Social Media in the Middle East and North Africa: Why Now? What’s Next?

Last month I went back to the Kennedy School to speak at the Plenary panel of the HKS reunion weekend. The panel was called “Revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa: Why Now? What’s Next?” The panel was moderated by Xenia Dormandy, Senior Fellow at Chatham House (MPP 2000), and featured Tarek Masoud, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and Razzaq al-Saiedi, Senior Researcher, Physicians for Human Rights (MPA 2009))

I was invited to provide some perspective on the role that social media has / is playing. I was happy that the panel was so diverse; the focus was not on social media, but rather on the socio-economic and political factors at play, which was quite refreshing to someone embedded in online media.

The panel video is now available in case you want to watch it.

The “why now” question was interesting, and I think that it has more to do with the social / political issues on the ground than social media played. Social Media is a way to connect people to each other, but the offline organizing has to be there in order for there to be meaningful change. Tweets can only do so much to save you from the barrel of a gun.

The “what’s next” question is more interesting to me, especially given the events unfolding with #amina over the course of the last few weeks. I followed the #amina story from the beginning, secretly rooting A Gay Girl in Damascus who turned out to be a White Man in Georgia. Lots of smart people have written about this topic (see Micah Sifry, Andy Carvin, Jillian York, the Guardian’s Dan Gillmore, and Ethan Zuckerman).

I think this incident highlights one of the points I tried to make in my talk.

Online organizing is no longer seen as a fringe activity. Books about social media and revolution are being published in the mainstream (see Tweets from Tahrir and Revolution 2.0), and the public expects information that is shared through social media to be real (i.e. amina).

It has clearly providing a way for disenfranchised people to connect with the rest of the world and with each other without the need or formal institutions. However, as reliance on the medium has grown, so too have our expectations of it. In a way, social media is becoming an authoritative institution, and bringing with it all of the expectations that we have of them.

However, in becoming that institution, social media loses its grassroots nature, and the relative anonimity that is unfortunately necessary to organize and connect, specifically in MENA. Organizers who use social media without adequate protections risk be watched and persecuted by the regime for speaking out, and we are increasingly seeing that the west is obsessed with verifying the legitimacy of the information shared through social channels. This parallel need to hide in plain site and be honest and open create a dangerous environment online organizers and activists.

The implications are that policitcal activists will need to find new ways to organize, perhaps going back to simpler and more anonymous methods of connecting with each other.

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Jeff Ribeira

Great thoughts! Wish I could have been there for the panel. I’ll have to watch the video when I’ve got some free time. Interesting thoughts on social media becoming institutionalized. I agree that it’s definitely heading that direction (and the tools we use now will most likely be replaced by the next grassroots effort), but I think it’s still a ways off as anonymity, false identities and therefore the dissemination of misinformation are still very real and common occurrences in online communities. But then again, perhaps those aspects of human interaction (whether online or in the real world, to spark revolution or peace) have always been, and will always be around and it’s only the medium or tools that change. And here’s an interesting question that just came to me along those lines, would what’s happening right now in MENA even have been possible without the simultaneous revolution of social media? I’m not really sure I have an answer for that at the moment myself, but just throwing it out there 🙂

Stephen Peteritas

Interesting that you feel they will have to go back to old ways of organizing. I think it will continue to evolve. At this point there’s really no way for a government to stay ahead of tech and so techies (the people who were the catalysts for these revolutions will always be steps ahead developing new things.

Yasmin Fodil

@Stephen – perhaps it won’t go back to old ways, and the tech will continue to evolve. i mostly mean that i doubt it will stay the same. i like the way you state that “the people who were the catalysts for these revolutions will always be steps ahead developing new things.” i think that’s definitely true and im interested to see what comes next.

@jeff thanks for your comment! i really don’t know whether these events would have been possible without the revolutions in social media. it definitely seemed like the revolutions themselves went “viral” and that social media played a big part. but without a counter-factual it is hard to really know. i think it was the right mix of a lot of things.