Is this really a social media revolution ?

Is this really a social media revolution ?

“Egypt is on the lower end of face book penetration in the Arab world at 7.66 per cent, whereas the UAE, at the highest, is at 50 per cent” says a recent report on social media usage by the Dubai School of Government ( DSG). Having managed their PR for over a year and having worked with the person in charge of the research, I can say with confidence that I trust those numbers.  So, is this hype about “social media revolution”, “twitter revolution” all just hype ? or is there truth to this argument ?

First things first: a few clarifications are in order.

Journalists like easy answers – and ones that satisfy their audience, without leaving much ambiguity. That is truly the rule of thumb operating here.  While most journalists writing about the Middle East and Foreign policy issues are not qualified to be writing about these issues , they want to give the impression that they truly are in control and know what is going on. I remember meeting a very senior diplomat from the State department recently, who in all modesty confirmed that he doesn’t know what the hell is going on. So, go figure.

I believe there is a tendency among the journalistic franternity to repeat the same theory over and over again, as long as someone credible says it, without questioning, analysing it. This is a trend, not to say it happens all the time.

This issue also reminds of  a panel discussion a few weeks ago at the National press club, Washington DC, where prominent journalists, bloggers and activists participated. The gist of the discussion, which represented both social media evangelists, as well as traditional media folks such as Riz Khan of Al Jazeera was that though social media played a key role in the uprisings, and continues to do so, there is a need to temper down the credit that we are giving it. Social media did not invent courage and the imagination to stand up to people.

The second edition of the DSG  report also mentions :” Egypt, the report found, constitutes about a quarter of total facebook users in the Arab region, and has added close to 2 million new users between January and April. Egypt is nonetheless on the lower end of facebook penetration in the Arab world, at 7.66 per cent, whereas the UAE, at the highest, is at 50 per cent “. So, what is really going on here ?

How come those societies which are most connected are not witnessing revolutions ? UAE, where the monarchy is very stable, did not even witness a whiff of protest, forget having a full-blown revolution.

In my mind, there are a few other possible explanations, rather than giving all the credit to Facebook and twitter. Some key factors which made the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions effective in terms of social media :

  1. There are huge masses of poor, affected people, who need to mobilize
  2. There is state censorship of media
  3. There is a critical mass of youth who want their voices to be heard

Since the demographics of the region are titled in favour of the youth ( by some estimates, about 50 % of the population in the MENA region are below 25 yrs), this creates a critical mass of users of social media and technologies.

In a study called Shababtek, done a few years ago by TNS, the market research firm, this was also brought out. I am surprised that no one is quoting this report. This was way back in the year 2008, when I was in Dubai and used to manage the TNS account. The study, which was an ethnographic study of youth across 6 countries brought out the essential truth  : Youth in the region want to express themselves, connect with others and feel part of the larger community. And the social media, internet allow for that to happen rather easily.

This can also explain partly why the revolutions in the region have succeeded, more so because youth have adopted these tools.

But to give all the credit to the tools would not only be naïve, but also foolish.

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