The events which unfolded in Tunisia are unprecedented, and represent the first time that a groundswell of discontent amongst Arab youth has successfully overthrown a government.
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These movements have, by and large, been characterised as being ‘leaderless’ — which is merely another way for saying they are community driven – primarily through the use of Facebook, Twitter, text messages and YouTube videos.
As Roger Cohen writes in the New York Times today: “Organization, networking, exposure to suppressed ideas and information, the habits of debate and self-empowerment in a culture of humiliation and conspiracy: These are some of the gifts social media is bestowing on overwhelmingly young populations across the Arab world.”
Data on Twitter usage is notoriously hard to come by and analyse, especially when one tries to break it up geographically. When contacted for an official statement on the part Twitter representative Sean Garrett told TechCrunch:
“We might be able to provide thoughtful analysis after all the events of Tunisia unfold. But, right now, along with the rest of the world, we sit back and watch in awe at how people are using Twitter and other platforms to provide on-the-ground-perspective at what might become a truly historic moment. (and, as some might say, it’s still very much of a Developing Situation).”
But Facebook is much easier to dig into and the data from Socialbakers.com provides compelling evidence that there is a direct link between the protests in the streets and the numbers of people on Facebook.
When compared against a timeline of events in Tunisia, the parallels are striking. On the 4th of January 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi, the vegetable seller who’s self-immolation was the catalyst for events, died from his burn injuries and was buried in a mass funeral.
At that time there were just over 1 800 000 Tunisians on Facebook. Five days later, that number had jumped to just over 1 970 000, which indicates that around 150 000 Tunisians joined Facebook in the first week of the revolution.
Then on the 21st of January, there was another significant spike of approximately 50 000 more Tunisians signing up to the site. This coincided with an offer of amnesty from the government to all political groups including banned Islamists. Perhaps many ordinary Tunisians took this as a sign that the change was irrevocable, and they were free to openly express their views.
Overall, there has been an 11.4% increase in Facebook users in that country during the past month.
Between the 20th and the 25th of January, 217 600 Egyptians joined Facebook, which is huge – a staggering rise of 4.2% over the last few days. In the days leading up to the 25th of January, more than 85 000 people pledged to attend a nationwide antigovernment protest that exploded into the streets in what is now being called “The Day of Anger.”
On Friday the 28th, most of the internet was blocked in Egypt ahead of a massive demonstation that is likely to rock the entire region.
The movement is not confined to North Africa. This week saw a huge surge in Facebook sign-ups across the Middle East.
What these graphs seem to indicate is that, at much the same time, hundreds of thousands of people from across the region crossed the digital divide and signed up to a social network that will transform their relationship with their community and with their government. Where it will all lead is still anyone’s guess.
The Philadelphia Inquirer sums it up neatly:
“Behind the scenes rages a struggle for media control. Government blocks or muddles Twitter and cell-phone use; tech-savvy protesters find workarounds that get out the message. Facebook pages, Twitter tweets, and YouTube posts appear and are taken down.”
In the cat and mouse game between government and the protestors, the open, inclusive nature of these social networks has levelled the playing field.
People would be misguided in laying the blame for these uprisings squarely at the feet of social media. Years of anger, frustration and underground activity have laid a solid foundation for popular uprising. But the tools of social media, second nature to the younger generation, have given the movements a weight and a flexibility that they would never have had before.