Authored by: Reza Jamali

Affiliation: PhD (Strategic Management), Independent Scholar

Contact info: jamali.re@gmail.com

 

What needs to be borne in mind when reading this analysis is that, rather than the rate of penetration, it is the pace of penetration of social media that is under examination here. For example, although the US has the highest rate of social media and Internet usage, this leading position was achieved not in a short time but over a period of years. However, rapid penetration by the Internet and social media has occurred in the Middle East especially Arabic countries  between 2010 and 2013; so, all discussion here is centred on the pace of penetration. Moreover, while the role of the telecommunications infrastructure and even the mobile phone is undeniable, the social and psychological factors that can trigger a revolution are also dealt with in my analysis.

Sense of freedom

The first factor that empowers social media to play a determining role in the revolution is the sense of freedom. When freedom of speech is denied, the social media become a more attractive vehicle through which the public may express ideas.

When a post is ‘liked’ by others, the author may develop the idea that there are people outside his current network whom he or she can lead. From a psychological viewpoint, this imparts a sense that they can be more effective than before. On the other hand, the followers develop the sense that they are not alone in the ideas they hold. That is, in the absence of social media, people may think that their liberal ideas are personal and thus may not reveal them, but it is the calm before the storm.

So finding followers to support freedom and making massive networks are features of the social media. Two needs are then met: one is the need for freedom of expression of pro-democracy attitudes and the other is the sense of being seen and having power. Of the five countries studied in this book, Tunisia holds the record for demands for freedom. Social media activists there reported that lack of respect for freedom of speech was one of the important causes that led them to the online social media. Meanwhile, in another part of world, people in the USA tend to use social media as a way to connect with friends, escape routine life and share their hobbies, such as videos, music, photographs.

Concealment

Another point concerning the effect of social media on a public movement is that they can identify the roots of that movement. Looking for a needle in a haystack is an apt analogy, highlighting some positive and negative dimensions. On the one hand, it is not easy for those who might be upset by a public movement to find the trigger point, as many political activists adopt a fake online identity. On the other hand, however, an arrogant government may commission other groups to take control of a public movement and feed it misleading information. The history of Iran’s revolution (1978  9) demonstrated social media in the form of flyers with no signature and cassettes that were disseminated as rapidly as their source disappeared. However, what makes Iran’s revolution distinguishable from the recent revolutions, between 2011 and 2013, in other Arabic countries, is that the former was not a ‘headless’ revolution, as the social media were formed and developed in harmony with the goals of one leader: Imam Khomeini. Revolutions in the Arabic countries, including those in the Middle East and North Africa are headless and their leaders, if any, are unknown. One definition of a headless revolution is a social movement with no specific and centralised leadership (Serag, 2011). Lack of a leader brings in worries that the movement might be misled. That is, although social media facilitate the initiation of movements, authoritarian groups may further manipulate the demands of those movements when they gain power. The first step to finding the right path is to identify and distinguish between real and fake revolutionary groups.

An intriguing case of the penetration of government-supported groups in social media happened in North Sudan. When the different groups made arrangements to meet each other during demonstrations against Omar el-Bashir, many were arrested by the police forces. The fact was that the regime had penetrated the social networks to find about the future moves of the protesters (Comninos, 2011).

Social capital

This is another aspect of the penetration rate of social media. Because of the importance of the subject, the issue is dealt with in detail in a separate chapter. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that specific high-quality social relations may develop stable and sustainable societies. Sustainable social relations need a high rate of trust in the constituent interrelationships (Jamali and Abedin, 2013). According to the literature, social capital can be classified into seven dimensions, namely: ‘group characteristics; generalised norms; togetherness; everyday sociability; neighborhood connections; volunteerism and trust’ (Narayan and Cassidy, 2001). Using this classification system, according to my research, trust is the most effective factor in attracting individuals to participate in a network. Trust among members of groups and trust in government improve the efficiency of government expenditures. Trust is a determining factor in the pace of revolution in different countries. Where there is trust among the people and between the people and the government, improvement of general welfare can be expected.

Mono-nationality and cultural exchanges

The next factors contributing to the pace of social media among different nations are mono-nationality and cultural exchange. Of the countries in the Middle East, Iran, Turkey and Iraq can be considered multinational. On the other hand, the majority of the Arabic countries in that region are considered to be mono-national. When it comes to social media, there is a dominant culture which feeds the main portion of the material and consequently influences other subcultures  and of course is influenced by them in return. The cultural exchange is a relatively gradual process.

However, for mono-national countries, the formation of focal points which appeal to everyone is rather faster. In such a scenario, there is usually no need for fundamental changes as people are quick to agree on an issue and join social groups. The problem of regime is raised when the governing power is challenged by a crisis of legitimacy and national identity. By crisis of legitimacy we are referring to the situation where the ruling power, in the eyes of the public, is deemed to have no authority to rule, which usually results in a gap between the actual system and the preferred one. Such a situation might be a cause or a consequence of the national identity of the people. In this regard the question is about the extent of the acceptance of authority. Do the people find themselves mentally belonging to the system? My research regarding national identity in Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Yemen and Tunisia shows that, in spite of recent revolution and the initiation of a transition phase, people still have a poor sense of national identity. This might trigger the next major movement against the ruling power. It is noticeable that these countries score differently with regard to their national identity and that the different aspects of national identity are not the same in each country. Therefore each aspect needs to be dealt with separately (and is the subject of another chapter). For now, we need to keep in mind that mono-nationality facilitates the formation of massive groups in the social media, and when this happens at the same time as a weak sense of national identity and a crisis of legitimacy, social movements are inevitable.

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