‘Beyond the hype and scepticism’ – a link to my research on the role of social media in the North African revolutions

23 Jan

I presented the findings of my research on the use of social media in the North African revolutions at the Transparency International and Kellogg College Oxford University Governance and Accountability conference.  The research paper, written last year, aims to help policy-makers understand the role of social media in the 2011 political movements across North Africa. It was commissioned by the US National Intelligence Council to provide a structured exploration of the potential implications of recent changes to inform the future operations and substance of foreign policy.  It helps negotiate between the fact and many fictions surrounding this debate, providing wider insights into the disputed impact that social media can play within political movements against authoritarian regimes.

The analysis of events in the five countries in North Africa, comparing the conditions and events in Egypt and Tunisia, to Libya, to Algeria and Morocco, can be summarised in four messages, namely:

1. The preconditions for political change, including societal support, were much broader than the demographic picture of highly educated youth depicted in Western media. There were many preconditions in North Africa pointing to political change and we have identified some of the interesting factors that seem to have been part of what Philip Howard calls the democratisation ‘recipe’.  What is counterintuitive is that although the events were shown as being driven by young and educated citizens, there in fact was a much broader support base for political change in Egypt and Tunisia with a high number of unemployed older and less educated citizens.  Social media, in amplifying the voice of a small sub-section of the population, probably skewed wider media representations in the West of who was protesting in North Africa and why.

2. Old media works with new media in synergy to create a stronger, resilient and better networked information system.  Wider liberalising developments in the traditional media sphere were as important as social media in changing the information context within which state controls could be detoured.  Depicting old and new media as rivals or competitors is inaccurate, however.  It’s more appropriate to reflect them as working together in synergy as a stronger, resilient and better networked information system.

3. The importance of the preparation stage and role of political entrepreneurs in developing strategies for effective use of social media early on.  Although the use of social media was most apparent in the escalation phase of the protests, its significant role was during the preparation phase in the years leading up to the events.  The transformative power of social media is in creating a lower-risk virtual political space in countries where there is no or little freedom of association or expression. The nature of political leadership is different in this virtual space.  The role of political entrepreneurs in developing strategies for the effective use of social media is key to the successful use of these tools at the ignition and escalation phases.

4. Western governments urgently need to update their analytical frameworks, communication methods and engage with a wider set of civil society actors especially diasporas.  Although these events higlight the limited nature of the US and Europe’s levers on the region, they also suggest western policy makers need to revise and update their understanding of the NA region and more generally of politics in authoritarian regimes.  The events also raise wider questions for governments around internet freedom policy and the changing nature of strategic communications.

You can find the report summary here:  North Africa and Social Media Summary – FromOverHere 2011

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