September 16, 2011

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

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