Paper asserts social media was central to Arab Spring

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Social media played a central role in protests that drove entrenched rulers out of power in Egypt and Tunisia, says a study from the University of Washington.

The paper, principally authored by Philip Howard, an associate professor in the Seattle-based university and director of the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam, makes more assertions than perhaps merited by the marshaled evidence.

Social media, the paper says, provides new opportunities and tools to respond to local conditions. "It is clear that the ability to produce and consume political content, independent of social elites, is important because the public sense of shared grievances and potential for change can develop rapidly," the paper says.

As evidence, the paper cites correlations between spikes in social media activity and events associated with the Arab Spring. For example, the number of daily Tweets using the hashtag #sidibouzid (a Tunisian city the epicenter of protests) peaked in late January, after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had resigned, but before Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi (who was closely associated with Ben Ali) resigned on Feb. 27.

"A spike in online revolutionary conversations often preceded major events on the ground," the paper says. The paper also cites a growth in Tunisian blog activity evaluating Ben Ali's leadership. On the day of his resignation, about 20 percent of Tunisian blogs did so, whereas a month before only 5 percent did.

A graph in the paper also shows the number of tweets with the hashtag #egypt growing at a steep curve until the Feb. 11 resignation of President Hosni Mubarak--although thereafter, while #egypt Tweets originating from outside Egypt declined, #egypt Tweets from within Egypt continued to climb, albeit at a slower rate than before.

The paper also includes a section on viral videos, stating that YouTube became a particularly important tool for spreading news and information of Egypt's uprising.

"While it is difficult to measure the precise impact of these videos on audiences, some images of suffering certainly would have spurred protests and heightened moral outrage," the paper says, without stating why that's so.

In general, the paper doesn't attempt to serious grapple with the question of whether social media was a necessary factor of protest movements in Egypt and Tunisia. Other countries have witnessed virtual congregations of disaffected individuals in blogs, Facebook and Twitter without resultant mass protest movements, and revolutions have certainly occurred without the aid of social media. That central question, of whether social media spurs protest or just mirrors it, remains unanswered.

For more:
- download the paper, "Opening Closed Regimes What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring?"

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