The most direct impact for new media on the Arab uprisings would presumably be in its contribution to the organization and promotion of the protests themselves. Such arguments focus on distinct causal mechanisms linking new media to political outcomes. There is ample evidence of new media being used to organize and sustain protests during the Arab uprisings, though it is more difficult to demonstrate a unique causal role.
Then there is the question of whether new media actually helped to catalyze the protests themselves. Here again, the evidence for new media’s impact is surprisingly thin. Some accounts emphasize that Egyptian activists had coordinated for many years via online tools.
This may have generated a greater sense of common purpose. And certain new media, such as the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page, may have helped persuade Egyptians who came across the page that enough others shared their outrage that protest would be successful.
But even if those facts are true, they do not fully explain why the protests happened when they did and why many ordinary citizens were willing to join in. For those citizens, as opposed to the protest organizers, new media probably played a smaller role. For one, there is the simple fact that the Egyptian government shut down the Internet and short message service (SMS) on January 28. At that point, if not before, the mass of protestors was “composed primarily of people who have never updated a Facebook page or sent out a tweet in their lives”—no matter how “wired” some activists may have been.10 In fact, the shutdown of the Internet may actually have spurred more people to protest—the opposite of what one might expect if Twitter, Facebook, or SMS were the primary means by which protestors were mobilized.11 It is also possible that new media was important for some groups involved in protests but not others. Based on extensive interviews with Egyptians on the ground, Zack Brisson and Panthea Lee found that key constituencies (e.g., the labor and judiciary movements) were largely not online and many feared governmental Internet surveillance.12 Brisson and Lee note that handwritten documents and simple face-to-face communication were important: “the amount of knowledge transfer that occurs in cafes, on street corners, and from roadside newspaper vendors is immense.” Ultimately, online tools may have made helped activists communicate with each other without directly catalyzing mass participation in protests.
One recent study placed Twitter at the center of the revolution:
“Twitter seems to have been a key tool in the region for raising expectations of success and coordinating strategy,” and “the key media for spreading immediate news about big political changes from country to country in the region.”13 But the underlying evidence for these claims is based only on an analysis of tweets, without evidence of impact or dissemination outside of Twitter. There is good evidence that within Egypt itself Twitter is one of the least important sources of information, even for activists. In one survey of Tahrir Square protestors, which may actually overrepresent users of new media, only 13 percent named it as a medium used in protest activities.14 In fact, social media was cited less frequently than “old media” such as television (92 percent) and firsthand communication via live conversation (93 percent). It is unlikely that Twitter spread more “immediate news” across the region than Al-Jazeera, with its estimated 40 million viewers. Twitter surely influenced Al-Jazeera coverage (where dedicated staff monitored new media throughout the crisis), but this is a different mechanism. Without traditional media, Twitter’s impact would have been even more limited.
Kotdiji, December 9.