With the upheaval that is occurring in the Middle East and North Africa, the role of social media has come into the spotlight due to its role in the current situation and the regions’ history of strong government influence over the control of media.
Social media has provided an opportunity for many activists, most of them young people, to express their views and promote their activism to a larger audience, over 17 million in the MENA region, than was ever possible before. Protestors are using sites such as Twitter and Facebook to help organize and get the word out about their cause. In an article for Triple Helix Online, Anna Collins explains the role of social media in this region by stating, “the vast social networking platforms provided by venues like Facebook allow users to mobilize so discretely and in such substantial numbers that they have a better chance at successfully transforming their dictatorial governance structures than those employing more customary means of protest.”
Many of the countries in this region are used to the governments having the final say on which tv stations, newspapers and radio stations were allowed to operate and what topics they were allowed to discuss. However, with the explosion of social media within the last five years, many of the laws that the government instituted to help them achieve this control have become outdated.
In order to keep up with the emergence of social media, governments around the Middle East and North Africa region have begun to seek ways in which to gain some control over the issue. Qatar, Syria and Yemen have all been working over the past few months to pass laws that will help curb the freedom that these outlets present for their citizens.
Additionally, with the freedom of speech of this regions’ citizens in jeopardy, the social media sites have not kept quiet about the restrictions of their websites. Last week when the Egyptian government shut down the internet, Google, Twitter and Facebook all criticized the decision. Facebook came out with a statement that said, “Although the turmoil in Egypt is a matter for the Egyptian people and their government to resolve, limiting internet access for millions of people is a matter of concern for the global community,” Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said. Moreover, Google and Twitter created an avenue for Egyption users to circumvent to internet shutdown by allowing them to post messages through phone calls.
Even though social media has had a large part in bringing social activists together, Collins warns that it is unlikely to be successful in the long run. “Given the impersonal nature of Facebook and the extensive authority available to autocratic rulers, however, it is more likely that not only will Facebook-style campaigns fail to achieve desired results, they will also make it more difficult for advocacy groups to coalesce over the long term.”