It was not Facebook, Twitter or YouTube that brought down Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian people did that. But this does not mean that social media and internet�based technologies played no role, or that their role was insignificant, as some have alleged. Rather, events in Egypt and countries across the Middle East and North Africa have shown in the 'Arab Spring' that internet platforms and technologies should be seen for what they are: effective tools for the conduct of political campaigns in authoritarian contexts.
This conclusion was reached in a new paper written by Tim Eaton who currently works for BBC Media Action on media development projects in the Middle East. The paper is the product of over a year of research and seeks to analyze the use of online activism in the Egyptian uprisings of January and February 2011, drawing out the lessons learned in addition to applying them to the wider context of the Arab Spring.
It suggests the following key findings:
Online activism multiplied the impact of social protest in Egypt: it made political action easier, faster and more universal. In the tightly controlled Egyptian political space, social media enabled activists to circumnavigate the regime's repressive structures to convince Egyptians in the online world into taking action in the offline one. This was its main success, for a revolution will always be won and lost on the streets.
The political uses of online platforms and technologies are extremely transferrable, and are just as clearly seen in the London riots as they were in Tahrir. The first use is as a tool for mobilising citizens by producing material designed to inspire them into action, and to organise their action once recruited. The second is to use online platforms as a medium for citizen journalism to report on the situation.
To maximise the impact of online protest it is clear that the combination of the above catalytic and scrutinizing uses is required. But the ability to do so is determined by an array of factors, including the domestic political environment and levels of internet penetration, affordability and computer literacy. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the deployment of such uses has varied across the region.
The use of online activism in Egypt and the wider Arab world has led to the growth of a new kind of political movement that reflects the plural nature of social media. This has enabled a flat leadership model that is difficult for autocratic regimes to combat: such movements are strong in the face of government interference as they are not dependent on a strong hierarchical structure to coordinate their activities.
In the Egyptian uprisings, social media became a major hub of political activity. In the advocacy of street protest, over 400,000 people were signed up on Facebook. Moreover, throughout the protests Egyptian Facebook users believed that 85 percent of Facebook usage was to organize activism, raise awareness and spread information about events. Analysis of Twitter also illustrates the extent to which the conversation was driven by political events, with mentions of the hashtag #jan25 correlating closely with total Tweet volumes.
Online mediums have proved a potent tool for pro democracy elements in the Arab world. Yet, the gains of the activists remain as reversible as they were hard fought. In Egypt, their efforts have still yet to secure a true transition of power, and the online activists of Tahrir are unlikely to become major actors in the new Egyptian parliament. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition has yet to succeed in bringing down the regime of Bashar al Asad. Indeed, if the work of the online activists is to be supported effectively, it is imperative that its significance is better understood if it is to help prevent the Arab world's spring from turning to autumn.