November 28, 2012

Arab-American Media

The Role of Social Media in the Arab Uprisings

Almost immediately after the Arab uprisings began, there was debate over the role and influence of social media in the ouster of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the imminent overthrow of Mubarak. In covering what some deemed the Facebook or Twitter revolutions, the media focused heavily on young protesters mobilizing in the streets in political opposition, smartphones in hand. And since then, the violent and sectarian unrest in Syria has brought increased attention to the role of citizen journalism.[1]

Social media indeed played a part in the Arab uprisings. Networks formed online were crucial in organizing a core group of activists, specifically in Egypt.[2] Civil society leaders in Arab countries emphasized the role of "the internet, mobile phones, and social media" in the protests.[3] Additionally, digital media has been used by Arabs to exercise freedom of speech and as a space for civic engagement.[4]

Now, research is emerging that reexamines in a more detailed way the role that social media played in the Arab uprisings. 

 In July 2012 a report was published by the United States Institute of Peace based on an extensive content analysis of bit.ly links from the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain. Bit.ly links, or short URLs, are predominantly used in social media such as Twitter. The authors came to some conclusions that countered the initial assumption that social media was a causal mechanism in the uprisings. [5]

Instead, the study suggests that the importance of social media was in communicating to the rest of the world what was happening on the ground during the uprisings. "New [or social] media outlets that use bit.ly links are more likely to spread information outside of the region than inside it, acting like a megaphone more than a rallying cry."[6]

Data from the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project at least somewhat supports this conclusion with its findings that the majority of Egyptians are not online. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of the total population do not use the internet. When looking specifically at those with a college education, use of social media for obtaining political information is more prevalent than in other segments of the population. Though most of the country is disconnected from the internet, 84% of those who are online say they visit social networking sites for news about Egypt’s political situation.[7] These findings point to social media’s important role in spreading information, but do not necessarily indicate that social media was a mobilizing force in the uprisings.

Passing along information is an important part of the news process. Earlier PEJ research finds the role of Twitter in disseminating breaking news is not limited to the Arab uprisings – the death of Whitney Houston, for example, was announced on Twitter 55 minutes prior to the AP confirming the story. [8]

Twitter, Facebook and other new media offer ways for the Arab-American news media to reach audiences, but also pose a threat to smaller outlets. In addition to keeping up with the online presence of larger news organizations, Arab-American media are forced to compete with user-generated content that is rapidly available to audiences. The utility of social media in accessing information became clear during the Arab uprisings and events such as Egypt’s parliamentary and presidential elections. However, Manneh of New America Media points out that the credibility of this information is difficult to verify "depending on where it’s from, to whom it’s attributed, [and] especially when various events are happening very quickly."[9]

Arab-American news outlets find they must compete with this abundance of online content in order to evolve alongside readers who are increasingly turning to the internet for information. Newspapers have made the greatest inroads here so far, with most offering at least some form of digital content, while still maintaining print versions for older generations and those who prefer a physical newspaper. Radio programs, in light of the continuing challenge to find advertising sponsorship, are beginning to shift online.  Arab-American television, on the other hand, has yet to even really find a place amid the satellite programming available from Arab countries.


Footnotes

[1] Storify compilation by Arnold, David.  "Video News & Comment About Controversy & Future of Syrian’s Citizen

   Journalism." Multiple original stories published on Storify. June 2012.

   Raziq, Abdul. "Syrian Citizen Journalists Risk All to Bring Stories from the Frontlines." PR Watch, the

   Center for Media and Democracy. May 28, 2012.

   Sutter, John D. " ‘SNN,’ YouTube Help Amplify Voices in Syria." CNN. May 28, 2012.

[2] Khamis, Sahar and Katherine Vaughn. "Cyberactivism in the Egyptian Revolution: How Civic Engagement and Citizen  Journalism." Arab Media and Society. Summer 2011 and Lim, Merlyna. "Clicks, Cabs, and Coffee Houses: Social Media and Oppositional Movements in Egypt, 2004-2011." Journal of Communications. April 2012.

[3] Howard, Philip and Muzammil M. Hussain. "The Role of Digital Media." Journal of Democracy. July 2011.

[4] Ghannam, Jeffrey. "Digital Media in the Arab World One Year After the Revolutions." Center for International Media

    Assistance, the National Endowment for Democracy. 2012. 

[5] Associated Foreign Press. "Social Media, Cellphone Video Fuel Arab Protests." The  Independent. Feb. 27, 2011.

[6] Aday, Sean, Henry Farrell, Marc Lynch, John Sides, and Deen Freelon. "Blogs and Bullets II: New Media

     and Conflict After the Arab Spring." Peaceworks: United States Institute for Peace. July 2012.

     The authors use the term "new media" instead and not "social media" in the report. There is some debate

     about which term is most appropriate when referring to these technologies-"new media," "social

     media," "information communication technology (ICT)," "user-generated platforms," "digital media," and "Web 2.0

     technology" are some of the more commonly used phrases.

[7] Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. "Egyptians Embrace Revolt Leaders, Religious Parties and Military As Well; U.S. Wins No Friends, End of Treaty With Israel Sought."April 25, 2012.

[8]

Bennett, Shea. "Exclusive: "The Twitter User Who Broke News of Whitney Houston’s Death and Hour Before the

      Press." Mediabistro. Feb. 15, 2012 in Olmstead, Kenny, freelance journalist Jane Sasseen, Amy Mitchell, and Tom

      Rosenstiel. "Digital: News Gains Audience but Loses Ground in Chase for Revenue." PEJ State of the News Media. 2012.

[9]

Manneh, Suzanne. E-mail correspondence with PEJ. Oct. 25, 2012.