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The Impact of Social Media on Social Unrest in the Arab Spring

Taylor Dewey
Juliane Kaden
Miriam Marks
Shun Matsushima
Beijing Zhu
Defense Intelligence Agency


This report investigates the impact of social media upon social unrest during the Arab Spring and is designed to test the common hypothesis that Facebook , Twitter and other social media outlets had a significant impact on the outbreak of protests in the MENA region. The authors provide a qualitative framework that reviews the rise of social media , considers the political and socio economic conditions in MENA countries, and draws from the social sciences literature on social movement theory. The report then provides case studies of countries in which social unrest was particularly pronounced: Bahrain, Egypt , Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. These case studies focus on protesters’ use of social media, how social movement theory explains the role of social media, or other traditional methods of mobilization in these countries , governments’ use of social media to monitor and counter activists, and the role of social media in influencing international policy. The authors then develop two quantitative models, one to explore the correlation between protest activity and social media usage at the individual level, and the other to provide a forecast of the likelihood of social unrest given a certain set of country-level factors.

The report presents several main findings. First , exogenous political and economic shocks served as the necessary underlying drivers of social unrest ; without grievances, individuals would have no cause for protest. Second, the authors did not find a consistent correlation between social media use and successful mass protest, suggesting social media is a useful but not sufficient tool for protest. However , the analysis also indicates that Internet communities can serve similar functions as civil society organizations, particularly in countries where government repression prohibits certain political groups. Because membership in civil society is more highly correlated with protest activity, the ability of social media to offer a sort of virtual civil society platform likely further boosted participation in protests during the Arab Spring. Finally, social media boosted international attention to local events by facilitating reporting from places traditional media has limited access to and by providing a bottom-up, decentralized process for generating news stories. We end on a cautionary note, warning of the increased use of social media by authoritarian governments to repress opposition movements and stymie democratization.

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