April 2011 | On the Issues by Sheldon Himelfarb
April 11, 2011
USIP's Sheldon Himelfarb
talks about the role of social media in the recent uprisings in the Middle East.
The Arab Spring, as it is being called, has prompted a vigorous debate about the role of social media in the Middle East. What have we learned?
You’re right, there’s been a vigorous debate on this subject for months now, but at this point, I think what has emerged are more good questions than good answers.
The digital revolution has thrown up lots of unstructured data – from blogs, tweets, public forums, etc. And with the vast new datasets have emerged a whole crop of analytical tools – link analysis, content analysis, social network analysis, meme tracking and the like. These tools crunch, sort, clean and visualize data ostensibly so that we can begin to understand how online discourse manifests itself as offline change.
For example, News Group, a Dubai-based company, recently unveiled a report for which they had monitored over 10 million social media conversations a day in the run-up to the events in Tahrir Square. From these they concluded that, yes, there were indications in social media of major upheaval in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab World before it burst into the headlines. Among their key findings: 1) “political terms were clearly on the rise in 2011 vs. 2010” and 2) “social media is a key driver, a game changer in Egypt primarily because it bridged the gap between social classes, thus for the first time creating a much larger united anti-government front that included rich and poor.”
But others in the audience questioned the methodology and the findings. Can one really say that social media bridged this gap between classes, rather than the facts on the ground, the conditions in Egypt itself. There is an abundance of social media data being aggregated, by companies like News Group, Morningside Analytics, Groundswell, Recorded Future, Janya and many others – as a virtual cottage industry has developed in producing reports on social media that are especially prized by government analysts -- but there’s much less agreement on whether they are drawing the correct insights from it.
Instead, as I said at the outset, we seem to be surfacing some very interesting questions. Let me give you a couple of examples.
As the News Groups report intimated, there is a lot of interest in the distinction between whether social media was the key enabler of the revolutions that took place, or was it more of an accelerator? Would these revolutions have occurred without the organizing, communicating, and galvanizing power of social media. Or was the social injustice, economic hardship, and repression already such a combustible mix, that social media merely provided the spark to ignite it? Perhaps what’s most interesting about these questions is the explicit acknowledgment of social media’s central role. A year ago, the big social media debate was between the polar opposites of cyber-utopian and cyber-skeptic -- where one side hailed social media and the internet as liberators, and the other as tools used increasingly by authoritarian regimes to track down and intimidate dissident voices. Now the debate has shifted, giving way -- thanks to events in the Middle East -- to a general acknowledgment of social media’s organizing power and a more nuanced discussion around the characteristics of this organizing power: enabler or accelerator.
Then there are a host of other interesting questions about the predictive capability of social media that are gathering steam. This is not crystal ball-gazing. Instead, social media displays trends over time that can be mapped and analyzed, offering new views beyond public opinion surveys into the changing moods and attitudes of a region in flux. Here again, the News Group had some interesting and quite provocative observations including that 1) there is an emerging trend toward neo-socialism across the Arab world and 2) there is a growing influence of religious groups on politics and 3) there is a growing popularity of the Salafi movement in rural areas of Arab society.
Another interesting question I’ve heard discussed, was posed by Alec Ross, the Secretary of State’s Senior Adviser for Innovation. Before an audience of senior diplomats he asked: “who can give me the name of an individual who was an organizer or a leader of the Tunisian rebellion?” Not a hand went up. And he hypothesized that a new dynamic was being created by these new information networks that “distribute power in a decentralized way.” It’s a sentiment echoed by activists themselves, whether Wael Ghonim of Egypt or Youssef Gaigi in Tunisia, who insist that their revolutions would not have happened without these digital networks.
Finally, there is another important question, that we in USIP are studying in our Blog’s and Bullets research initiative. Was President Obama’s celebrated trip to the region shortly after his inauguration, where he delivered his famous speech in Cairo, a major factor in igniting the passions and the people who together produced the Arab Spring? Social media analysis combined with public opinion surveys, may shed light on this question, which requires capturing and analyzing data from before and after his visit to consider cause and effect. But just imagine the import of such a conclusion, were it so.