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March 02, 2011

Social Media - a New Battleground for Activists and Governments Alike

Protesters in Libya are refusing to give up their calls for an end to Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year rule, fighting deadly street battles against forces aligned with the Libyan leader. Their struggle is the latest in a series of anti-government protests that have swept through North Africa and the Middle East in what some have come to call the “Facebook Revolution.”

But some experts say there are limits to how much the recent unrest can be attributed to social media platforms. While online frustration propelled offline action in Tunisia and Egypt, Stanford University Professor Evgeny Morozov says that was not the case in Libya, where Gadhafi’s government has blocked Facebook and the messaging site Twitter. Still, Libyans took to the streets.

“As we have seen, people have been very brave and very courageous to go into the streets and continue their struggle even though they couldn’t do it online. In Libya, the protests have their own momentum, and they’re pretty much operating because of solidarity with Tunisia and Egypt,” he says. “The Internet was more or less irrelevant to the struggle. It certainly helped to get more information out of Libya, but I don’t think it was actually playing a crucial role.”

Egypt's Tipping Point

It was a different story in Egypt, where Facebook served as a forum on which anti-government protesters congregated and organized, with separate pages reaching followers in the hundreds of thousands.

Najeb Ayachi, president of the Washington-based research group the Magreb Center, says Facebook took disparate groups of protesters in Egypt and united them around a common goal.

"Communities have been forged through Facebook, virtual communities. People met and talked, and exchanged ideas, and complaints, and demands, as well as information," he says. “They got to know each other, sometimes even on a personal level. Thus they started constituting, creating communities."

Accelerating Change

Anti-government sentiment has festered for decades in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But Morozov says social media sites, and their ability to instantly and publicly share information, photos and videos, have transformed the political process.

"Some of these events happen much faster than they may have happened otherwise. The cycles are getting shorter, some of these protests are far more visible than they would be without those tools,” says Morozov.

The power and visibility of the online tools is also appealing to authoritarian governments. Gadhafi in Libya has appealed to his supporters to post video of pro-government rallies on the Internet. Bahrain’s foreign minister has his own Twitter account. And Sudanese police have spread false information about protests through social media and mobile phone text messages.

Mixed Messages

Journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University says finding reliable sources of information online is a huge problem. And it is only growing as more dictators embrace social media.

"Confusing the situation using disinformation, fooling people, creating false accounts, creating false information, that’s child’s play. That’s easy," says Rosen. "The real challenge of social media is to somehow rescue trust and reliability from a chaotic and really extremely messy environment that cannot be easily controlled. It can be shut off. But it cannot be easily controlled."

With the growth of the Internet in the developing world, social media are playing more of a role in political movements. Whether or not revolutionaries and governments embrace the online tools, one thing is clear: many of their admirers and detractors will.

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