[For a short summary of this article, please visit: Women,Cyberactivism, & the Arab Spring by Courney Radsch]
Cyberactivism refers to the use of digital media technologies and social media platforms for sociopolitical contestation. Yet cyberactivism, with its emphasis on the virtual public sphere, is not exclusive of traditional activism. In fact, it is better understood as a mode of contentious politics that relies on new media technologies for information dissemination, networking, and the construction of collective identities and joint grievances, organization, and mobilization. Cyberactivism typically has two key objectives that are the same across the region: to build domestic support and influence the Western policy agenda, often via the mainstream media. Despite the rise of social media and citizen-generated content, the focus of a significant proportion of cyberactivism revolves around influencing the mainstream media agenda, as an increasingly symbiotic relationship between citizen and professional journalism has developed throughout the Arab Spring.
The emergence of small media that rivals the scope and reach of mass media helped shift the balance of power between mainstream, authoritative state voices embedded in broadcast and print media, which are primarily male-owned, and alternative, individual voices embedded in the small media of blogs and mobile telephony. The mobile phone continues to be one of the most important tools for cyberactivsts—particularly camera-equipped, Internet-enabled phones—while Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flikr, and blogs are the most important Internet-based platforms. Despite varying levels of Internet penetration in the region, with Yemen and Libya at less than 10 percent and Egypt (26 percent), Tunisia (36 percent) and Bahrain (57 percent) at varying levels, the size of the audience is less important than the fact that those among the audience included power brokers, journalists, the intelligentsia, and the West. As anthropologist Jon Anderson notes, “the size of audience is sometimes less significant than the quality and nature of the audience reached for a given purpose.” The blogosphere and social media spaces that made up the virtual public sphere privileged progressive, active youth over the entrenched leadership because the former are more technologically adept, diffusion occurred via friends, and they lacked other outlets for expression.
In the decade preceding the Arab Spring, Internet access in the region expanded from near nothing in 2000 to 40 percent of the population by 2010. By the time of the uprisings there were more than 16.8 million Facebook accounts in the region representing about 13 percent of the population, with Egypt accounting for 5 million of those accounts and Tunisia 2 million. Not surprisingly, youth made up a majority of users of these social media, with approximately 70 percent of the region’s Facebook accounts belonging to people under age 29. As the uprisings unfolded throughout 2011 a dramatic rise in social media usage occurred, with the number of Facebook users increasing by 68 percent between January and November, a doubling from the prior year that represented a penetration rate of about 10 percent of the population and made it one of the fastest growing regions on Facebook. Yet there is a disturbing gender divide on Facebook, with women making up only one-third of users in the region, whereas women make up one-half of users globally. This is particularly concerning because of the relative gender parity of the blogosphere prior to the popularization of Facebook; in my study of the Egyptian blogosphere, I found that there was relative gender parity in terms of the number of women and men blogging, a finding supported by a Berkman Center study that analyzed a snapshot of Arab blogs in 2009. The Arab Social Media Report attributed the divide to social and cultural constraints based impressions gathered from survey participants, but interviews indicate that access and technological literacy is a greater barrier to social media use among women.
Twitter similarly experienced rapid adoption in the region and quickly grew from about 3,000 Twitter users in the Middle East in 2009 to around 40,000 by mid-2010. Nine percent of Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Internet users said in a 2010 survey they used Twitter, with Egyptians representing 13 percent of the region’s users, the second highest usage after the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Despite the small number of users, particularly as a percentage of the population, they were nonetheless at the vanguard of creating new and innovative uses for the service. Since the beginning, Twitter has been used in the Middle East to communicate with journalists, perhaps explaining the fact that users tweet about the same amount in English as Arabic, with women more likely to do so than men. The 2009 survey found that nearly 60 percent of respondents said they interacted most often with media and journalists, coming in just after friends at 70 percent, findings that recent field work and interviews indicate likely continued to hold true through the Arab Spring. The third Arab Social Media Report found that regionally, women used social media during the revolution about equally to raise awareness inside their countries about the causes of the revolutions and to share and spread information with the world, whereas men focused more on the former. Cyberactivists used social media networks to strengthen their networked links with each other, journalists, and transnational rights groups, providing a measure of protection and publicity when the regime attempted to arrest or harass them.
Despite the limited penetration of these social networks among the population at large, however, they played a disproportionately significant role in the political contention that rocked the region in 2011. By the time the “Arab Spring” uprisings took place, Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags were an integral part of any political protest, and became effective tools for influencing mainstream media coverage and organizing collective action even in low-access countries like Libya and Yemen. The killing of Libyan president Moammar Ghaddafi, for example, ranked among the top ten trending topics on Twitter in 2011 along with the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. Part of the power of these social media users is that they were connected into a broader network of activists, journalists, politicians, and ordinary citizens. For example, in the month following Mubarak’s resignation an average of 460,000 people worldwide were joining Twitter every day, representing an exponentially expanding network in which more than a billion tweets are sent every week. Facebook, meanwhile, had more than 800 million users when the uprisings began, meaning the social networks activists plugged into were exponentially larger than at any time in human history. While most people may not be using social media for political activism, there is a significant number who are. Furthermore, social media blurs the line between the social and the political, enabling the activation of latent networks and varying levels of engagement in a cause.
These technologies and information and computer technology (ICT) platforms operate according to a networking logic, drawing their power and potential from a connective informational logic that young Arab men and women proved particularly adept at exploiting. Online networks are composed of nodes and hubs that are scale-free, characterized by power laws and organized in modules. Duncan Watts, one of the principle architects of network theory, argues that power law distribution, rather than a bell-shaped curve of averages, best describes the nature of a network like the Internet where a few websites get a significant amount of traffic but most get very little or none. Furthermore, the rich-get-richer phenomenon of power laws, in which established blogs, social media accounts, or nodes receive preferential attachment, means new users would likely connect to the more established and well-known cyberactivists in their blogrolls, follow their YouTube channel or connect via Twitter or Facebook. Lina Ben Mehni in Tunisia and Esraa Abdel Fattah in Egypt, for example, were early adopters of social media who established themselves as cyberactivists in the years leading up to the revolutions. They covered the uprisings in their home countries and ended up becoming hubs, receiving enormous amounts of media attention and rank among the most influential blogs and media outlets in the region. As Albert-László Barabási, physicist and network theorist, notes, “new nodes prefer to link to the more connected nodes, early nodes with more links will be selected more often and will grow faster than their younger and less connected peers.” This is why early adopters and particular bloggers continued to act as focal points throughout the revolutionary period. They became key nodes in the social media realm and garnered significant mainstream media attention, which certified them as credible and worth following, leading to even more linkages. As long as they remained active they continued to garner the most links and the most press coverage, which reinforced their role as key nodes and influencers.
In the following section, I explore the three key facets of cyberactivism that were central during and following the uprisings: citizen journalism, mobilization, and organization.
Citizen Journalism & Symbiosis with Mainstream Media
Many of these women cyberactivists chose citizen journalism as the primary mode of contestation in their battles with entrenched regimes. One young woman named Fatima, but better known by her blog name Arabicca, labeled 2011 the “Year of Citizen Journalism.” Citizen journalists radically shifted the media ecosystem and informational status quo by witnessing, putting on record, and imbuing political meaning to symbolic struggles to define quotidian resistance against social injustice, harassment, and censorship as part of a broader movement for political reform. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu aptly observed, “The simple report, the very fact of reporting, of putting on record as a reporter, always implies a social construction of reality that can mobilize (or demobilize) individuals or groups.” Information and events do not inherently have political meaning or importance, but rather must be interpreted, framed, and contextualized before becoming imbued with significance and import, a process in which journalists play a central role. As one of Egypt’s leading cyberactivists and citizen journalists astutely notes on the front page of his blog: “In a dictatorship, independent journalism by default becomes a form of activism, and the spread of information is essentially an act of agitation.”
Cyberactivists sought to influence domestic media and counter the pro-regime framing of the uprisings. Indeed, one of the primary goals and successes of citizen journalism in the lead-up to the Arab uprisings was creating awareness among people about their rights and the excesses of the Arab regimes. In Egypt, the state-run media refused to even cover the uprising in the early days or would blatantly misreport information, while in Bahrain the lack of independent media meant that the regime’s framing of the conflict as sectarian in nature had no counterpoint except for citizen media. Because of lingering distrust of the mainstream media in Libya, cultivated over the 42 years of Ghaddafi’s rule during which he controlled and manipulated the media, people rely on personal connections and relationships in assessing the trustworthiness of news and information. “Facebook is more trustworthy than the media,” one young Libyan woman told me. Lamees Dhaif embodies this shifting typology of journalism, blurring the lines between professional and citizen journalist as she continues to speak out in the media against the abuses of her government even as she blogs and tweets to an audience far bigger than the largest circulation newspaper in her home country. She dismissed the Bahraini authorities’ attempts to silence her, noting that she has almost 60,000 followers on Twitter and 43,000 subscribers to her blog, whereas the largest circulation newspaper in Bahrain prints only 12,000 copies daily. “So if they don’t want me to write in newspapers, who cares,” said Dhaif.
In Tunisia, bloggers like 27-year-old Lina Ben Mehnni played a critical role in breaking the mainstream media blackout on the protests that erupted around the country in the wake of the self-immolation by a fruit vendor in the southern city of Sidi Bouzid. She was one of the first people to write about the incident and turned her blog, Twitter, and Facebook page into a virtual newsroom. On December 17, 2010, tweets about Tunisia started appearing following the death of 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, who had set himself on fire in protest at the humiliation and harassment he suffered at the hands of police as he tended to his stand; his story was familiar to many young men and women who heard about it via social media networks. Lina, who blogs in Arabic, English, French, and German at A Tunisian Girl, called her friends for updates she then posted on social media and ended up deciding to go there herself to report: “I decided to share the grief of the inhabitants of Sidi Bouzid,” she wrote on her blog. Over the next several weeks she travelled the country, posting pictures and reports about the outbreak of street demonstrations and the violent responses by the regime. She relied on Twitter, Facebook, and her blog because, as she noted, only citizen media was covering the protests since the mainstream media only concerned itself with such uncontroversial news as the activities of the president and sports. Several Facebook pages were created in the wake of Bouazizi’s suicide, such as the Arabic page Mr. President, Tunisians are Setting Themselves on Fire, which garnered 2,500 fans within a day of its creation and 10,000 more a week later, helping to spread information about protests and providing an outlet for young Tunisians to express their anger.
There were few foreign media in Tunisia at that time: Al Jazeera had one foreign correspondent on the ground, as did France24, while the U.S. media were completely absent. There were no American channels, and even the Arab and French channels heavily depended on social media content and YouTube video. There were reports that Al Jazeera relied on citizen-generated videos for more than 60 percent of its content during the weeks leading up to President Ben Ali’s ouster on January 14, 2011, although one senior media executive told me that in fact the station was 100 percent dependent on such content in the first couple of weeks. Citizen journalists and bloggers like Lina, therefore, played a critical role in reporting on the uprising and providing content to mainstream media. As the uprising gathered strength, the regime engaged in a counter-information campaign and sought to discredit citizen media. Lina, whose father was also a political activist, started blogging in 2007 and had already earned a reputation covering human rights issues and freedom of expression, so her credibility was established. She also knew how to bypass the censorship that rendered key social media sites including YouTube and Flikr inaccessible to those who were not as adroit at using circumvention tools. “The Tunisian government did not find another solution but to censor the websites disseminating the story and imposing a blockade on the city of Sidi Bouzid, where people are expressing their anger by protesting in the streets,” she wrote on the activist blog Global Voices. Tunisia was among the most sophisticated Internet censors in the world, leading Reporters without Borders to put the country on its list of Internet Enemies and Freedom House to characterize its multilayered Internet censorship apparatus as “one of the world’s most repressive.” By 2011, 3.6 million Tunisians had Internet access and more than 1.8 million of them had a Facebook account. As one Tunisan bloguese put it: “Everything happened on Facebook.” Twitter was also an important tool; the Tunisian share of voice among MENA Twitter users rose significantly as protests erupted throughout the country, rising from about five percent on December 17, 2010, to more than 70 percent the day before Ben Ali fled the country. That is, everything that happened in the streets was recorded and posted online, flooding social media networks with news of the uprising. “Women were present in every stage and each action of the uprising,” Lina told me. “They were present on the street [and] behind their screens.”