From Harvard to Revolution - Facebook's Role in the Arab Spring

posted on February 25, 2012 in Politics and Society

t is a cold and bleak winter’s evening in February 2004 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A flurry of excitement sweeps through libraries and dorms on the Harvard College campus. Students in my sophomore class peer at each other’s laptops as they peruse a new website. Launched by our classmate the day before, Facebook has rapidly gained several hundred members. Fast-forward seven years to Tahrir Square in Cairo. A wave of youth discontent and protest, communicated and organized through Facebook, is destabilizing a dictator and threatening more regimes in the Arab world.

New forms of media created by the millennial generation are now employed in ways unimaginable only seven years ago. In countries where traditional media is tightly controlled, social media has helped engaged citizenry share images, information and coordinate actions.

As the recent Arab Social Media Report published by the Dubai School of Government has shown, Facebook is the most popular social networking tool in the Arab region. At the start of its Arab Spring, Egypt had a relatively low Facebook usage rate of 5.5 percent of the total population. Tunisia’s, by comparison, was closer to 19 percent. Yet the modest penetration rates of Facebook in these countries mask the greater numbers of people without accounts who are personally connected to, and influenced by, active Facebook users.

Critics who doubt the impact of social media on organizing revolutions point to the relative weakness of personal ties across social media platforms. They contend that real-life bonds and sustained commitments, rather than digital connections, foment mass organization.

Yet the Arab Spring shows that even the relatively weak ties through online social media offer a new means by which engaged citizens view each other and coordinate collective action. The risks to each individual involved in protest are reduced as the number of those involved increases. If a dozen individuals protest, they may be beaten up or arrested. But if a hundred thousand people demonstrate, a government’s security apparatus, however organized and loyal it may be, lacks the means to arrest and imprison the masses. Risk of protest in authoritarian countries tends to vary inversely with the number of people involved. So as more people register their discontent and organize online, this spiralling effect helps nudge fence-sitters off the fence and into the streets.

In our dorm rooms, my roommates and I felt that Facebook was for our friends and us. And in Tahrir Square, frustrated youth turned revolutionaries felt it was for them and their fellow activists.

On that wintery night in 2004, my roommates and I procrastinated from writing our history essays; instead, we clicked through classmates’ profiles and pictures. Never did we imagine that this new website, its membership then only a few hundred of our classmates, would join people and ideas to tilt the course of human history.