They are easy to spot in Deborah Wheeler’s class at American University of Kuwait. They favor brightly colored Polo shirts, cargo shorts and sandals. Sometimes toting both iPhone and Blackberry, they will each send 20 to 30 text messages while attending Wheeler’s lecture.
“They’re so good at paying attention and texting,” she said, “that you don’t really realize it until it’s too late. We did have rule, that if the phone rang or I caught them texting, they had to bring me chocolate the next day. But I was getting fat. So I decided that I should just understand that this dialed-in, networked generation is just absolutely addicted to these technologies.”
In Tunisia, internet activists gathered information posted on social media by protesters and published it as a coherent package accessible and understandable to outsiders, particularly journalists
Or consider Ahmed Shihab-Eldin. At the very moment that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, Shihab-Eldin was watching the historic event on the express train from Washington to New York. He could barely contain his excitement as he viewed live images of Tahrir Square streamed by Al-Jazeera on his laptop and texted friends in the square on his cell phone. “This is what is meant by global village,” said Shihab-Eldin, 27. “You can be traveling 85 miles an hour on a train and still be able to participate-both as consumer and producer of information and news.”
The students in Kuwait and Shihab-Eldin are homesteaders on the electronic frontier of the Internet, skillfully mining blogging sites, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and scores of other applications. Coming of age as these online tools came on stream, they have a love—some say obsession—for the social networking of cyberspace that is revolutionizing human communication and interaction.
They are the “Twitter Generation.”
Like connected, clicking youths everywhere, those in the Middle East have used social media to keep in touch with friends, share music, follow celebrities and pass around photos. But lately, they also demonstrated how these tools can be valuable assets for making history, employing them in the Arab Spring to usher in a remarkable transformation in the region’s political dynamics.
“The first three months of 2011 saw what can only be termed a substantial shift in the Arab world’s usage of social mediatowards…social and civil mobilization online…to organize demonstrations (both pro-and antigovernment), disseminate information within their networks, and raise awareness of ongoing events locally and globally,” concluded the Arab Social Media Report (ASMR). Issued in May by the Dubai School of Government’s Governance and Innovation Program, this report is perhaps the most comprehensive study of online social networking in the Arab world.
Social media’s rising stature prompts a host of questions about who is using it, its role in the Arab spring, its relationship to mainstream media and its impact on Arab societies.
Twitter is just one social media tool, but possibly because of its novelty and immediacy—tweets get read and responded to instantly—it acquired a high profile during the Arab Spring.
“Twitter is used for different things in different places, but in an authoritarian context like Egypt, it is a tool of dissent, and they used it for that relentlessly,” said David Faris, an assistant professor at Chicago’s Roosevelt University who spent four years studying how Egyptians use social media.
Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, is a dedicated social media user herself with many friends in the Middle East whom she met online. “The use of Twitter has been more innovative in the Middle East and North Africa than anywhere else in world,” she said.
DEFINING THE “TWITTER GENERATION”
Dedicated users of social media are a small vanguard in the Arab world, where access to the Internet and digital literacy levels are still low. But the number of people flocking to social media in the region is rising rapidly. This trend accelerated in the first quarter of this year, most notably in countries where protests occurred, according to the ASMR.
Facebook is the most popular social networking tool in Arab countries, with 27,711,503 users as of April 2011. That is almost double the 14,791,972 on Facebook in April 2010, the ASMR found. In the first four months of 2011, Facebook users in the Arab world grew by 30 percent, with Egypt accounting for most newcomers in this time period (2 million). Egypt’s 6.5 million Facebook users comprise about a quarter of all users in the region.
As for Twitter, the ASMR estimates there are about 6.5 million users in the Arab world, of whom 1.5 million are frequent tweeters. The countries with the most users and tweets are United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In Saudi Arabia, tweets went up 400 percent in one year (the average increase in the same time period in the rest of the world was 90 per cent).
This social media vanguard is young. Around 70 percent of Facebook users in the Arab world are between 15 and 29 years. And since they live in a region where at least 60 percent of the population is under 30, their online social media activity is bound to impact their societies.
Social media’s prominent role in the Arab Spring and its rising use among Arab youth raises the question of whether mainstream media is becoming irrelevant
But defining such a new phenomenon as the “Twitter Generation” is not easy. Who better to ask than Shihab-Eldin, co-presenter of Al-Jazeera’s The Stream, a news program about social media that links online communities to television audiences. Now based in Washington, Shihab-Eldin has spent half his life in the Arab world with his Palestinian-born parents.
“Reckless, instant, aware, nuanced, connected, compelled to communicate … even if they have nothing interesting to say,” he replied when asked to describe his peers. “But all in all, the first word that comes into my mind is brave, and honestly for me, that’s a product of the people I follow and the conversations I choose to pay attention to.”
Generalizing about the “Twitter Generation” is not easy, York said. “But what I’ve seen is a lot of younger people, a lot of tech-savvy people. Education seems to vary, lots have college degrees, or a minimum of a high school education. They’re people who have been using digital tools not necessarily for political activism though. There are a lot of folks who just like Facebook.”
That corresponds to the findings of a 2010 survey sponsored by American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute and UNICEF and directed by Jad Melki, assistant professor of media studies at AUB. That survey found that “barely any Arab youth were using social media for political activism,” Melki said. “They were mainly using it for entertainment, for connecting with friends, and mainly for consumption rather than production of information.”
But his poll was conducted before the Arab Spring. Also, the 2,744 youths aged 13 to 28 he questioned lived in Lebanon, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. When Roosevelt University’s Faris examined social media use in Egypt, he found a different picture. And it helps explain the role of these tools during the recent uprisings.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE ARAB SPRING: A SYMBIOSIS
The role of social media in the Arab Spring has been hotly debated. But an emerging consensus goes like this: The revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries were precipitated by long-standing grievances in a broad swath of their populations and would probably have happened at some point.
But social media played a vital role in several different ways. First of all, it prepared the ground for the revolts by influencing public opinion and creating online networks of like-minded people.
For years prior to the outbreak of Egypt’s 25 January protest, Faris found, digital activists had been using social media “to connect people who shared the same views about the regime, to organize protests … and to build a movement that could be deployed in a moment of crisis to undermine the regime.” These online activities, mostly blogging at first, were building “alternative public spheres” where dissent and information could be shared “as a way to do an end run around authoritarian state structures,” Faris added.
Facebook was especially important in both Tunisia and Egypt. The 2010 Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said,” created by Google executive Wael Ghonim to memorialize an Egyptian beaten to death by police, was key to galvanizing public sentiment and paving the way for the events of January 2011, according to many observers.
In the early stages of protests in both countries, social media was used as an efficient way to mobilize people and quicken the pace of events until they reached a critical stage. At this point, Twitter came into its own, said Faris. “Once action moved to street,” he said, “Twitter was more important … just in terms of sharing information about where the protests were developing.” The Twitter hashtag #Jan25 instantly created a unified community, he added, “bringing together everyone with internet access who was participating in these protests.”
Wheeler, an associate professor of political science at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland who gives a course in Arab human development at American University of Kuwait each summer, has been studying the impact of the Internet on Arab societies for more than a decade. “Not everybody who went to Tahrir Square had access to” social media, she said. “But enough people did that you could mobilize and communicate in an open way.”
Finally, social media were essential in rapidly publicizing what was happening to the outside world. Within two days of Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself alight, Shihab-Eldin recalled, “there were solidarity protests in Berlin, in Italy, in Egypt” because people read about it on Twitter. “It didn’t exist in the mainstream media.”
In Tunisia, internet activists gathered information posted on social media by protesters and published it as a coherent package accessible and understandable to outsiders, particularly journalists, on nawaat.org. This site, created in 2004 for opposition critiques of the former Ben Ali regime, had already helped prime Tunisians for revolt by publicizing Wikileaks-released cables about government corruption.
While Melki generally agrees with this description of social media’s role in the uprisings, he believes that their effect and use has been exaggerated. “Although they did play an important role in the Arab Spring,” he said, “I don’t think it’s as much as what people in the media are saying.”
Faris is more precise. “We have to give Facebook and Twitter their fair share of the credit,” he said. “Those two applications in particular were quite important in bringing about the events of January 25th … But once it was unleashed, they were no longer as important as they had been.
“What ultimately forced Mubarak to resign was not Facebook or Twitter or even [protests in] Tahrir,” added Faris. “It was the general strike initiated by organized labor starting on February 8th.” That strike, encompassing workers on the railway and bus systems, in the state electricity sector, in the Suez Canal and in many different factories left many businesses paralyzed.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND MAINSTREAM MEDIA: A PARTNERSHIP
Social media’s prominent role in the Arab Spring and its rising use among Arab youth raises the question of whether mainstream media is becoming irrelevant. An analysis of what happened before and during the Arab Spring suggests that, for now, both media need each other.
Faris said that many influential and widely read Egyptian bloggers were journalists themselves or had close ties to journalists. As a result, the material in their blogs, especially on sensitive issues like torture and unlawful detention, often showed up in independent newspapers and television stations. “That was really a sea change,” he said, “because it meant that the state no longer had control over narrative-making.”
When the uprisings began in Tunisia and Egypt, this partnership deepened. With its cameras barred from Tunisia, Al-Jazeera began excavating social media for videos, information and sources.
“In Tunis, when people would post YouTube videos to Facebook, the credibility of those videos would be questioned until Nawaat.org would put them on a website that Al-Jazeera would then play on tv,” said Melki. “Tunisians would see those videos on television and it would give them more credibility … This interaction between those three entities is really what helped in … bringing down the barrier of fear.”
York was following the early Tunisian protests on Twitter. It was only when Al-Jazeera’s coverage began, she said, that “the rest of world started to hear about it, the rest of the world being everybody who was not [already] watching it on Twitter.”
This was also when spill-over into Egypt began to materialize. “I think the domino effect owes a lot to social media,” York added, explaining that it gave mainstream media content that they could not get themselves. “Television is going to cover it no matter what,” she said. “But they would not be able to do it as quickly, easily, and efficiently without using social media to gain insight, to get sources.”
THE IMPACT OF THE “TWITTER GENERATION” ON SOCIETY
The “Twitter Generation’s” robust performance in the Arab Spring suggests that its collective impact on Arab societies will be significant, in part because of the changes that social media are creating in its youthful users.
As the ASMR states, “empirical evidence suggest[s] that the growth of social media in the region and the shift in usage trends have played a critical role in mobilization, empowerment, shaping opinions, and influencing change. A critical mass of young and active social media users in the Arab world exists today … One thing that is certain is that given the region’s young population and increasing penetration rates, social media will continue to play a growing role in political, societal and economic developments in the Arab region.”
So what is social media doing to its young users?
Most importantly, it is empowering them, “giving them a voice that didn’t exist before,” said Melki.
Social media offers “a new avenue for people to express themselves away from state-run media,” added Zaki Safar, 27, an electrical engineer at Saudi Aramco. “The flow of information is no longer controlled … so it is shifting power … back to the people, where it should be.”
Also, whether it is an appreciative comment on YouTube—where Saudi cartoonists and stand-up comics are drawing virtual crowds—or a retweet on Twitter, social networking is giving young people affirmation and confidence. This is a contrast to their usual experience, which often is to be ignored or issued commands.
As Safar put it, “when people reply back to my tweet, I know that I’m not alone out there, that I’m not just someone who is shouting out in the desert and the only thing I’m hearing back is my echo.”
Safar was an organizer of the recent campaign to overturn the Saudi ban on women driving, which was made possible largely by Facebook and Twitter. Supporters created a Facebook page “Women2Drive” to publicize the campaign; women who participated in the 17 June launch of the movement uploaded videos to YouTube of themselves driving. They also tweeted about their participation under the hashtag #W2drive, this allowed journalists to get an accurate count of the first day’s drivers. What is more, the Twitter user @W2drive now has almost 11,000 followers.
These online experiences are also emboldening. “Everyone now has a platform where they can talk,” said Riyadh blogger Eman Al-Nafjan. “And when you know that your neighbor has the same opinion you have, you feel brave enough to speak your own mind. It gets really contagious.”
Of course governments are monitoring Facebook and Twitter for dissent and using them to influence public opinion. Saudi users of Twitter quickly spot government tweeters, whom they call “egg people” because they don’t post their pictures with their tweets, keeping instead the default white oval icon.
Social media is also breaking down walls and borders. “Maybe the most noticeable thing is that I choose to spend time and energy in maintaining relationships with people who I don’t necessarily know, whom I’ve never met in person, and yet who I feel close to,” said Shihab-Eldin. He added that many of his peers gain “an increase in understanding in how they fit into their social fabric because they are communicating with people they have not communicated with before. They are being challenged …We really do live now in a world where borders, as we’ve seen in the context of the Arab uprising, are relatively meaningless in the movement of ideas.”
The full impact of this new frontier of social media is still unfolding. Wheeler believes that all these online experiences are incrementally but steadily creating new realities in the collective life of Arab societies.
“I think that young people who are dialed into these technologies are really aware of what’s going on in world, highly aware of what’s going on in their own society, are aware of US foreign policy, and they have opinions about these things” which they share “with people in the global community and their local communities,” she said. “I just think it’s a new era where politicians can’t hide.”