Social Media: The Role of Facebook and Twitter in the Arab Spring

Social Media The Role of Facebook and Twitter in the Arab Spring Fahd Alghofaili

1-1) Introduction:

Social media have played a crucial role in the Arab Spring. These social networks, which are Websites or platforms through which people share news and information (Merriam-Webster Dictionary), were used by Arab revolutionaries to change their national regimes. This essay will focus on the purposes of these social platforms starting by talking about their importance and the various roles which they played during these revolts. After that, it will discuss the role of Facebook as the most popular social media and how its publicity has increased during the Arab upheavals. Furthermore, the research will debate the smart phone role in the Arab revolutions. Moreover, this paper will examine the increase of social websites usage in general and their passive effect on the Arab official media. The rapid growth and effective impact may be seen as significant and may be a consequence of hidden foreign hands that stand behind all these movements and try to benefit from them, so the essay will examine this assumption. On the whole, it appears that the function of these social media was crucial, and owing to this, they should be taken into consideration and studied well so as to understand the future role they may play in civil unrest elsewhere.

1-2) Essay’s Rational:

Social media have become very important communication vehicles which are used by many people around the world to claim some of their rights and freedoms. This importance has reached a level where these social platforms played a crucial role in upheavals in various parts of the globe such as Moldova, Iran and The Arab region. Moreover, “the rise of today’s micropowers” (Moises, 2014: 53) which has assisted revolutionaries to achieve their main claim in some Arab countries may catalyse the researchers and writers to study this aspect to understand the true function of these social websites and measure the actuality of their effects in the Arab events.

1-3) Essay’s Purpose:

According to what has been fore mentioned, this paper highlights the role of the social network in the Arab Spring from various aspects. In purpose of understanding the reality of this part, and to achieve wider comprehension, this essay will study these purposes from three different related perspectives; the mechanism, the assistant vehicles and the effect. The mechanism of social platforms usage could be learnt through studying the nature of this role. Although it may be noticeable that these social webpages played various aspects during the Arab Spring, this essay will highlight three of them. Studying social media as an assistant appears to be  necessary for comprehensive understanding, so this paper will focus on three diverse aspects which seem to play crucial roles during the Arab revolts. These issues are the role of Facebook, the function of the smartphone and the role of foreign factors. This essay assumes that the function of these three tools may be considered as a key to the comprehension of the roles’ mechanism. The Final perspective is the harmful impact of the social networking usage which has led to two mutually supportive aspects; the increase of social media usage and the shrinkage of official media audiences. The critical side of this consequence is represented in the disconnection between the people and the regimes which is almost certain to lead to more upheavals. In addition to all these, it seems to be important to address the situation of some Arab countries which have not been affected by these revolts and its relation to the usage of social media or cell phones.

2-1) The Importance of Social Media:

A significant part was played by social network websites during the Arab Spring which helped people from all around the world to follow the news and know what was occurring at that time. This role reached a level of importance which made some Egyptian revolutionists say that the internet is enough to liberate people (Storck, 2011: 4). However a reservation which can be applied to this is that people without social networks especially when the internet was blocked by the Arab regimes, were more active and participatory than when they had  access to the internet (Salem and Mourtada, 2011b: 6). Despite this reservation, the use of social media in the Arab Spring could be considered as a new phenomenon of exploiting the internet in such events. Karatzogianni (2013: 160) has stated that the effect of social platforms in the Arab Spring has never occurred before. Unfortunately, one drawback of talking about the impact of these new tools is that it could be misunderstood by some people that these tools played the main role in the Arab Spring. However, it is important to emphasize that social media did to some extent help revolutionaries to spread their case and to deliver their messages to people from all around the world (Frangonikolopoulos & Chapsos, 2012: 10). As a result of this, it is clear that these platforms were only tools used by the main players who are the revolutionaries themselves. It is almost certain to be said that the social media made an effective impact on the Arab Spring, although it was not the main factor.

2-2) The Role of Social Media:

Social media played various aspects in the Arab Spring. It could be said that the impact of social networks varies and it is possible to observe three main different purposes of these communication tools. Revolutionaries exploited them to communicate with each other. For instance, the Egyptian uprising would not have gathered millions of people together if its organizers had not used social media to contact people and coordinate and arrange their movements (Storck, 2011: 18). Wolfsfeld et al (2013: 117) have indicated that social media has connected people and made it easy for them to take serious action. The problem with this role is that it has given oppressive authorities the opportunity and means to track protesters and activists by monitoring the internet and knowing the connections and relations between them (Morozov, 2011: 156). Publishing news and spreading information was a crucial part that was played by these facilities. Activists published various kind of news accompanied by images, especially those which betrayed some of the Arab regimes portraying them as monsters. For example, a huge number of pictures of violence that was committed by the Egyptian police and army against the activists were published via social media (Frangonikolopoulos & Chapsos, 2012: 17). In addition to what was mentioned above, there is a third significant function for these websites which was to provide news and information to the traditional media. A large amount of information about the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions which was published by traditional media, according to a Tunisian blogger, was taken from social media (Ghannam, 2011: 16). It seems to be clear that social platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were used by the protesters in the Arab Spring for different purposes, and each one of these purposes played a specific part that was combined with the rest of the roles.

2-3) Facebook Usages:

During these uprisings, Facebook was used more by the Arab revolutionaries than any other social platform. Even though the number of Facebook users in the Arab region was very large during the peak of Arab revolutions (the first half of 2011) when compared to those who were using Twitter at that time, it tends not to be enough to decide which was more used by Arabs during the time of the revolutions – Facebook or Twitter. However, there were almost twenty eight million Facebook Arab users at that time, and around 6.5 million Arabic accounts on Twitter (Salem and Mourtada, 2011b: 9). Some statistics show that Facebook appears to be the most used social network. Wolfsfeld et al (2013: 129) has stated that there was an increase in the number of Facebook and Twitter users, which was accompanied by the start of the Arab Spring. However, looking at some countries where the revolutions occurred, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, it was noticeable that the growing number of new accounts in Facebook was doubled when compared to the same period one year before. It could be said that the growth of the users of Facebook, in the first four months of 2011, in the whole Arab area, except Libya, was sometimes, more than a hundred percent (Karatzogianni, 2013: 167). For instance, around two million new Facebook accounts were created during that period (Frangonikolopoulos & Chapsos, 2012: 16). In this context, it is important to pay attention to the purpose which was played by Twitter during those revolutions, especially in connection with providing a place to convene people and allow them to share information. Lotan et al (2011: 1397) has stated that Twitter played a role in creating a place wherein people who did not know each other but have the same interest could gather and share information. Although this statement seems to be true, a major logical criticism could be levelled against it – that it is almost certain to be fact that whenever a huge number of people converge, they mostly do not know one another, but they gather because they share the same common interest. For example, a Facebook page which was established during the Egyptian revolution called “We Are All Khaled Said” recruited more than three hundred thousand members (Giglio, 2011). Such a tremendous number of people obviously did not know one another. This increase of Facebook usage during the Arab Spring supports the idea that it was the most crucial social platform which was used that time.

2-4) Foreign Involvements in Social Media:

It could be argued that social media not only transmitted information quickly between protesters but was also used as a tool of manipulation of the protesters by the people who controlled this media. For instance, Wael Ghonim who was a very young, (31 years old) revolutionary who lacked experience in the political field, however, wisely remarked that: “when the people ‘distrust the media then you know you are not going to lose them” (Frangonikolopoulos & Chapsos, 2012: 15). In this instance, he was referring to the conventional media such as national newspapers. Furthermore, this is when disillusioned protesters turn to social media to find out the “truth”. In fact, Ghonim was given paid leave from Google where he was working as a marketing executive to create a page on Facebook supporting the revolutionists in Tunisia, before he joined the Egyptian revolutionaries and created another Facebook page called “We are all Khalid Said”. The creation of these facebook pages had a significant effect on the events of the Arab Spring. It could therefore be argued that by allowing Ghonim to create these pages Google was supporting the revolutions which were taking place and allowing certain information to be shared. The question is, who at Google were making such decisions?  In addition to this, Barnsby (2012: 16, 17) according to Nixon (2011[1]) has claimed that the USA Government and non-government institutions, such as the CIA, the State Department, Facebook, and Google have trained the uprising leaders, financed them and invited them to join the tech conference which was held in New York, almost three years before the Egyptian regime collapse, and taught them how to use the social platforms and the smart phone to boost democracy. Could Ghonim have been one of these leaders? The idea of allowing certain information to be shared via social media is also supported by Ahmed Bensada the author of “American Arabesque: the Role of the US in the Revolts in the Arab Streets[2]” , who in this context, also suggested that the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stood behind the Arab Spring (Bramhall, 2011) through manipulation of social media.  This may be true as well as foreign involvement to train the Arab protesters how to use effectively these new vehicles, but it has been shown that the social media were just tools which helped the revolutionaries to succeed. To put it differently, it is almost certainly true that there is conflicting intelligence around the world and this intelligence may be used to plan and spy on others, but rarely serious harm results from this intelligence, especially to a level where it can cause a collapse to the national government. According to this, it would not have been enough to breakdown the regime in some Arab regions by using these social media networks even with the assistance of some hidden intelligence. For instance, Stork (2011: 36) has argued that while protesters in Egypt and Tunisia have succeeded using the social media, those who tried to do the same with the same vehicles in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have failed because they were faced by very strong authorities. In summary, it may  be the case that there was foreign intelligence involvement in the Arab Spring, but it was not the main issue, because it appears that the core point here is the strength of the security force and how it dealt with the situation.

2-5) The Role of the Smartphone:

As a consequence of the interest of the USA administration in the social media and smartphones, Barnsby (2012: 16, 17) mentioned, so the modern cell phone has played a significant part in these revolutions. It has been said that: “one cell phone camera can harm a regime more than any intelligence operation can” (Stein 2011, 2). Howard and Hussain (2011: 2) have stated that the social networks and the smart phones have made a change in politic, especially in the Arab region, to a level where those who are prodemocracy can achieve many things in an unprecedented way. This statement tends to be true when joined with the fact that the use of mobile phone in the Arab world increased from 27.1% in 2005 to almost 90% in 2010, and there are more than 125 million internet users in the Arab countries almost half of them are actively using the social media (Lamer, 201: 2, Howard & Husain, 2011: 4). In addition to this, it seems very important to consider the practical use of this device, during the uprising which highlighted the significant function of it. For example, revolutionaries broadcast the “police repression” which it transferred from one to another via smart phone (Howard & Husain, 2011: 5). This role could be noticed too because of three reasons. First is the growth of usage of these phones owing to their high image quality. Two is that the image appears to be more genuine. Third is the acknowledgement of phones’ videos and images by the mass media, e.g. more than a thousand videos taken by smartphones were sent to Aljazeera, and the New York Times’ statement that its usage of these items has expanded a hundred times (Batty, 2011). Furthermore, the role of the social media in the Arab Spring could be applied to the role of the smartphone. As an illustration, both smartphone and social networks are effective communication vehicles whose effective levels are connected to various factors such as, the will of the people, the strength of governments and the foreign involvement. For instance, despite having a very high rate of mobile phone usage with 170%, Saudi Arabia could deal with the uprising and  prevent its spread . On the other hand, Yemen is considered to have the lowest cell phone usage in the Arab region with only 56% of its population, even though there was a considerable upheaval which has led to the collapse of its regime. In like manner, it could be said for the rest of the Arab counties (see table: 3 below). As has been noted, the smart phone seems to play a significant function in the Arab Spring, but this part is associated to certain conditions.

Table:3 Number of mobile phone users in some various Arab countries
Country Number of mobile phones Population Penetration percentage
Egypt 96,110,000 82,120,000 115%
Algeria 35,000,000 35,000,000 100%
Saudi Arabia 51,000,000 27,137,000 170%
Tunisia 10.550.000 12,500,000 117%
Yemen 10.590.000 25,376,000 56%
Source:,,,, prepared and design by Fahd, (August 2014)

2-6) The Increase of Social Media Usage in the Arab Region:

As a result of this powerful effect of social media during the revolutions, more Arabs have commenced to utilize these social websites. This rapid increase of internet and social media usage, in the Arab region, during and after the Arab Spring may, however, have an alternative explanation which may relate to the rise of the internet and Social media usage globally, even before the uprising occurred. For instance, the growth of the internet has never ceased since 1993 through to 2011 when the Arab Spring occurred (see table1).

Table1: The internet users’ growth
Year (July 1) Internet Users Users Growth
2014 2,925,249,355 7.9%
2013 2,712,239,573 8.0%
2012 2,511,615,523 10.5%
2011 2,272,463,038 11.7%
2010 2,034,259,368 16.1%
2005 1,029,717,906 13.1%
2000 413,425,190 47.2%
1993 14,161,570
Source: Internet Live Stats prepared and designed by Fahd August 2014.

In addition to the gradual growth of the  use of internet, the same can be said about the social media, for example, the number of Facebook’s users has been increasing all this decade since 2004 (see chart1).

Chart1: The Facebook users’ growth

Source: Statista Inc. (2014).

This increase of usage is almost certain to be applied to all the main social platforms such as Twitter, Youtube, Google+ and Instagram. Furthermore, Facebook usage grew about 80% in 2010 (Salem, 2011a: 4). All these growths point to the fact that the increase of the internet and social media usage, in the Arab region, was not caused by the Arab revolutions. Even though this argument seems to be, prima facie true, some detailed statistics have demonstrated a myriad expansion of social media utilization during and after the Arab Spring. One statistic presented by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information shows that the number of Arab bloggers was thirty five thousand in 2009 and it became five thousand more in 2010, but after the Arab revolutions this number has grown very fast to reach the level of six hundred thousand accounts, and the same occurred with Twitter when the number of tweets about the Egypt uprising increased from 2300 tweets per day to 230,000 tweets per day (Storck, 2001:14, Safraneck, 2012: 6). Moreover, a survey conducted in March 2011 included more than two hundred people and signified that 94% of Tunisians and 88% of Egyptians used social platforms to follow the uprising news Karatzogianni (2013: 167). Finally, the advanced web ranking which these platforms have nowadays in the Arab region (see table 1) is probable to signify that there is much improvement in the social media usage in the Arab world.

Table2: The social networks web ranking in the Arab countries
Country YouTube Facebook Twitter BlogSpot
Algeria 2 1 37 11
Bahrain 2 4 6 7
Egypt 3 1 14 7
Iraq 3 1 12 10
Jordan 3 1 12 9
Kuwait 2 4 5 9
Libya 3 1 12 6
Morocco 3 2 17 6
Mauritania 4 1 31 24
Lebanon 5 1 7 16
Palestine 5 2 15 12
Qatar 3 2 8 6
Oman 1 2 6 8
Saudi Arabia 2 4 6 9
Sudan 3 2 13 8
Syria 3 1 12 6
Yemen 3 2 6 5
UAE 4 3 10 53
Source: Alexa internet, prepared and designed by Fahd august 2014

2-7) The Shrinkage of the Official Media Audience:

The above mentioned increase of social media demonstrates an important issue which is connected to the growth of distrust of many Arabs towards their official media. Owing to this mistrust, some people think that social media which is managed by ordinary citizens has more credibility than mass media which is controlled by governments (Lamer, 201:13). Wolfsfeld et al (2013: 128) stated that people are impulsively attracted to the conventional media to know what is occurring, and they have continued to do the same with the social platforms, especially in those countries where people distrust their local media. This loss of audiences seems to occur not in a spontaneous way. It has been said that Wael Ghonim, one of the most well-known activists during the Egyptian’s uprising, worked on defaming the Egyptian’s official media, because he believed that when people mistrust the official media it would ensure their loyalty to the protesters (Frangonikolopoulos & Chapsos, 2012: 15). In support of this argument, Aday et al (2013: 901) has claimed that the usage of social networks has many purposes, one of them is decreasing the role of the typical media. However, it is important to remember that social media are tools of communication like the traditional media, and all these tools could be used by all regimes regardless of their form of governance whether it is democratic or authoritarian. As a consequence, it would not be a crucial issue if social media, in general, reduced its aspect or even lessened the number of its audience of the mainstream media, because the governments have the ability to use both of them. For example, the Egyptian Ministry of Defence has its own Facebook page which is used to publish news, and to disprove false rumours, and the Bahraini regime has used social platforms in an effective way (Egyptian Ministry of Defence, 2014, Aday, 2012: 10). Ultimately, it tends to be clear that the conventional media was affected by the spread of the new media in the Arab region, but it is significant to remember that many of the Arab regimes have been using these new vehicles in a way which serves their interest.

3-1) Conclusion:

Ultimately, it appears that the social networking has played a significant purpose in the Arab Uprising. Nevertheless, this part might be associated to various conditions which differ from one country to another. This paper has shown the importance of the social platforms in the Arab Uprising, even though some researchers thought that it prevented people from participating in the streets. This importance can be noticed in the many different aspects played by these social vehicles, and this (ARP) has tried to focus on three of these functions. Moreover, the popularity of Facebook, especially, in the Arab world and its relation to the social platform’s function in these upheavals, has been illustrated. This popularity of Facebook and the social media usage, in general, have continued to grow at the same rate all over the world with a more noticeable increase in the Arab region which may signify a positive effect of serious events such as the Arab revolutions on the usage of social media. This affirmative impact on social networks may cause passive results for the official media. Despite this audience shrinkage of the official media, this paper has demonstrated that some Arab regimes could effectively benefit from these platforms, regardless of the harmful influence on their mass media. What has been mentioned in this essay about the role of social websites is that their increased usage can probably be ascribed to the increased use of smart phones. It has been shown that they could play a crucial part in political change under certain conditions, but in the shadow of the absence of all these conditions, it has been noticed that its part was very weak. In conclusion, it tends to be true that the social media have played a significant function in the Arab Uprising under certain conditions. However, this paper suggests conducting further research to understand the efforts which have been made by some Arab authorities to avoid the impact of social networking, and moreover, to illustrate the current or next role of these platforms in Arab political life.

Fahd Alghofaili


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[1] This is an article titled “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings” written by RON NIXON (April 2011) and published on New York times, available at

[2] “Arabesque Americaine by French Canadian author Ahmed Bensaada. The full title is Arabesque Americaine: Le role des Etats-Unis dans les revoltes de la rue arab” (Bramhall, 2011). A book review written by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall may 2011, and published by opednews available from: