The whole world watched the events in the Middle East and North Africa a year ago with feelings of inspiration, fascination and awe – awe at the power of digital technology, at our ability almost to be part of it and to watch it in real time thanks to the power of today’s media, and above all awe at the courage and bravery of the individuals who inspired the Arab Spring, powered it, and died in its name.
Those events have sparked an intense debate about the role played by new technology and social media. The author Hisham Matar, whose father was a Libyan political dissident who disappeared in Cairo in 1990, said: “Revolutions are a boring thing. They take years. Social change takes a very long time.”
And I think it is in that context that we need to consider the role of social media and digital technology in particular. Was it the cause? Or was it simply part of a process that had much deeper, human roots?
There are two main views. One is Matar’s, that the role of the internet was “an exaggeration”. His argument is that only the “elite” in North African and the Middle East had access to the internet and knew how to use it effectively: the working classes, he insists, didn’t – but they were the ones that powered the revolution. His conclusion is that it may be fashionable to talk about Facebook and Twitter, but that “other very important elements of human life” played a role, by which he means the courage of individuals.
There is another view, which argues that social media played the key role in shaping debate in the Arab Spring, that a spike in online revolutionary conversations often preceded major events on the ground, and that social media helped to spread democratic ideals across international borders.
Where does the balance lie? I can’t pretend to know the definitive answer, and only the long sweep of history is likely to provide it, but there are a couple of important points I would like to highlight.
First, there is no doubt that social media played a critical role in fanning the flames of revolution once they were lit. Largely beyond the control of Government censorship, these platforms for the first time allowed protestors to plan, organise and execute their protests, to create and sustain a feeling of unity that was vital in maintaining them, and in essence provided a “virtual space” for what was unlawful assembly to the authorities.
Crucially, they ensured that revolutionary power was so diffuse that normal methods of government control could not stop it. And when they tried to, it backfired. When the Egyptian authorities shut off the internet and mobile networks for five days from 28th January 2011, this simply forced yet more protestors out onto the streets where they graduated beyond virtual opposition to become a very real mass body of protestors united in opposition.
And once revolution was underway, social media provided a crucial alternative voice to the state-run media which were turning out ludicrous accounts of contemporary events. This provided a vital source of news and inspiration to protestors within those countries, but also to those watching in the outside world. As Matar put it, “political dictatorships have possession not just of money and belongings but of narrative. The internet has created a new language.” That ability of ordinary people to create and sustain a new narrative is certainly vital.
The second point I would make relates to the outside world. There have, of course, been uprisings in many of the countries that made up the Arab Spring in the past. Protest, civic disturbance, and rebellion are not new. In Libya back in the early 1990s there was an uprising in the Green Mountain region in the east of the country. Almost the same set of things that happened in Libya in the early days of the 2011 revolution happened then. People protested, Gadaffi sent in helicopters and bombed them. But nobody knew about it.
Nobody in the outside world heard about it because there were no reports and above all no images. The instant propagation of visual images through the internet has changed all that – and that is crucial in terms of the pressure the outside world can bring to bear on authoritarian regimes that are in trouble.
In short this is a complex area, where reaching any form of conclusion is not easy. On balance, my own view is that social media was a catalyst that sped up processes that had long been underway throughout North Africa and the Middle East. It was one element of much more complex and much broader communications networks that fanned the flames of revolution. It helped shaped the environment but at the end of the day it would have been of no use without the courage of individuals who lit the sparks.
Whether it was the bravery of the Tunisian street vendor or those who first took to Tahrir Square and faced the wrath of the Egyptian authorities, it was human courage and human dignity which were the real heroes of the Arab Spring. For without them, what would those connected via social media have been able to write about?
And I finish with this one important point. If social media were so strong, why have they not continued to bring about social change – and particularly improvements in press freedom and freedom of expression – in the months since the protests died down? Progress has been slow, with many headlines disheartening.
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are vital to the rebuilding of these nations. Major institutional, legal and regulatory restructuring across all these countries is now absolutely vital, alongside deregulation and liberalisation. There are some signs of change but the pace is painfully slow.
The revolutions borne of the courage of individuals, and powered by the new media that is transforming all our lives, have created huge expectations. But this, and many other challenges, remain. And one of the biggest challenges is that it will be much more difficult to harness the power of new media unless there is liberalisation in the traditional media. We must do what we can to help both with practical help on the ground in training of journalists and giving advice. That is a key role for the UK in the years ahead as we seek to build on the remarkable events of the Arab Spring.