What we take for granted or use to exchange music and gossip, others use to topple tyrannical regimes and assert their human rights
Although the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have been known as the last regions that strongly reject globalization, it is an undeniable fact that today there has been a significant increase in the users of the Internet from these parts, from 1.7 per cent to 38.3 per cent since 2000. With the growth of the Internet’s influence, more and more people have been enjoying the offerings of social media in the more remote parts of the world.
In today’s contemporary society it is obvious that social media has had a great influence on the behaviour of young people, businesses and even education systems. The Arab world is not an exception. Social media could fundamentally change the life of the indigenous people. As it has been proved during the Arab Spring, social media can be an effective tool to topple autocracies and even stabilise young democracies. There are three main reasons why social media could help democracy develop in the regions discussed.
The first reason why social media can promote democratisation is closely related with the quality of information. The information broadcast through social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is free from government censorship. Therefore, the majority of pictures, videos and messages on these sites have the potential to depict a genuine account of the life of indigenous people. The information that comes from individual accounts is sometimes even more concrete and credible than any statistic or report published by structured organisations. Social media has allowed the exchange of a unique kind of information beyond the borders, which in turn has exposed the lower social strata to opportunities and knowledge of how to acquire a better life.
The influx of information not only from Western countries but also from other developing countries is inspiring. In fact, the Tunisian Revolution which managed to effectively use Facebook for assembling demonstrations and spreading word of its tragedy to the world, had a massive impact on other countries in the region which eventually led to the beginning of the Arab Spring. Thus, authentic information can be a strong driving force for democracy by enlightening the people. Moreover, understanding the real situation in a specific region is considerably important for developed countries and international organisations in order to prevent misuses of humanitarian aid, consider the necessity of economic sanctions and create a quick collective action when needed.
Secondly, social media can also be an effective tool for making demonstrations and opposition groups succeed because of its particular feature of not electing a main leader. Take Facebook and Twitter as examples; there is no hierarchy in the Facebook groups and timelines of Twitter which give everyone equal opportunity to express their opinions. Hence, it’s safe to say that social media successfully established the flat leadership model.
Both the Middle East and North Africa have historically been under the control of deeply-rooted authoritarian regimes that have effectively prevented democracy by unjustly imprisoning and executing leaders of opposition groups, including journalists and intellectuals. The absence of a leader or the flat leadership model seems to work better than having a well-organised group with hierarchies — especially against an authoritarian regime. This is because when there is no obvious leader in an opposition group or demonstration, there is little point in imprisoning random people. Even if the authorities try to keep ‘suspected’ leaders quiet by force, there will always be other ‘leaders’ waiting to continue the movement.
This is what actually happened during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 which eventually put an end to Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year tyranny. Wael Ghonim, who originally established the Facebook group WAAKS (stands for ‘We Are All Khaled Saeed’, a young man who was brutally killed by the Egyptian police), remained anonymous during the Egyptian demonstrations for reasons of safety. Even the fact that Ghonim and several influential bloggers were finally arrested did not slow down the movements. Why? Because the members of these movements did not just follow the instruction of a leader, but rather thought, planned and organised everything by themselves.
Thirdly, social media is practical not only as a trigger for democratisation but also as a seamless platform that could make democracy stable and genuine. Today more and more governments manage their official accounts on social media. Even in the MENA region, the governments of 15 countries out of 20 have official accounts on Twitter, and in the remaining five countries political leaders actively post updates and reply to other users. The good thing is that citizens, and even people from other countries, can directly voice their opinions and demands to specific governments through these media vents which effectively improves public services. Even if every request cannot be met, interactive communication undoubtedly increases the accountability of governments.
It is both effective and necessary to put pressure on governments by making them feel under surveillance. Public services such as welfare and education in the Arab world have been regarded as a favour from governments rather than a duty. The reason is that these were established primarily because of the presence of vast natural resources and the revenue they yield, rather than money from taxes.
Monitoring authorities by means of social media can be the first step for citizens of the MENA region towards gaining real power and making governments representatives of the people rather than their dictators. This will also effectively reduce the risk of collapsing back into authoritarianism once democracy is established.
While there are obvious advantages to social media, some claim that it has a deceptive presence that gives people a false sense of satisfaction just from clicking a button without taking any real action or risks. It is, of course, never guaranteed that activities will be successfully transferred from the virtual world to the physical one. However, considering the efforts and risks involved in making demonstrations under an authoritarian regime, arguably social media still has the power to boost democratization because it gives the opportunity for action to anyone no matter how young, poor or uninfluential they are. Besides, it’s a good thing that anyone can really be anybody while taking radical initiatives. This is why Facebook is more than a place to upload Friday night party pics.