Social media used to motivate protests in the Middle East

Hilary Bassett

In Tunisia, a young man graduated from college, facing a situation not dissimilar to an ISU student, except he’s living in a country characterized by corruption and political oppression, with unemployment rates rising as steadily as prices.

In an effort make a living, he became a street vendor; only to have his product taken away by authorities who claimed he didn’t have the proper permit.

This young man set himself on fire in protest in December 2010 and set into motion a series of revolutions that has been dubbed “Revolutions 2.0.”

In the United States, social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are used to keep in touch with friends or follow favorite celebrities, but in the Middle Eastern and North African regions of the world, it is being used to motivate people to rise up against restrictive governments and cause change.

In many of these revolutions, especially those in Tunisia and Egypt, the youth led the fight for reform. Anwar Mohamed, president of the Egyptian Students Association, associated the use of social media with the amount of young people involved in the protests.

The big advantage of using social networking sites, as shown in the Middle Eastern revolutions, is the speed of it all. The uprising that began in Tunisia has now spread to more than eight other countries and doesn’t seem to be losing steam.

“Cell phones, texting, tweeting and doing Facebook group events is faster and can encompass a much larger number of people very quickly and take the authorities by surprise,” said Steffen Schmidt, professor of political science.

But there are consequences when using social media for such causes.

“You saw that you could use these types of tools for mobilizing people for good causes, but also for propaganda,” said Raluca Cozma, assistant professor of journalism who is currently researching how news is affected by social media, especially Twitter.

This was seen mainly in the uprising in Egypt, where authorities shut down Internet and cell phone lines, only to come back online to spread rumors against the protesters.

The use of social media also allowed the rest of the world to virtually participate, providing information on the happenings instantaneously.

“Through social networking sites, people from all over the world could show their solidarity,” Cozma said. “I think that’s what helped the morale for the young protesters of Egypt.”

Since the occurrence of these revolutions, especially in Egypt, Internet usage and social media use has become even more popular.

“There was a newborn daughter in Egypt and her father called her Facebook,” Mohamed said. “So this can just give you a hint about how popular Facebook is now.”

Mohamed also noted that he has added more and more friends from Egypt, most of whom created Facebook profiles after the revolution.

The use of social media to spark revolutions has also caused a change in how the U.S. responds.

“Social media affects everything,” Schmidt said. “It affects domestic policy and politics and it affects international policy and politics.”

“It is the latest, amazing factor shaping what happens in countries and then how the U.S. responds to it and because of the speed of it and the unpredictability of it, it completely changes how U.S. foreign policy is made,” he said.

The future affects of social media in Middle Eastern society is still as unpredictable as social media itself, but some speculate it will be a lasting influence, saying it could even determine the winner of Egypt’s first free election.