The Internet as Literary Culture
March 17, 2011
Social Media in the Middle East and North Africa
This essay will show that social networks have become an indispensable instrument in North Africa and the Middle East for a creative and uncensored political exchange. Since December 2010 revolutionary waves of demonstrations and protests have been taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. Whereas in Tunisia and Egypt protestors have successfully urged the oppressive dictatorships away from power at the time of writing, demonstrations and even war is still taking place in other countries such as Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria and many others. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, can be seen as the spark of the riots in North Africa and the Middle East. The reasons for these revolutionary protests, however, are deep and wide-ranging: dictatorship, human rights violations, corruption of governments, economic crisis, poverty, censorship, unemployment and increasing food prizes certainly were among the major reasons for the outburst of protests.
Firstly it should be explained why social media has become more and more successful and is used by an increasing number of people in North Africa and the Middle East. As will be shown the different mentality of the younger generation led to a willingness to protest against social and political evils. Also demographical changes can be seen as the reason for a rising openness towards the use of new technical devices that older generations did not have.
Also the censorship of independent media, the manipulation of political content in official media by governmental departments is an aspect that will be focused on in this essay. Censorship made the use of the internet, especially of social platforms such as Facebook, crucial for political activists. It has been the only way to spread political messages that critically deal with politics of the ruling classes and to organize protests.
Finally the different ways in which social media is used by the people will be illustrated. As will be shown the internet can be used as an alternative to traditional media but also offers a platform for many artists to publish their creative works in these countries which would not have been possible using traditional media due to a strict oppression of political messages also in music and other arts. The internet thus offers the possibility not only for politicians and activists of oppositional forces but also for artists to avoid governmental suppression and censorship.
Increasing online participation
Demographical changes and, as a consequence, also a changing mentality of the younger generation can be seen as the main reasons for an increase in the number of people using social media, especially for political purposes. The “Middle East and North Africa Facebook Demographics” published by “Spot On Public Relations” in 2010 offer a very detailed insight in the development of Facebook user statistics in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) of the past year. In May 2010 about 15 million Facebook users in MENA were registered in total. As there were many English and French speaking people joining Facebook in 2008 and 2009, Facebook administrators decided to add an Arabic interface in March 2009. This opened access to the whole Arabic speaking community and consequently 3.5 million Arabic users joined Facebook in 2009. The strongest communities within MENA at that time were those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia with each adding 1.1 million Arabic speaking users.
Concerning the choice of language it can be stated that English is still the language that is selected in most countries in 2010 except for French speaking countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. In Yemen, Libya and Saudi Arabia Arabic is even the leading language of Facebook users. However, in total, English and French still dominated in 2010 as about 50% of all MENA users had selected the English interface, 25% French and only 23% used the Arabic interface. Although this may not seem very much, it shows however that the installation of an Arabic interface made social networking possible for many people that would not have been able to use Facebook if it was only offered in English. It therefore certainly led to a remarkable increase in online participation.
In May 2010 Egypt and Saudi Arabia still were the countries with the most registered users with Egypt now having about 3 million users and Saudi Arabia about 4 million followed by Morocco (1.76 million) and Tunisia (1.5 million) (cf. Malin 2010: 5). But the number of active users is permanently rising; today Egypt has more than 5.6 million registered users, Saudi Arabia has 3.5 million, Morocco 3 million and Tunisia 2.2 million. These numbers show the enormous increase in online participation within only one year in these countries.
In terms of age it is very clear that Facebook is used mainly by a very young generation. Facebook communities in eight MENA countries have each more than 50 percent of users that are under the age of 25: Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Yemen (cf. Malin 2010: 7). Whereas the older generation was largely dependent on traditional media influenced by the government, the younger generation now sees its chances in the usage of the internet as an uncensored medium. Of course the use of new technologies and internet platforms that are only a few years old like Facebook is more common for younger people in general and not only in MENA countries. However, not only the biggest part of Facebook users belongs to the younger generation but also the protests generally seem to come from this part of the population. High rates of poverty and youth unemployment are reasons for increasing dissatisfaction among the youth of MENA countries. Even when married, young men often don’t even have the chance to support their family. Many people see themselves disillusioned at a very early stage of their lives and at the same time have to bear the self-aggrandisement of dictators that fail to improve social circumstances. The statistics of social media usage show that there has been rising interest in communication and political exchange during the past two years particularly of the younger people.
Also some more recent statistics show the connection between the uprisings and an increase in social media participation. According to the website socialbakers.com at the time of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouzazi there were just over 1800 000 Tunisians on Facebook. Only five days later the number had jumped to over 1970 000 which indicates that about 150 000 Tunisians joined Facebook during the first week of the revolution (cf. Daniel 2011: 1). When the Tunisian government got more and more under pressure and offered an amnesty for all political groups again about 50 000 more Tunisians signed Facebook. Overall there has been an 11.4% increase in Facebook only in January 2011, an increase which is highly unusual. In Egypt about 217 600 people joined Facebook between the 20th and the 25th of January, a rise of 4.2% within only a few days. More than 85 000 people pledged to attend a nationwide antigovernment protest which is now being called “The Day of Anger” (cf. Daniel 2011: 1). Similar developments concerning the number of Facebook users in other MENA countries could be observed as soon as the protests started.
Censorship and suppression
The special chance that social media offers to those people is the possibility to express different opinions, publish critical political articles and messages and also to organise demonstrations and other political motivated events without being censored by governmental authorities. As nearly all officially available traditional media in most MENA countries – TV channels, newspapers, radio channels etc – seem to be under control of the governments and thus only spread patriotic and loyal messages without any criticism, online platforms even can be seen as the only available tool for a differentiating political exchange. As a consequence social media has become indispensable for the people in the Middle East and North Africa.
The IPI (International Press Institute) Press Review 2009 states that,
In the Middle East and North Africa, the Internet has offered many people access to information and the outside world that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. [...] However, government control of the media remains tight in almost all [Middle East and North Africa] countries, and censorship and self-censorship are prevalent throughout the region. (Sterling 2010: 1).
In Iran, journalists were cracked down by authorities and many of them were detained without trial when protests surfaced due to the election of Mahamoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009. According to the IPI report social media was in this case the only platform were evidence of the events could be published:
As demonstrators took to the streets, a news blackout was imposed on the foreign media. And yet, through social media networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, news of a violent government crackdown seeped out. (Sterling 2010: 1)