(Social) Media and Politics and the Arab Spring Moment

Khaled Hroub

Professor of Middle Eastern Studies & Arab Media Studies, Northwestern University, Qatar

Social media has played a crucial role in the emergence, organization, and dissemination of the Arab Spring. The launch of Al-Jazeera English in 2006 meant not only internal coverage of the region but defiance of western media control. However, the expansion of media coverage itself did not allow opportunities for change given that the political arena was still frozen and delimited to the elites. Since spring 2011, relations between Arab media and politics began a completely new phase, where social media integrated into the equation becoming the main weapon for the revolutionary youth to be heard and organized. Activist and broadcast media complemented each other, allowing the coverage of areas that would have been unfeasible to reach, without losing the power of diffusion held by the established media. Social media has been able to optimize the capacity of mobilization, challenging state control and surveillance technologies, including new journalists and unprecedented content. 

In line with historical experiences elsewhere, the euphoria that accompanied the revolutions of the Arab Spring 2010/11 gradually disappeared, slowly deflating the high expectations. Much academic euphoria has also shifted into a more modest mode. Although the jubilation and unrealistic optimism that accompanied the quick collapse of detested regimes can be easily anticipated and understood, the amplifying effect of the “up-to-date” media raised the “revolution euphoria” to unprecedented levels. The Arab Spring revolutions were covered around the clock with impressive panoramic live scenes of the squares, engaging in many ways hundreds of millions of people in these events. The combined power of all forms of media, especially broadcast and social media, took the police states in these countries by surprise and surpassed their capabilities to silence the media and keep all communication under the draconian control of the security apparatus. The leading role of the media in the Arab Spring is simply undeniable, albeit exaggerated in many accounts. This article attempts to understand the role of the media from a broader perspective hinging upon conceptualizing the intimate and contentious relationship between media and politics in the Arab context. The analysis identifies three forms of this relationship over successive and unequally spaced periods of time: before, during and after the Arab Spring. Before the Arab Spring the media-politics dynamic had reached a freezing point where the media was almost fully subjugated to politics and worked at the service of those at the top – be they governments or businesses. During the Arab Spring, that frozen relationship revolutionarily thawed almost instantly, opening a completely new chapter in this relationship. Post-Arab Spring, the relationship between media and politics is still taking shaping, energizing in part the Arab media and offering new potentials. Before delving into the main focus of the following discussion, which is the dynamics of media and politics during the Arab Spring, it is imperative to briefly define and clarify the impasse the Arab media was facing – or the freezing point. 

Al-Jazeera Breaks the Impasse

The long era of near-complete dominance by governments and businesses over mainstream Arab media came to an end by 1996 when Al-Jazeera hit the airwaves. Marking a new phase in Arab media history, the Al-Jazeera turning point was characterized by a number of “novel” aspects. In the first place, there was a sudden crashing-through of the previous low ceiling of freedom that had been imposed by state-owned media, particularly on the side of political taboos. This radical change went far beyond discussing un-discussed issues, but also included offering a platform for dissident voices and opposition groups across the Arab world, thus allowing them to be heard. Another aspect that Al-Jazeera brought and further enhanced was the pan-Arab identity of a station and its content. Although Qatari-owned, Al-Jazeera reflected no detectible Qatari flavor in its broadcasting, content, staff, coverage or programming. The diverse composition of its anchors, presenters and field correspondents who came from almost all Arab nationalities gave Al-Jazeera enormous success in becoming a familiar household fixture. Soon after its emergence many other pan-Arab stations were established, imitating Al-Jazeera in their media strategies, target audience and professionalism – such as Al-Arabiya and Abu Dhabi TV. The sky became wide open and crowded with hundreds of channels that seek to reach out to Arabic-speaking audiences, in the region and throughout the world. 

Beyond its influences and achievements within the Arab media industry and sphere, Al-Jazeera brought about radical change in the directions of flow of information pertaining to the region. In the post-colonial era, the media coverage in the Middle East, as perhaps in other regions with similar 20th century pasts, was virtually controlled by Western news agencies.A typical north to south route of news coverage and consumption had come to an end. The impressive network of Al-Jazeera correspondents across the region and beyond started to produce media coverage of their own region, cutting out the “middle man from the north”. At a later stage, when the channel Al-Jazeera English was established in 2006, the station coverage and production of news stories was extended beyond the region, reaching globally to all continents and competing with leading English-speaking networks such as CNN, BBC, Sky News and the like. 

The impressive network of Al-Jazeera correspondents across the region and beyond started to produce media coverage of their own region, cutting out the “middle man from the north”

All the aforementioned developments and achievements of Al-Jazeera have created high and perhaps unrealistic expectations regarding the influence and consequences of the new media on Arab politics. The sheer panic that characterized some Arab governments’ reaction to Al-Jazeera’s coverage of their failures has also proven to be exaggerated. After years of breaking political taboos and exposing all manner of political failure, Al-Jazeera (along with many other new emerging channels), has hit a hard reality: free media on its own cannot bring about free politics. Political change requires political agencies, social movements and active forces that would benefit from and use free media. Free media can help, initiate and/or speed up political change but cannot effect it alone. In fact, and after years of broadcasting by Al-Jazeera and other channels, authoritarian regimes in the Arab world have realized the good side effect of this free-virtual talk: it serves to release frustrations and vent bottled up popular/political anger. Thus, as long as the free angry talk and criticism of the ruling elites and their corruption ends up evaporating in the air, there is no great harm. The media vs. politics dynamics in the Arab world in the Al-Jazeera era, therefore, still produced a peculiar and unbalanced situation where free media had been enabled to discuss almost all sensitive political issues, while politics itself remained fully harnessed and un-free: a puzzling combination of vibrant media and frozen politics. 

Media During the Arab Spring

During that long paradoxical period of “free media” –and “frozen internal politics”‒ in the region (away from known hot spots of regional politics fuelled by wars and conflicts), new forces and socio-cultural and political agents started to form. There were principally two main players entering the fray, albeit not necessarily taken seriously by authorities (and observers): the youth and social media, and both have played a central leading role in the Arab Spring. Youths are the biggest demographic group in every Arab country, yet they became marginalized in society, neglected by governments and ignored by the mass media, including Al-Jazeera itself. With an alarming mix of rising unemployment, lack of hope, increased alienation and acquisition of technological skills, youths found in social media a comforting communicational refuge. Against the general perception that these youths were politically indifferent and only obsessed with “online chatting”, impressive groups of politically-aware and globally-connected young people emerged. These groups were the vanguards of the Arab Spring, astonishingly mobilizing the street, organizing the masses and imposing the will of the people. The main weapon used by the revolutionary youth of the Arab Spring squares was social media. With this social/youth media assuming a principal and leading role in the Arab Spring, a new chapter of Arab media and politics was opened.  

Yet, similar to the case of broadcast media, the leading role of social media in the Arab Spring, which has been extensively discussed and sometimes exaggerated, media, and in this case social media, cannot unleash and make revolutions on its own. Thus, the term “Facebook revolution” is in fact misleading and could be insulting to those who led these uprisings and to the thousands who died for them. Social media was a great facilitator and tool that profoundly helped the youths in their uprisings. But people revolt because of the accumulation of pressing socio-political conditions that reaches a breaking point. Social media is available in almost all countries, including those neighboring the Arab world, yet similar revolutions did not take place wherever that media existed, even where usage levels are higher than those in the Arab Spring countries. Certain media at any given time or in any space seems to be standing by, ready to lend a helping hand once a radical and popular change (such as a revolution) is about to take a turn. In the late 1970s, the Iranian revolution against the Shah used the audio-cassette as its media weapon, which proved to be very effective and influential in channeling the mobilization sermons of Ayatollah Khomeini. During the chain of regime collapse in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, trans-border TV broadcasting was of great help and could be viewed as the media weapon of those related uprisings. 

The causes of the Arab Spring uprisings are many and historical, mostly deeply rooted in the multifaceted failures of the post-colonial Arab state that have accumulated over decades. Political authoritarianism and lack of freedoms, economic stagnation and unemployment, military defeats, the increase of disfranchised segments of society, distorted demographics and cross-border ideologies have all kept pushing things to the brink of collapse – and revolt. At that moment, social media with activist journalism at its heart – was a very ready and effective tool of organization, mobilization and information. 

The causes of the Arab Spring uprisings are many and historical, mostly deeply rooted in the multifaceted failures of the post-colonial Arab state that have accumulated over decades

However, without the crucial help of transnational TV broadcasting it would have been extremely difficult, if even possible, for social media alone to convey to the masses across the related countries (and out into the entire world) the issues at stake and the events unfolding through the footage and stories captured by social media in the field. The creative and immediate process that made the media an astonishing part of the success story of the Arab Spring revolutions was the spontaneous integration between broadcasting and social media, a case of love and marriage at first sight. This integration managed, through speedy and effective division of functions, to offer inclusive coverage of the uprisings around the clock. Social media picked up small and uncovered events, practices, stories and/or mobilization instructions, and the broadcast media (Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya as leading examples) relayed all that on the broadest mass scale. The integration and immediate marriage between the two forms of media that took place at the start of the uprisings has been distinctively characterized by a number of dynamisms, described below, all of which helped the Arab uprisings take the speedy course that we all witnessed.

  • Functional Complementarity:This is the overarching and most important dynamism of the integration between activist and broadcast media. Each one functions in a way that complements the other. This has been structurally vital, for not only was there no fundamental competition between them, there were immediate and strong synergies. Revolutionaries and activists exploited social media simply by relying on their personal camera-equipped mobile phones to record events as they unfolded in the field and send them instantly to the broadcast media, such as Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and others. The feeds zooming-in coming from the field became the backbone of news bulletins and TV reporting, and were zoomed-out to millions of viewers everywhere in the world. The response of the broadcast media was immediate and creative with whole operations set up to receive these feeds, including broadcasting free-to-call phone numbers, e-mails and websites where people in the field could send in reports or upload their feeds.  
  • Mobilization and mobility: This dynamism reflects the great capacity of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and bloggers to mobilize people and create immediate and moving networks. Moreover, this social media is completely mobile, where individuals can report and cover events while on the move without any dependence on fixed equipment, its main tool being camera-enabled smartphones. People can stay informed and connected on the streets and while on the move. Unlike traditional media that requires crews, cables/power, large equipment and cameras, sound-systems and other heavy and slow logistics, social media and its activist journalism is light and easy to move, an ideal “sting-and-flee” form of coverage. Also, unlike the days of traditional media, people were released from being stuck in front of the TV screen in order to follow the latest developments, live and immediate. With social media, they could do this anywhere. 
  • Un-controllability: Here, activist journalism, and particularly within the context of the Arab uprisings, challenged state control and the surveillance technologies of the state and authorities because of its widespread nature and intensive use by vast numbers of people. Unlike traditional media, whose designated correspondents could easily be monitored or even banned, activist “journalists” and mobilizers outpaced state security skills and surveillance, gaining a clear technological advantage. State security apparatuses in most Arab countries were still attached to old paradigms in monitoring the masses and potential unrest – mostly by keeping a close eye on offline gatherings and assemblies. The rapid developments that were taking place with online activities surpassed, temporarily, the understanding and methods of control of these apparatuses, allowing for a historic window of “uncontrolled” media. This gap, however, started to close up quickly in the post-Arab uprisings stage, as governments woke up to the fact that they were lagging way behind the youth in mastering this media. 
  • Inclusivity: Social media devices, applications and tools have become available extensively and easily, offering an unprecedented degree of immediate activist journalism coverage of events and places. Almost suddenly, everyone with a smartphone, even if they were in the remotest areas of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen or Syria, could become an “activist journalist”. Such unprecedented inclusivity goes against the selectivity of coverage that traditional broadcast media is compelled to employ because of the limitation of resources and the complexity of logistical deployment. If broadcast media was focusing on the main locations of uprisings, such as Tahrir Square in Cairo, where they thought it was most wise to invest their resources and mount their cameras, activist journalism was extending the coverage to all areas that camera crews would have found it difficult or unfeasible to reach. 
  • Compatibility: The mobility, immediacy and inclusivity that activist journalism has enjoyed in the field made them the main news provider for broadcast media. The feeds provided by mobile phones in the street during the Arab revolutions represented the principal material transmitted and broadcast by pan-Arab TV networks, whose own reporters were banned in most cases. It is true that the quality of the material was not up to professional TV standards, but in the heat and immediacy of the revolutionary moment this issue was deservedly relegated to a secondary position. The leading TV stations, such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, quickly responded to this bottom-up journalism and set up special feed-receiving online hubs, where material could be uploaded directly and then passed through a verification process before being transmitted globally.  
  • Affordability: Practicing “activist journalism” is an affordable activity where in all of the above, the chief tool of the in-field social media was the camera-equipped mobile phone, which is affordable and already carried by the vast majority of people. There was no need for expensive and highly sophisticated machines and operations in order to report and cover events.