Report: New Media and Conflict after the Arab Spring
A report from the United States Institute of Peace’s Centers of Innovation for Science, Technology, and Peacebuilding, analyzes the role of social media in the Arab Spring protests of 2011–12. The report, Blogs and Bullets II: New Media and Conflict After the Arab Spring builds on a previous report, published in 2010 by USIP Press, titled Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics, and applies its five-level framework for studying and understanding the role of new media in political movements.
The findings of the new report, summarized below challenge some of the assumptions about the role of social media in conflicts such as those witnessed in 2011. The authors utilize a unique dataset from bit.ly, the URL shortener commonly associated with Twitter and used by other digital media such as Facebook. With these data, the authors are able to test empirically the claims of “cyberoptimists” and “cyberskeptics” about the role of new media in bringing down autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and in spurring protests in other parts of the Arab World, such as Bahrain.
An extraordinary wave of popular protest swept the Arab world in 2011. Massive popular mobilization brought down long-ruling leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, helped spark bloody struggles in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and fundamentally reshaped the nature of politics in the region. The report found that new media—at least that which uses bit.ly linkages—did not appear to play a significant role in either in-country collective action or regional diffusion during this period. However, this lack of impact does not mean that social media—or digital media generally—were unimportant. Nor does it preclude the possibility that other new media technologies were significant in these contexts, or even that different Twitter or link data would show different results. But it does mean that at least in terms of media that use bit.ly links (especially Twitter), data do not provide strong support for claims of significant new media impact on Arab Spring political protests.
One possible reason for this finding is that new media outlets using bit.ly are more likely to spread information outside the region than inside it, acting like a megaphone more than a rallying cry. This dissemination could be significant if it led to a boomerang effect that brought international pressure to bear on autocratic regimes, or helped reduce a regime’s tendency to crack down violently on protests.
The report also acknowledged the difficulty in separating new media from old media. In the Arab Spring, the two reinforced each other. New media must be understood as part of a wider information arena in which new and old media form complex interrelationships.
Of the four major Arab Spring protests analyzed—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain— large differences were found across the four in the amount of information consumed via social media. The events in Egypt and in Libya (#jan25 and #feb17, respectively) garnered many more clicks on a much larger number of URLs than those in Tunisia and Bahrain. The protests in Egypt and Libya attracted more attention than those in other countries and also focused that attention on a more delimited set of content. Particular hashtags, such as #jan25, received a disproportionate proportion of attention. The trends also suggest very sharp peaks of attention pegged to dramatic events, such as the departure of Ben Ali in Tunisia, the Pearl Roundabout raid in Bahrain, and several key days during the protest in Egypt—especially the “Friday of departure,” when Mubarak resigned.