An unconventional news source, enemy and leader

Whether a hero to applaud or a virus to blame, social media has held an important role in the Arab uprisings this spring. Through its global outreach, it has redefined the media and political landscape of the Arab world. Lebanese graduate Mariam Itani offers her thoughts.
By Mariam Itani

Media has always played a crucial role in covering historical events, but never before has it so depended on citizen journalism by ordinary people who have used the internet to broadcast their images and videos of current events to the world. Even Al Jazeera, the channel at the center of traditional media coverage of the ongoing Arab uprisings, credits its work to its new media newsroom, "the group of youth who sit next to the newsroom and follow Twitter, Facebook, Youtube." 

An unconventional news source

Using social media has been a harder way to collect original news. Before, news stations received updates from accredited reporters and news agencies who followed their guidelines, and these could be broadcast with minimal verification efforts – if any. Now, news arrives from multiple sources whose credibility has not been verified, and often with contradicting content. 

The dilemma is how best to fact check this content and whether to risk broadcasting it. If broadcast and untrue, the stations' credibility will be shaken. If not broadcast although true, the station will lose out on a scoop, or perhaps even be accused of bias.

An unconventional enemy

Criticized regimes also struggled to read this new form of communication. 

For those facing mass protests, suddenly their real enemy was not clear. Television stations could be closed, licenses withdrawn, and even satellite channels blocked, but what were they to do about social media? 

At first, the regime attempted to spread its counter-narrative, exaggerating the numbers of dead and injured, or downplaying the number of protestors to discourage others from joining. But here again, social media proved more immune to misuse than traditional media. Equal access by all meant that it was hard to control the real news being spread by a majority.

Hence came step two, cutting out people's access to internet and thus to social media. In Egypt, Libya, Syria, and even earlier this week in Jordan, there were reports of blackouts in areas of unrest. In some areas (but not in Jordan), there weren’t even working landlines. 

Such measures were condemned worldwide, by official state spokespersons, media agencies, and human rights organizations. It was a new era for freedom of speech.

An unconventional leader

If the enemy was hard to define, pinpointing its leader was even harder. 

The masses mobilized by new media appeared to have no one person leading them with whom to negotiate their demands. This had negative implications for the regimes and for the protesters.

The protesting masses also did not have a reference to consult on the developments of the moment, and at times their reactions were divergent. When the Egyptian President Mubarak gave his second speech, for example, some protestors sympathized and returned home. It was only later, when the calls saying that the Mubarak’s concessions were not enough reached them, that they returned.

Today in Tunisia and Egypt, people are eager to engage in political activity to help rebuild their country, but many lack the necessary awareness and political skills. The lack of leadership makes guidance once again difficult to obtain. 

But not the only actor

In the Arab uprisings this spring, social media has been a tool for people to be heard, but not always to tell the truth. It has been a tool for them to act, but not necessarily to plan. It has been a tool for revolt, and hopefully will be one for rebuilding. 

It did not foment people’s anger at their regimes, but it gave them a channel for expression and action. And it did not arm the masses against bullets and attacks, but it did give them stamina.

Social media has played an important role in the uprisings, but there were also other factors. For example, consider Libya, where social media played a minimal role. Could this be why the uprising is still ongoing? Look at Yemen, where pro-change youth have used social media but internet coverage nationwide remains low at 2 percent.

Perhaps it would be best to re-read these revolts the traditional way, through history, politics, demography, regime and army structure, geopolitics, and international interests. Perhaps then, we would see a clearer picture.