The Impact of Social Media on the Democratisation Process in Arab Countries  

Report on the workshop organised by Hivos at the first Arab Internet Governance Forum in Kuwait, October 2012

Moderator
Hanane Boujemi, Internet Governance Coordinator for the MENA Region, Hivos

Speakers
- Said Essoulami, Executive Director of the Centre for Media Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa
- Fady Ramy, Director of Interact Egypt
- Rafik Dammak, Computer Engineer at NTT Communications

The Internet – and social media specifically – played a pivotal role in connecting protestors during the uprisings known as the “Arab Spring”. Hivos organised a workshop at the first Arab Internet Governance Forum convened in Kuwait in October 2012 to discuss the impact of social media use in the MENA region and to what extent it is shaping the notion of freedom of expression.

The session started by posing an important question: should social media be credited with the outcomes of the revolutions, or should it be considered a tool that paved the way towards engaging Arab citizens in the protests? How did social media help people as a tool to initiate the revolution, and how is it helping at the moment to build a democratic society?

There are those who do not support the claim that the Arab uprisings have been “Facebook or Twitter revolutions”. Rather, they are “people’s revolutions” and the role of social media was to help facilitate channels of communication in the virtual world, enabling action in the real world. It was mentioned that the passage from the virtual to the real world was not analysed properly because most protestors were individually reacting to the events, while protest organisers were interacting amongst themselves in real time regarding incidents and developments.

It was also stated that at the outset, social media even sidelined the role of satellite television. In Egypt, it wasn’t until after the Internet was shut down by the regime that TV channels such as Aljazeera, running 24-hour broadcasts on events as they unfolded, created a significant psychological motivation for Egyptians to join the protests.

In addition to using social media, protestors on the ground also used traditional ways of engaging others by distributing leaflets at universities and workplaces. This helped tremendously in reaching thousands of people across the country in real time to organise tactics, quickly decide on meeting points, etc.

Social media also helped provide real- time coverage of events thanks to the availability of mobile devices, transmitting events as they happened both across Egypt and worldwide. Social media and mainstream media coverage alike placed huge pressure on the government and encouraged influential allies such as the US and European Union to gradually change their stance and confirm the oppressive nature of the (former) Egyptian regime.

The discussion then shifted to how social media is currently contributing to building a solid democratic society, one that people fought for. For example, citizen media has flourished in countries like Morocco, relaying the concerns of average people, criticising government decisions and even demanding reforms. Typical subjects include constitutional reform, new job opportunities, eradicating corruption, having an independent judiciary and transparent elections. This can be considered a milestone achievement, seeing as previously the government had the final say on its own performance and never intended to engage citizens in discussing their demands.

It is interesting to see how Moroccan government officials, political parties and leaders, and MPs are now engaging in discussions with the younger generation through social media channels and also recruiting them as party members. They have realised it is a powerful, cost effective tool with great social impact that can help them implement their political programmes.

Some ministers in Morocco are also taking the time to respond to citizen’s questions and criticism in online open forums using social media. It was mentioned that some government entities are now posting draft laws on their websites and requesting feedback and comments with the intention of incorporating these responses before approving the laws. This was perceived as a positive development in terms of establishing a communication bridge between the government and civil society, and an important stage in establishing an open and transparent government – which is a prerequisite of a democratic society.

Social media channels have also opened the doors to various groups advocating for specific issues, such as women’s rights or freedom of information groups, to reach out to a wider audience and to join forces in order to influence policy-making in these areas. The same applies to emerging groups in Tunisia, who used social media to generate awareness on the importance of taking part in the constitutional reforms.

The discussion then moved on to analyse further the role of social media in the MENA region before the uprisings and in their aftermath. It was stated that the strong will of the people in the region to demand social reforms was assisted by the availability of the Internet. Whereas social media had been mainly used previously for social, leisure and relationship opportunities, it became the tool that sparked and maintained the persistent calls for change during the Arab uprisings. Government clamp-downs on social media tools during the protests triggered interest in using further third-party applications like Hootsuite to monitor the ever-burgeoning range of social media and gain a broad view of mainstream social media and other trending media. A conspicuous spike in social media usage was noted, and it is believed to have had a significant impact on shaping the democratic process some Arab countries are going through presently.

Social media helped influential bloggers to communicate their political viewpoints, which went viral and influenced many of their supporters. Online discussions were eventually reported on by domestic and international television channels, which greatly amplified their resonance.

To measure social media influence in Egypt for example, Klout Score was used to define the impact of some accounts on Twitter and to what extent their tweets triggered people’s interest instantly from the number of reactions. It is worth mentioning that the widespread use of social media has also positively affected the level of openness in Arab political discourse, with most users expressing their opinions of presidential candidates and their eligibly to run for the elections quite bluntly. We could therefore conclude that social media has had a definite role in shaping public opinion.

The discussion then focused on the role of social media in boosting the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation in Egypt. In recent years, new technology-oriented start-ups have emerged to deal with common issues faced by all Egyptians. Many young entrepreneurs are inspired to develop mobile applications to solve local problems similar to the previously developed mobile App “Cairo traffic updates”. Fresh graduates are no longer dependent on companies to find employment; anyone with a useful idea can initiate a project with the help of tech tools and social media.

In the case of Tunisia, it was pointed out that social media was also used as a political tool to occasionally start unfounded rumours and make false allegations. The speaker was sceptical about the role of social media in the democratisation process per se and maintained that social media was indeed a tool to share opinions but not a main factor in initiating change. Rather, social media was an alternate channel deemed to be more transparent in sharing information and with different content than the information broadcast by mainstream media.

Another challenge in using social media is how to verify whether the information being reported on social media channels is correct and factual. It was stressed that one has to be very careful about the source of information before adopting a specific political stance. Political parties active in Tunisia – whether Islamists, secularists, right wing or left – are now contributing to an increasing polarisation of society, which negatively affects the democratic process. However, it was also mentioned that the political discourse taking place through social media after the uprising is much more diverse and balanced than before.

As a consequence of the need to ascertain the veracity of social media reports, the workshop participants felt that the user in the MENA region ought to develop a certain level of digital literacy and specific skills to perform fact verification and to filter information before adopting a standpoint or an opinion. The Arab user was described as lacking the necessary skills to spot manipulative facts on the Internet.

Interventions from the floor confirmed that social media as a media channel cannot replace traditional media. Fact-checking needs to be performed thoroughly to make sure critical information is accurate and true. Social media was described as a fast-track medium for initiating action and ideological change, however, not everyone in the region had access to the Internet or was technically savvy, which took us back to the role that traditional media still plays.

Social media use has indeed affected the political scene in the MENA region, and many governments are now positive about using it as a channel to bridge the communication gap with citizens. This new interactive model is crucial in building democracy. According to one of the speakers, we are witnessing a move away from the phase of conflict and tension to the phase of positive and effective participation of citizens in the policy-making process.

We find ourselves in an ongoing process of political and social transitions in the MENA region in which the role of social media has yet to be defined. The path towards democratisation may have been influenced in part by social media, but how the ‘new’ political scene and the existing cultures will adopt (and adapt to) widespread use of social media channels will define the long term ‘real’ democratising effects of social media in the MENA region.