Facebook revolution 'a myth', critics say

The role of Facebook and Twitter in recent Arab uprisings has been exaggerated, with social media aiding rather than triggering protests, experts say.

Dubai , United Arab Emirates-  May 17, 2011:  ( L to R ) Lamia Radi, Shadi Hamid, Zeid Al Heni, Laila El Honi, and Sultan Al Qassemi   attends the 10th Arab Media Forum in Dubai . ( Satish Kumar / The National )
Powered by automated translation

DUBAI // The role of Facebook and Twitter in recent Arab uprisings has been "exaggerated", with social media aiding rather than triggering protests, media experts say.

Social media helped to communicate the struggle in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia to the world, but not always in a representative way, participants in the Arab Media Forum in Dubai said yesterday.

"The role of social media in the revolutions has been exaggerated," Sultan al Qassemi, a journalist and Twitter user, said. "It did play an important role. But social media facilitated - it did not cause [the uprisings].

"The cause was corruption, graft, lack of human rights and oppression of young Arabs."

Zied el Heni, a Tunisian blogger and activist, agreed that social media, including videos shot on mobile phones and uploaded on sharing sites, had "facilitated" the revolution.

"Dignity and freedom were the reasons behind the Tunisian uprising," he said. "Our mobiles were our weapons."

He said social media such as Facebook helped to compensate "for the lack of success of the conventional media.

"Traditional media is under pressure to develop itself to be constantly awake," he said. "Of course, the traditional media has a future … However, this does not eliminate the necessity of the social media."

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre, a Qatar-based think tank, said social media helped to tell the story of the uprisings to the world.

"Because of social media, because of Al Jazeera and other stations, the whole world is watching," he said. "This leads to a feeling of power, but also powerlessness. That is because we can't stop the bloodshed, we can only tell the world what is going on."

Social media gave the rest of the world a "distorted" view of the uprisings, due to the demographics of Facebook and Twitter users, he said.

"Most of the people on Twitter are secular and liberal activists. So Americans and the international community start to think that this is a secular revolution, and they were looking only at one small part of a much broader revolution."

Mr Hamid described the Muslim Brotherhood as "the most powerful force" in Egypt - something that might not be apparent from social media.

"The majority of Egyptians are not on Facebook. And the vast majority of Egypt and Arabs more generally are not on Twitter.

"And so you have to be careful, and say that this shows us one side of the reality but not the whole reality."

The Arab revolutions prompted a dramatic rise in use of internet media. In Egypt, Google had a tenfold increase in news searches, while there was a 50 per cent increase in video uploads to YouTube at the time of the Egypt uprising.

Mr Hamid said that while social media was powerful, it sometimes was outweighed by government force.

"The governments don't need Twitter to be effective because they have force. They're able to shoot into crowds," he said.

"Governments still have the desire to use that kind of force. You have the pro-democracy protesters, they have Twitter and Facebook. And then the governments have tanks and they have guns. Sometimes the tanks and guns win."

However, Mr al Qassemi said that some government officials, such as Bahrain's foreign minister, had employed social media. "It's a good thing for governments to react through social media," he said.