Exploring the Arab Spring

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Tuesday, 3:45-4:45pm
Format: Roundtable Discussion
Lead: John Palfrey
Participants: Yochai Benkler, Bruce Etling, Charlie Nesson, Nagla Rizk, and Ethan Zuckerman TBC

What has become known as the “Arab Spring” will serve as a synthesizing case study that will help to weave together the core themes outlined in both the Open Systems/Access and the Online Liberty and Freedom of Expression sessions, with a particular focus on the use of social media and the rise of information control and counter-control activities during recent protests and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. In this highly interactive sessions commentators will not only analyze the role of social media, but also consider the different roles and actors that influenced the events, including governments, activists, citizens, and companies.

Required Readings

Recommended Readings

"Hard Questions" from John Palfrey

Student Reflections

Summary by student volunteers

The session on the Arab Spring held on Tuesday, September 6, 2011, kicked off with brief remarks on the recent political transformations in Egypt by Nagla Rizk, a professor at The American University of Cairo, and Lina Attalah, a journalist and a scholar. These introductory comments stressed that observers of the Arab Spring often overlook the fact that the Egyptian government made investment in information and communication technology infrastructure a priority for economic growth prior to the revolution and that it was this infrastructure that ultimately fueled the public uprisings. These investments are evidence of the deep divide that existed – and continues to exist – between economic and political measures of freedom. As a result, one of the great challenges Egypt now faces is helping to ensure that political freedom and economic growth mutually reinforce one another. The speakers described the intense public protests against the government at the end of 2010 and into early 2011. They noted that the messages being traded among protestors and activists were not driven by Wikileaks, but were organic in nature. They also emphasized that the government’s pro-business orientation meant it was unwilling to develop extensive filtering tools and instead resorted to more extreme measures of shutting down modes of communication altogether in a desperate attempt to hold on to power. Nagla and Lina described the turn of events that led up to the government’s January 27th order to shut down access to the Internet and the legal arguments the government used to justify taking such extraordinary measures. While officials believed these actions would squelch public protests, they actually fueled a desire for more information that brought Egyptians out into the streets. The speakers identified this as one of the great lessons of the revolution: “you can shut the pipe, but not the people.”

Both speakers noted that in the post-revolution period, the concept of “openness” is entrenched in public consciousness. This is evidenced by efforts to draft a freedom of information act and the mainstreaming (which may be for better or for worse) of social media contributors. Yet, challenges remain, including a deep fragmentation and political polarization among online activists. There are questions as to whether laws prohibiting discussion of the military will remain in effect given that the military is now providing political leadership for the country and there is fear that a draft law regulating online publishing will create new obstacles to free political expression.

Ethan Zuckerman contributed a description of the role that social media played in the fall of the Ben Ali government in Tunisia. He stressed that it is dangerous to talk of the Arab Spring as a whole and that it must instead be understood through individual case studies. He pointed to two key takeaways of the Tunisian uprisings: first, we often think about social media as “one to many” and it is instead much more limited in scope and should be characterized as “one to some;” and second, online social media may not be the best means for organizing a revolution. In fact, for contributions in the online sphere to really take hold, amplification through mainstream media may be required – and the mainstream media was arguably essential to the transformation in Tunisia. He illustrated this point by noting that while online activism in Tunisia was stifled initially because there was great public fear about posting messages on Facebook and within other online forums known to be monitored by the government, Al Jazeera, which depends on social media feeds for its reporting in Tunisia, was able to disseminate the activists’ messages widely to the Tunisian public through its news broadcasts.

The discussion raised several key questions:

  1. To what extent can intensely focused people multiply their voices online to actually shift a public agenda? Is involvement by the mainstream media essential, and if so, what role does it play?
  2. How do you tease apart rebellion rooted in social media from a larger national public movement driven by factors greater than social media?
  3. Do decentralized networks run the risk of dispersing organizers as opposed to facilitating their collective action?
  4. Where is the law on the topic of social media and the Arab Spring? Equality sits at the core of social media and the Internet and so why is that the United States, which is founded on this notion of equality, seems to have so little to offer on how to structure democratic government after the rebellion?