By Jeffrey Ghannam
Well before the Arab Spring protests erupted in late 2010, people in the Arab world were accessing the Internet and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter at rapidly growing rates. These platforms became perfectly poised to amplify the demands that would soon be voiced and, in the wake of the Arab Spring, would become impossible to ignore.
During the 2000s, media technologies and the Internet enabled the most expansive margin of free expression the Arab world had experienced in its contemporary history. However, those who dared to use these technologies to express opinions that ran afoul of official red lines, or even to share poetry about the yearning to be free, did so at great personal risk and often faced serious repercussions.
Despite government crackdowns and strictures, such as firewalls and surveillance, a survey of 16 Arab countries conducted by the Arab Advisors Group in 2009 found that there were roughly 40 to 45 million Internet users in the region. There were also 35,000 active blogs in the region that same year, and by 2010, the number had grown to 40,000. Facebook had 17 million users in the Arab world, including journalists, political leaders, political opposition figures, human rights activists, social activists, entertainers, and royalty. Nearly five million of those users were in Egypt, where the interior ministry maintained a department of 45 people to monitor the social networking site.
This early critical mass of online citizens, along with many who were not yet online, seized a window of opportunity to protest and demand change in an unprecedented exercise of free expression that would become known as the Arab Spring. By the start of these revolutions in late 2010 and early 2011, freedom of the press and expression in the MENA region had noticeably improved and the media ecosystem appeared to have broken free, if briefly, from the confines imposed by the state-owned media monopolies, censorship, and red lines. In the optimism of the day, strides made through protest and the exercise of free expression seemed to represent significant development toward greater civic participation, accountability, and representative governance. Even authoritarians, ministers, and monarchs had Facebook pages and Twitter handles, and the prospects for citizen-government engagement appeared promising.
But the early acts of civil disobedience were followed by swift government crackdowns on both the protestors and their amplified voices. In the whirling vortex of online media, governments, political opposition groups, and other actors recognized social and digital media’s reach and potential impact and began using these platforms for their own one-sided messages, narratives, propaganda, and—for certain extremist groups—grotesque displays of torture.
The role of satellite networks
Before there were Facebook posts, Twitter hashtags, and YouTube videos, transnational satellite broadcasters filled the need for regional news, and these networks continued to play a central role in disseminating news and information during the Arab Spring. Al Jazeera, the most well-known example, had been a leading provider of coverage of the second Palestinian uprising and the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It maintained this central role during the Arab Spring, in part by tapping into the wellspring of social and digital media content. Activists recognized the potential to reach larger audiences than immediate circles of Facebook friends and Twitter followers would allow. They collected posts shared by protestors, translated and contextualized them, and then reposted the content on platforms with wider audiences. These online posts were often then rebroadcast by Al Jazeera on its satellite network. This had the effect not only of amplifying the messages of other activists, but also enabling their content to reach satellite television viewers who may not have been online.
Even though the region had witnessed wide-scale digital connectivity and adoption of media technologies, the majority of people in the Arab world were still not online and did not have Facebook or Twitter accounts. Thus, the Arab Spring protests were not “Facebook Revolutions,” even though the characterization still circulates in the mistaken belief that these movements would not have occurred without the social networking platform. The role of digital connectivity in amplifying the Arab Spring should not be downplayed, however, as it did enable long-simmering and legitimate grievances and protests to be shared globally and in real time, arguably making them among the most chronicled popular uprisings in history.
Today, about 44 percent of people in the Arab world use the internet, with 64 percent of users being between the ages of 15 and 24, according to the International Telecommunications Union. Other sources have counted more than 141 million Arabic-speaking Facebook users, as of June 2017. Yet the hope and promise of the early Arab Spring and the protests, both physical and online, that were empowered by that hope, appear to have faded—perhaps a result of crackdowns, fear of repercussions, or fatigue—despite technological advances and the expanding audiences for social and digital media platforms. It’s as if the volume from the sound track of protests and demands in the Arab world has been dialed back, indefinitely.
Even so, the technology and platforms that enabled the amplification of the Arab Spring protests have emerged as powerful lifelines for communities caught in the ensuing aftermath of war and humanitarian crises. Reporting by mainstream Arab media targets global audiences and often provides broad news about regional wars and humanitarian crises, rather than on-the-ground humanitarian reporting from conflict zones, due to serious concerns for the safety of journalists. As a result, the immediate information needs of the communities most affected are not being met by traditional media.
When effective information infrastructures are in place, people can make better-informed decisions and gain more control of their lives. Humanitarian relief organizations are helping to fill the information void by developing their own multimedia communication initiatives that provide hyper-local and urgent news and information to refugee and migrant communities, which often use mobile devices. These initiatives seek to address some of the most essential challenges refugees and others confront, such as determining where they should go and how to get there; how to obtain food, shelter, and medical care for themselves or their families; how to register as refugees, enroll children in schools, and possibly find employment.
Creating humanitarian information systems requires a focus on the interplay of technology and more traditional forms of communication, making use of Facebook, the mobile real-time message application WhatsApp, radio broadcasts, word-of-mouth, or even printed banners with directions for migrants crossing into Europe. For example, a radio initiative launched by UNESCO in northern Jordan helped foster dialogue between refugees and host communities, dispel misinformation and rumors, and provide psychosocial support and guidance. Listeners were able to send questions or comments to the show via Facebook or SMS and then hear their concerns voiced in safe and anonymous ways. Another initiative launched by BBC Media Action sent mobile media centers to refugee camps to provide access to WiFi, charging stations for mobile devices, and tablets with applications that provide information such as phone numbers for schools, hospitals, legal support, and a variety of other essential services.
Beyond vulnerable communities, technological advances bring exciting new opportunities for the region’s 180 million (and counting) Internet users. But the digital future is fraught with peril for the Arab region, as in other authoritarian-ruled environments—even in more democratic political systems—with trends pointing to robust surveillance and challenges to the protection of free expression.
Jeffrey Ghannam, a 1988 graduate of Georgetown’s Master of Arts in Arab Studies program, is a lawyer, author, international development practitioner, and former Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at University of Michigan. He has worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the Islamic Development Bank in Saudi Arabia, on a $2.5 billion humanitarian relief initiative and led numerous journalism and good governance capacity-building programs in the Middle East and South Asia. Ghannam’s journalism career has included editorial positions at several prestigious publications, including the Detroit Free Press and The New York Times. He has published op-eds in The Washington Post and The Economist and written several reports for the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance, including “Social Media in the Arab World: Leading up to the Uprisings of 2011,” “Digital Media in the Arab World One Year After the Revolutions,” and “Media as a Form of Aid in Humanitarian Crises.” Ghannam will return to CCAS this summer to teach “Media and the Arab World.”
This article was published in the Winter/Spring 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.