Grassroots Activism, The Internet, and the Arab Spring
During the last several years, the Middle East has been experiencing a dramatic movement that began in Tunisia and Egypt that quickly spread throughout the Middle East to surrounding countries and has become what it is now; one of the most powerful revolutions of our generation. The Arab Spring came to be so successful and large due to the influence of grassroots organization by the use of social media to organize protests and spread their message to other citizens. ‘Grassroots’ implies that the creation of the movement and those members supporting it are natural and occur spontaneously and without much planning. During the revolutions, Middle Eastern countries’ protests spread very spontaneously because of the common belief in the movement. Consequently, the Arab Spring revolutions that occurred in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria were influenced strongly by grassroots organization and the Internet and the revolutions would not have been as successful and influential if it was not for it.
Grassroots activism and organization occurs spontaneously and without little preparation to best take advantage of a new situation and advocate for some type of democratic political change. These movements that are created gain momentum because of the people and the beliefs that are pushing it forward. According to farmaid.org, “grassroots means the work of many towards a mutual goal”, something that was clearly visible within the Arab Spring Movement (farmaid.org). Grassroots movements are about educating, recruiting, mobilizing and training people to raise awareness about a particular subject and advocate on behalf of a positive change. Those that participate in these movements are local citizens of the community who all have a common belief and goal that they wish to get out of participating in social movements and protests. Grassroots movements are often spread through word of mouth, canvassing, flyers and now, more than ever, social media has begun to change the way in which activists organize protests and rallies and interact with the public.
On December 17 of 2011 in Tunisa, a fruit vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi lit himself on fire after being humiliated and having his cart taken from him by a municipal inspector, and news of it spread across the Internet like wildfire. Eyewitnesses posted videos and pictures of the event and talked about the struggle Mohammed went through that pushed him to kill himself, or become the Arab Spring’s first martyr, as many would say now. Bloggers took to the web reporting about the police brutality that occurred at the resulting protests as angered Tunisians took to the street to protest the government’s regime headed by Prime Minister Ghannouchi. After several weeks of protest and demonstrations that resulted in violence caused by the police and security forces, the government was overthrown on January 14, 2011. News of the success was posted all over the internet by Tunisians on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and Tunisians encouraged their fellow Arabs to follow in their footsteps. “What happened in Tunisia showed the Arabs how their voices could be heard through non-traditional media outlets, and helped them in asking for their rights” (Riley). In a country where freedom of speech was nearly a foreign concept, Tunisians gained this freedom by expressing themselves through Social Media, letting their opinions be heard and organizing with their fellow citizens to work for change.
In Egypt during June of 2010, 28-year-old Khaled Said was killed under suspicious circumstances in the custody of Egyptian police and security forces and pictures of his disfigured corpse were released throughout social media networks. Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim created a Facebook group titled “We are all Khaled Said” that brought attention to his death and the many other cases of police brutality that has plagued Egypt through the years. The Facebook group contributed greatly to the discontent among Egyptians in the weeks before the revolution by advocating for change and the removal of President Hosni Mubarak from office. By advocating for change and educating Egyptians about this tragic event, Wael used grassroots organizational methods by spreading information by word of mouth and through the internet in order to get those reading his messages to do the same and create a community of people who want change. “Although only 26.4% of Egyptians had Internet access, the widespread use of Internet Cafes meant that computer mediated communication played a larger role in Egypt’s Arab Spring (than other countries)” (arabmediasociety.com). A protest in Cairo in January of 2011 was organized through Facebook groups and had over 90,000 people signed up to its page, showing how effective Facebook was when used by Egyptian grassroots organizers.
In Syria, activists organized protests through Facebook and called on citizens to raise attention to the injustices being brought upon them by the Syrian government. “A Facebook group was launched calling on people to protest against Bashaar Al Assad’s regime, and Tuesday March 15 was announced as the revolutions start date” (Ghrer). The Syrian people responded to this and attended, and organizers urged protestors to record and take pictures of the protests and how the police reacted and post them onto social media sites. The spread of the pictures and videos from these protests and the scenes of the brutality that they contained got the attention of the Syrian people by spreading the news by word of mouth and through the computer, the two most basic forms of communication utilized by grassroots organizers. Though the country is still in the midst of a civil war, by using grassroots activism to spread their message across the Internet, Syrians were able to successfully overthrow the ruling government party.
Like most historic events and revolutions in history, the Arab Spring was made possible through the use of a new technology, and in this case, it was the Internet and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Access to the Internet allowed citizens living in these Arab countries to envision what life is like outside of their country and see the freedoms other humans are granted by their government, and this gave them the ability to imagine their society in a different way. Sites like Facebook allowed for activists to connect with each other throughout the world and discuss ideas and strategies for planning events and to invite the public. An overwhelming majority of the population participating in these protests are in their twenties and thirties, which happen to be a very technology savvy generation which is also in part due to the success of grassroots movements initiated through social media sites.
The ability to access social media sites made every citizen a journalist. In my opinion, the Arab Spring movement that swept through countries in the Middle East and North Africa has been the most influential and powerful grassroots movement that has existed to date. Never before have social media sites been utilized by grassroots organizers more so than in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria during the Arab Spring. These organizers successfully showed how useful social media sites could be to other organizers when used correctly. Social media sites have proved to be much more effective at spreading a message then traditional ways such as word of mouth and consequently have given grassroots organizers much more power.
Throughout the course of researching, Facebook has been mentioned time and time again for being the social media site that was most popular with activists during the Arab Spring and helped make the biggest impact. In an interview with Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, while responding to a statement about how Facebook caused the Arab Spring, Zuckerberg stated, “It’s not a Facebook thing, it’s an Internet thing. If it wasn’t Facebook, it would be something else” (Jerusalem Post). In my opinion, Zuckerberg is right in saying that Facebook is not responsible, but needless to say, it was an immensely powerful tool at the hands of protestors and grassroots organizers alike.Facebook was the best tool available for activists to organize events, but if Facebook didn’t exist, the next best social media platform would have served in place. While talking about social media, Sheila Riley states, “It is a tool that democratic movements all over the world are using to mobilize and explain their positions” (Riley). Due to the success of the activists using grassroots organizational methods during the Arab Spring to spread their messages and also in part due to the availability of the internet and social media platforms to successfully reach millions of people with the push of a button, the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria would not have been nearly as successful as it would have been without these two major contributing factors.
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