communications

Arab Spring: Revolution goes viral

U. WASHINGTON-SEATTLE (US) — Social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring, according to an analysis of millions of tweets and YouTube posts.

Conversations about revolution often preceded major events, and social media has carried inspiring stories of protest across international borders, the new study shows.

“Our evidence suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising,” says Philip Howard, the project lead and an associate professor in communication at the University of Washington.

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“People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.”

During the week before Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, for example, the total rate of tweets from Egypt—and around the world—about political change in that country ballooned from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day. Videos featuring protest and political commentary went viral – the top 23 videos received nearly 5.5 million views.

“Twitter offers us the clearest evidence of where individuals engaging in democratic conversations were located during the revolutions,” Howard says.

Twitter provides a window into the broader world of digital conversations, many of which probably involved cell phones to send text, pictures or voice messages, he adds. In Tunisia, for example, less than 20 percent of the population uses social media, but almost everyone has access to a mobile phone.

Data for the project came directly from immense digital archives the team built over the course of several months. The research is unusual because the team located data about technology use and political opinion from before the revolutions.

The Project on Information Technology and Political Islam assembled data about blogging in Tunisia one month prior to the crisis in that country, and had special data on the link structure of Egyptian political parties one month prior to the crisis there. Political discussion in blogs presaged the turn of popular opinion in both Tunisia and Egypt.

In Tunisia, conversations about liberty, democracy and revolution on blogs and on Twitter often immediately preceded mass protests. Twenty percent of blogs were evaluating Ben Ali’s leadership the day he resigned from office (Jan. 14), up from just 5 percent the month before.

Subsequently, the primary topic for Tunisian blogs was “revolution” until a public rally of at least 100,000 people eventually forced the old regime’s remaining leaders to relinquish power.

In the case of both Tunisia’s and Egypt’s revolutions, discussion spanned borders. In the two weeks after Mubarak’s resignation, there was an average of 2,400 tweets a day from people in neighboring countries about the political situation in Egypt. In Tunisia after Ben Ali’s resignation, there were about 2,200 tweets a day.

“In other words,” Howard says, “people throughout the region were drawn into an extended conversation about social uprising.”

Although social media did not cause the upheaval in North Africa, Howard says, they altered the capacity of citizens to affect domestic politics. Online activists created a virtual ecology of civil society, debating contentious issues that could not be discussed in public.

“Recent events show us that the public sense of shared grievance and potential for change can develop rapidly,” he says. “These dictators for a long time had many political enemies, but they were fragmented. So opponents used social media to identify goals, build solidarity, and organize demonstrations.”

The project is is supported by the National Science Foundation and the George W. Bush Institute.

More news from the University of Washington: www.washington.edu/news/

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