recommended reading

Social media's role in Arab spring still unclear

Something extraordinary happened at the nexus of social media and political action during the Arab spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, experts agreed during a panel discussion Friday.

But just what happened is less clear.

Certainly Twitter and other social media became a "megaphone" that disseminated information and excitement about the uprisings to the outside world, according to The George Washington University researchers who did a comprehensive study of Tweets about the Egyptian and Libyan uprisings between January and March.

According to that study, more than 75 percent of people who clicked on embedded Twitter links related to the uprisings were from outside the Arab world.

The number of people clicking on those links surged during major news events, especially during the run up to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, the researchers said.

The number of clicks from inside the Arab world was significantly smaller, but more sustained and less subject to the vicissitudes of the news cycle, they said.

"This obviously suggests that new media presents a tremendous opportunity to inform an international audience," GWU associate professor John Sides said, "but it also raises the question: 'Will they be there tomorrow?' "

Attention spans are limited, Sides noted. For instance, the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran attracted a surge of international activity on Twitter. But international attention shot down after the death of Michael Jackson grabbed headlines, he said.

Sides was speaking at a series of panel discussions at the U.S. Institute of Peace focused on the role of social media in conflict zones.

Alec Ross, the State Department's senior adviser for innovation, was perhaps the most bullish panelist on the capacity of social media to transform an oppressive state's political landscape. He called the working of social media during the Arab spring uprisings the beginning of a "massive transfer of power from nation states and large institutions to individual and small institutions."

Marc Lynch, a GWU professor and blogger at, largely agreed.

"People get very caught up in 'Will this revolution succeed?' and 'Will this dictator fall?,' and I think those are very important questions,' Lynch said. "But, in a sense, I think those are the wrong questions. I think the structural shift of the empowerment of individuals and of these transnational networks . . . is the beginning of the manifestation of a more powerful shift."

While social media can be a tool for harnessing international attention and for organizing protests, it can also be a tool for oppressive regimes to root out and track down dissidents, panelists said. And paid government tweeters or computer programs can flood Twitter hash tag search results and blog commentary to give a false sense of public opinion.

Other panelists warned that data on the role of social media during the Arab spring is so disparate and confusing it is nearly impossible to draw meaningful conclusions from it.

The George Washington University study and similar ones have tended to focus on Twitter, for example, at the expense of other social media because Twitter data is easier to parse, said Fadl al-Tarzi, an executive at News Group International, a Dubai-based media analysis firm.

Yet other social media, such as online conversation boards and blog comments sections, are often more popular in Egypt than Twitter, he said. Also, like other nationalities, Egyptians tend to use Twitter for short blasts of information, while they save more elaborate and thoughtful content for blogs and other mediums.

Blogs also tend to be run by intellectuals and trend setters, he said, while Twitter has broader appeal.

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats


Close [ x ] More from Nextgov

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • Effective Ransomware Response

    This whitepaper provides an overview and understanding of ransomware and how to successfully combat it.

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.