature of social media as a tool for democracy but rather an outcome of the equilibrium of forces that shaped the use of social media platforms by all three main players. Activists, governments, and social media firms formed a triangle of powers that influenced the use of social media during the Arab movements. In a different context, the outcome of such power balance can arguably inhibit citizens' rights and empower governments. To this end, the chapter first explores the use of social media platforms from the perspective of activists, governments, and social media firms, then presents a framework to understand the impact of all three in shaping the use of social media during the uprisings. The chapter then concludes that the projections of the role of social media on other movements in the world must not be made without understanding the underlying complexities and dynamics of these movements.
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Activists And Social Media: A Proactive Innovative Approach

Undermined as the children of the Internet (Serageldin, 2011, p.28), the youth in the Arab world embraced online activism as their doctrine for change during the Arab Movements. In Egypt, the explosion in Internet use was evident. Facebook’s one million users increase in one month is a clear indicator of users attraction to the Internet (Peterson, 2011). Citizens’ congruence with online activism during the Arab Movements roots to their needs and motivations in the first place. In their quest to topple the regimes and bring reforms to their region, activists generally relied on three main strategic objectives; Maintaining a certain level of security, influencing public opinion, and mobilizing protesters and the public. Activists’ tactics and maneuvers originated from the evolvement of those motives. The Arab Movements provide an interesting set of cases in which the innovative and proactive use of Social Media by activists and dissidents is in accordance with these strategies.

First, personal security and the need for survival from retaliation or repression of authoritarian regimes pushed activists to embrace online anonymity in Social Media as a vital practice in most of their activism. An example is the famous ‘‘We Are All Khaled Said’’ Facebook page that was created in June 2010. The creator of the page, Wael Ghonim, used a pseudonymous user instead of his real name. In answering Newsweek why he chose to do so, Wael explained that he is seeking anonymity because he is scared of the government (Giglio, 2011). Activists relied as well on Facebook’s feature of creating closed and secret groups that are unsearchable. This provided them with a safe and reliable environment to organize actions on ground. However, online anonymity has its adverse impact on activism. Youmans and York (2012) explain how it “has been used by some as a cover for harassment, fraud, and illegal activity. For example, a blogger known as ‘the Gay Girl in Damascus’ became a media source on protests in Syria and was later found to be a middle-aged American man living in Scotland” (Addley, 2011). Such incidents arguably harm the public image of the opposition by raising questions on its credibility.

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