How can the internet facilitate mass protests in non-democratic states? Comparing the cases of Tunisia and Syria during the Arab Spring
In 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi’s suicide out of protest against the Tunisian regime sparked the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring was dominated by one specific variable: the use of the internet and social media. This essay will look at two different countries where the internet helped facilitate mass demonstrations: Tunisia and Syria. Although people from all walks of life were involved in the protest both in Tunisia and Syria, it was mostly the educated but underemployed tech-savvy youth that laid their trust in the digital media in order to achieve social and political change. But how exactly did the internet help facilitate mass movements in those two countries? This paper will argue that the internet has contributed to the emergence of mass protests in both Tunisia and Syria mainly in three distinct ways: 1) by enabling protesters to find like-minded and value-sharing people and build a network; 2) by spreading information and awareness; and 3) by organising the dissent and mobilising more and more people for their cause. Although the outcomes of the protests greatly differed between Tunisia and Syria, this does not belittle the impact that the internet had on encouraging people to revolt in both countries.
In December 2010, when Mohammed Bouazizi, a desperate university graduate working as a street vendor, immolated himself out of protest in front of a municipal building in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, large-scale uprisings across the Arab World were triggered. Among the first protesters were Bouazidi’s family, fellow fruit sellers, but most importantly young educated and tech-savvy Tunisians, who videotaped the demonstrations and posted those videos on social media. There they were shared, as well as picked up by the TV channel Al-Jazeera, which also aired them on television for a wider audience to see (Gelvin, 2012). The Arab Spring represented a new phenomenon: the influence that the internet, and more precisely social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or online blogs can have on facilitating mass protests. Tunisia, where the first demonstration evolved, set an example for many young people across the Arab World of what could be done using the internet – many other countries soon were following Tunisia’s example. According to Howard and Hussain (2013: 11-12), “[…] Arab countries have among the highest rates of technology adoption in the developing world,” which means that people were able to gain access to the internet quite easily, especially in Tunisia. Even though the online domain is heavily censored, people still had methods to use social media and the like. The internet was brought to Syria by Bashar al-Assad, who understood its power and because of this knowledge, right from the start, heavily restricted and censored webpages and social media platforms, thus making it harder for Syrians to freely make use of them.
This essay looks at two specific cases in which the internet, no matter the outcome, became a tool for facilitating mass protests: Tunisia and Syria. The internet has contributed to the emergence of mass protest in both Tunisia and Syria mainly in three distinct ways: (1) by giving people the opportunity to find like-minded and value-sharing people and build a network, (2) by spreading information and awareness, including the real-time distribution of videos, and (3) by mobilising and organising protests. In the following, each of these contributions to the emergence of mass protests in Syria and Tunisia will be further explained in order to compare both cases.
The internet and social media gave people in Tunisia the opportunity to connect with other like-minded people from across the country. New communication technologies enabled a low-cost exchange of thoughts, lived experiences and concerns. Even though activists in Tunisia came from different backgrounds, their shared grievances and discontent for the government created a collective identity among them (Aday et al., 2012). Most of the protesters experienced repression of freedom of speech and expression, humiliation and economic challenges. The young and educated, especially, were often unemployed, struggled to earn a living and had little perspective of enhancement of their situation. Being able to share one’s emotions and stories with people who empathise with similar experiences made those experiences seemingly more important as they were now part of a bigger picture. While the upheavals had no formal leader, with the help of the internet and mobile phones, Tunisians were able to show solidarity among themselves and form a large-scale social movement (Howard and Hussain, 2011).
In addition, both Breuer et al. (2014) and Howard and Hussain (2013) see social media such as Facebook and Twitter as spaces where Tunisians could, at least for a while, speak freely and out of the sight of the authoritarian regime. Activists used the ‘new media’ as brainstorming tools for finding ways to achieve social and political change. Mass protests were only possible because Tunisians formed a group of engaged activists, who critiqued the regime and its policies, and who were seeking political change.
Through networking, more and more people got in touch with one another. The activist movement, therefore, was able to quickly flourish. However, not only were activists able to connect with each other in Tunisia, the movement spilled across borders through networking. Tech-savvy demonstrators from different countries connected with one another and provided each other with important information and strategies. Tunisia, where the uprising started, provided many people across the Arab World with vital information about how the infrastructures of the internet can be used against repressive regimes. It “constitute[d] important resources to achieve intergroup collaboration and challenge[d] the strategies of social isolation typically employed by authoritarian regimes to obstruct civil society groups from forming and operating” (Breuer et al., 2014: 769). Networking with the help of the internet enabled Tunisians to form a strong support system that spread information, formed social services, raised funds or gave legal advice (Howard and Hussain, 2013).
Similar to Tunisia, networking among protesters within the realm of the internet helped facilitate mass protests in Syria. Networking was used as a community-building tool. Thus, people were connecting with one another online, shared views, experiences and personal stories. Here too, shared grievances fostered a collective identity. Shaery-Eisenlohr (2011: 133) explains that “building networks of people who trust each other even when they do not know each other personally is the first step to countering and breaking the regimes’ politics of fear”. Through networking, the regime’s “politics of fear” (Shaery-Eisenlohr, 2011: 133) was being addressed as the fear among citizens decreased through a group of people that all shared the same values and were willing to collectively fight existing power structures. A collective is almost always stronger than an individual. Power structures seemingly shift when oppositions form a strong community of dedicated people.
In addition to sharing experiences and views, or legal knowledge, online networking also led to a strong support system among Syrian protesters. This enabled dissidents to seek and provide help among each other as needed. Howard and Hussain (2011) explain that the government’s opponents in Syria were reliant on international support. The best example is exiled activists who brought notions of the protests and the violent responses of the government to international organizations. International attention can, for example, put pressure on authoritarian regimes. Unfortunately for Syrian protesters, the Assad regime did not change its violent course of action. Nevertheless, exiled or foreign supporters did help form a strategy to protect activists as much as possible in Syria. Networking on social media or via text messages on mobile phones enabled protesters in Syria to be in touch with one another, not only for brainstorming or gaining financial support, but also for spreading valuable real-time information. The way in which spreading information and awareness online has facilitated mass protests in both cases will be examined in the next section.
In general, the internet and social media provided activists in both countries, Syria and Tunisia, with the means to network online and to build up a movement. A main difference, however, is that networking in Tunisia mainly took place between people inside of the country, while Syrian protesters built a web of activists that spread across borders. This might have to do with the fact that Syria ‘learned’ from other countries where mass protests rose up earlier (for instance, Tunisia).
Spreading Information and Raising Awareness by Content Production
The internet also facilitated mass protests in Tunisia by opening up ways for protesters to spread information and raise awareness of the events. National television and ‘old media’ were controlled by the government, which is why they largely did not report on the uprisings. Although social media was also censored and temporarily completely blocked, tech-savvy protesters found ways around the censorship to spread the captured evidence of what was happening. Accordingly, Chomiak and Entelis (2013: 48) note that, “[r]elying primarily on Facebook, the activists used a medium that was shielded from the government’s censor”. The internet seemingly provided endless opportunities to spread information and attention. Especially valuable was that ordinary people could create and consume, as well as share content easily. The protester’s main tool for creating awareness was making videos with the help of mobile phones, which were then posted online on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or on blogs.
The videos mostly depict violent clashes between the regime and activists. Seeing the abusive government led to more and more Tunisians joining the mass protests. The videos often went viral and were picked up by TV channels around the world. The scenes of unarmed activists being targeted with live ammunition by the police caused horror among the international community. The evidence of the protests online, as well as the redistribution by broadcasters further helped bypass censorship or blocking of content (Breuer et al., 2014). These videos became a symbol of the Arab Spring and they sometimes were the only chance to make the world aware of the level of violence committed by the Tunisian regime – “mobile phone cameras [and the internet] became small, personal weapons against authoritarian rule” (Howard and Hussain, 2013: 41). The most important goal for demonstrators was getting the content out for the world to see. In addition to posting photos of the size of the demonstrations or videos of the regime’s violence, Jost et al. (2018) explain that the internet offered further opportunities to raise awareness about important protest-related issues, for instance, organizational information, geographical locations of officials, legal advice or medical assistance. All this could be communicated to millions of people in real-time.
When Tunisia’s dictator Ben Ali fled the country after only several weeks of riots, images of cheering activists were shared across the internet. These images inspired more and more people in other countries across the Arab World to rally for social and political change themselves (Howard and Hussain, 2011).
The spark of the Tunisian uprising, and Tunisian protesters’ resistance against the authoritarian regime, undoubtedly transferred onto Syria. The internet in Syria, just as it did in Tunisia, helped protesters create awareness, enlarge the mass of dissidents and spread information. Shaery-Eisenlohr (2011: 130) explains that “[h]uman rights activists and other civil society actors inside Syria and in exile use social networks to promote their agendas”. When the Syrian regime began to misinform people via Twitter in order to weaken the demonstrators, the latter used the internet to verify sources that could be trusted for other users (Howard and Hussain, 2013). The internet and social media were also used as an educational tool, providing activists with information about rights that Syrians should be entitled to. Many people learned for the first time about their rights online (Shaery-Eisenlohr, 2011). Even though social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were heavily censored in Syria, people still used it to facilitate mass protests. Similar to Tunisia, the most important tool was to raise awareness about the atrocities committed by the Assad regime, by uploading videos of those atrocities on the internet. However, the level of violence was much greater in the Syrian case. The regime, with its absolute intolerance for mass protests, tracked activists down, arrested, tortured and often even killed them. The filming, uploading and sharing of videos as evidence for the brutal treatment against protesters on the internet was especially important in the case of Syria, as mainstream media and journalists could not report from there because of the level of violence and repression (Aday et al., 2012). In order for protesters not to reveal their geographical location and risking being arrested while uploading a video on social media, activists started to live-stream the protests and clashes online with the help of their mobile phones.
The internet, both in Tunisia and Syria, was used as a communication tool to spread information and raise awareness of abusive governments and human rights violations. Thanks to mobile phones and the possibility of uploading videos on social media, the international community became aware of the atrocities committed by the authoritarian regimes, especially in Syria. The internet enabled activists with the means to build up a social movement, provided as many people as possible with as much information as possible, and created full-scale mass protests in both countries (although mobilization of people in Syria seemingly appeared to be a tougher challenge due to the brutal responses of the Assad regime).
Mobilization und Organization
The Arab Spring started in 2010 in Tunisia, but affected many countries in the Arab World. Interestingly, Dakhli (2013) notes that the uprisings were achieved by the common people, with no distinct leaders within their ranks. But how exactly did the internet contribute to the mobilisation and organisation of these activists? Aday et al. (2012: 7) explain that “the most direct impact for new media on the Arab uprisings would presumably be in its contribution to the organization and promotion of the protests themselves”. Howard and Hussain (2011), on the other hand, see the internet as a tool expressing feelings of grievance and discontent for the government. These emotions were shared online, which led to a collective identity and the wish to change the social and political arena, and ultimately mobilised people to engage in protests. The communication structures enabled by social media allowed activists to connect with one another, mobilise masses and organise strategies for the protests. During the uprising in Tunisia, the internet functioned as a tool for the rapid communication of dates and locations of protest, which tremendously helped with the organisation (Jost et al., 2018). Furthermore, information about political changes across the Arab World have been shared via Twitter and Facebook.
Under repressive regimes, offline mobilisation for mass protest is hard to achieve (though not impossible). The internet gave Tunisians the opportunity to reach a larger number of people within a short period of time, in a space that is harder for the government to monitor. As more people joined the protests, the fear that was instrumentalised by the government appeared to diminish among Tunisian citizens.
In terms of making use of the internet by distributing information, raising awareness and networking in order to facilitate mass protests, both Syria and Tunisia greatly resembled each other. The mobilization of people and organization of large-scale protests, however, look fairly different in both states. When the uprising started in Syria in February 2011, protesters tried to employ the same methods as activists in Tunisia did. As the Assad regime had worked very hard to perfect surveillance and restrict media and the internet, it was harder for Syrians to mobilize en masse than it was for Tunisians. Furthermore, Syria followed the example of Tunisia, which means that the latter had the advantage of its regime not expecting protest. Protesters in the former did not have this moment of surprise, which the Tunisian regime struggled with. However,
Despite all the surveillance, Syrians created new ways of transgressing Internet policing and used the Internet for a variety of purposes, perhaps least in ways the regime had ordered them. The Internet became another arena where many Syrians had to push the infamous red lines and test the boundaries. (Shaery-Eisenlohr, 2011: 129)
With the help of exiles and foreign supporters, Syrian protesters initially organized peaceful protests against the repressive Assad regime (Dakhli, 2013). In order to show the situation in Syria to the world, here too, it was of the utmost importance for protesters to videotape incidents, and especially the brutality of the regime. As filming was strictly forbidden, activists received among other helpful things, hidden cameras from wealthy supporters outside of Syria. Even though the images of the destruction and horror experienced by people in Syria have been widely distributed, it became clear very fast that they did not have the same effects as they had in other Arab countries. Nevertheless, Syrian activists tried to keep their campaign for political and economic change running on the internet. As of now, efforts of activists to organize mass protest for achieving social and political reform have not been successful. Syria has now been experiencing civil war for almost nine years.
The Arab Spring was dominated by one specific variable: the use of the internet and social media. Although people from all walks of life were involved in the protests in Tunisia and Syria, it was the educated but underemployed tech-savvy youth that laid their trust in the digital media in order to facilitate mass protest and ultimately social and political change. Howard and Hussain (2011: 47) underline that “[d]igital media are important precisely because they had a role in popular mobilizations against authoritarian rule that were unlike anything seen before in the region”. This essay has argued that especially three different ways of use of the internet and social media facilitated mass protests. First, the internet enabled protesters to network with one another. Even across long distances, it made it easy to find like-minded people that shared similar values and ideas. Networking helped mobilising people and facilitated a collective identity among them. The fear of the regime was seemingly reduced by collective and shared feelings of grievance and discontent. Secondly, activists in both Syria and Tunisia made use of social media in order to spread information and raise awareness. Social media was the foundation of articulation within the ranks of protesters. By uploading protest messages online, activists were actively bypassing the regime’s censorship. The internet gave people a room to express themselves, which was usually not possible in an offline environment under authoritarian rule. By uploading videos of the demonstrations that depicted the violent nature of the regime’s response, activists were able to mobilise more people and gain the support of the international community. Lastly, activists in both Syria and Tunisia used the internet to communicate strategies (not only with the country but also with supporters across the world) and organise the protests.
While activists in both countries made use of social media and the internet to facilitate mass protests, the effectiveness and outcome differed in the two respective states. While the uprising in Tunisia was fairly successful and the system was overturned, Syria is experiencing civil war to this day. Nevertheless, this does not belittle the impact that the internet had on encouraging people to protest. It is important to state that the internet did not cause the mass protests per se, both in Syria and in Tunisia. However, it significantly contributed to the formation of these social movements by overcoming problems linked to forming collective action against an oppressive regime (Aday et al., 2012; Gelvin, 2012).
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