by Declan Fahy
The Arab Spring has been frequently framed as a narrative about the democratic potential of social media — its dramatic events sometimes explicitly called the Twitter Revolutions or the Facebook Revolutions (just flick the terms into Google).
But this framing obscures the political and communication complexities involved and hides the way legacy and new media interacted in the movements across the Arab world.
It is here that international media researchers and students have a role to play — clarifying these complexities in their own research, creating a broader discussion that eschews the narrowly deterministic view that technology drives society, or that media on their own propel social and political change.
The inaugural event of the International Media Speaker Series at American University tomorrow night is a chance to engage in such broader discussion. It brings Egyptian students to campus, offering a chance to hear first-hand about communication and the Arab Spring.
Academics are already planning research projects that explain the role of media in the tumultuous events of last spring.
A framework for this research was outlined earlier this year in an article on media and the Arab uprisings published in Journalism by Prof. Simon Cottle of Cardiff University, UK. A striking feature of the revolutions, he argued, was how “media and communications have become inextricably infused inside” them.
But the nature of this infusion was complex and difficult to tease out, and he offered several ways in which politics and media — traditional media, new media, social media — were inscribed in these Arab uprisings, ways that provide starting points for future study. For example:
- Researchers can examine how state-run Arab media performed before the uprisings, and how they legitimized their political regimes. Researchers can also examine what he called the western media’s “conspicuous silence” about the suppression of political dissent and human rights in these countries, before the Arab spring.
- Studies can explore how the uprisings illustrated the globalized, network of communications where young people in repressive regimes were immersed in western media outlets that conveyed images and ideas of democracy, civil rights and consumption, filtering these ideas through their societies.
- Projects can explore how the rising participation in social networks in Arab countries has facilitated conversation, interaction and the creation of communities, facilitating a pluralistic interaction online that can serve a model for similar interactions in civil society.
- Analysts can use the uprisings to offer a sort of social laboratory to examine the interaction between different media in large communication networks. Cottle quoted Tunisian blogger Sami Ben Ghabia who said content about the revolution in mainstream media first came from Facebook, but was aggregated, translated and uploaded to an independent, dissenting blog Nawaat — where it was disseminated via Twitter to mainstream journalists.
- Researchers that examine the links between media and politics can explore how this spreading of on-the-ground news via mainstream media served to legitimate the uprisings in the eyes of western governments — even before those governments had begun to view the protestors as legitimate.
- Studies should be wary, however, of concluding that the media caused the spread of uprisings. But a way to think about the role of media in these uprisings is to examine how images of political dissent can spread, and they can show others how to protest. Before the uprisings, for example, media activists had studied the strategies of groups including Iran’s Green Movement.
- Researchers should also be wary of the uncritical equation of the internet and protest. It has been used, as Evgeny Morozov argued in The Net Delusion, by repressive regimes, and social media becomes a terrain in which wider political struggles are fought.
All are avenues for future research, but researchers should aim to offer, in their work, an account of the Arab Spring that is more nuanced, rich and complex than reductionist portrayals that framed these world-historic events as a Twitter Revolution.
Editor’s Note: For another take on this theme, please see “Social Media, the Recipe for Revolution?”
(The photo is by Jonathan Rashad via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)