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Abstract

Research on media and contentious politics in the Arab world point to the vital role that social media played in the Arab Spring. For the purposes of this article, the Arab Spring is defined as a series of demonstrations and democratic uprisings—and in the cases of Libya, Syria, and Yemen armed rebel movements—that arose independently and spread across the Arab world from Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria in 2010-2011 and beyond. This article advances the theoretical assumption that while not causing the Arab uprisings, New Media (defined here as all forms of digital communication technology including satellite television, cell phones, social networking, video-blogging, and citizen journalism platforms that allow broader dissemination and participation than traditional print or broadcast media) provided the technical infrastructure for these uprisings to develop, sustain, and intensify over relatively short periods. With this assumption at its focus, this paper digs out the political, economic, social, and cultural roots of the Arab Spring. It explores how Arabs’ hunger for decentralized news and information paved the road for the organic growth of a new breed of Arab “citizen journalists.” It describes how New Media technologies, which Larry Diamond (2012) of Stanford University calls “Liberation Technologies” have combined words and images on iPhones, Blackberries, laptops, and social media platforms and managed to turn previously underground oppositions in several Arab countries into Virtual Public Spheres. It explains how the so-called “Generation-in-Waiting” who could no longer wait and took to the streets in waves of demonstrations against police brutality, economic deprivation, corruption and dictatorship. It then examines how these Liberation Technologies helped to convert Arab subjects into engaged citizens. It assesses how these revolutionaries broke the government monopoly on traditional media and used New Media to mobilize, organize, and take to the streets. Furthermore, it explains how this enabled the Arab revolutionaries to “occupy” in a matter of days, not just the virtual cyber-space, but also the physical space including Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, Tahrir Square in Cairo, Pearl Square in Manama, and the University Quarter in Sanaa, which ultimately brought the fall of entrenched dictators Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Finally, the paper addresses the challenges academics have, and will likely continue to face, as we seek to measure, analyze, and assess the role of social media in political dissent and revolution.

Author Bio(s)

Mohamed M. Arafa, an internationally recognized professor of global communication with over 25 years of experience in teaching, research and consulting, joined Kennesaw State University in 2014. Prior to arriving at KSU, Dr. Arafa had held faculty positions at several universities in the Middle East and US. He founded the Department of Communications at Qatar University in 1995, and consulted on the effort to earn it accreditation from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in 2013. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication and Culture from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, MA in Mass Communication, and BA in Arabic Journalism from Cairo University. Crystal Armstrong is a PhD candidate in International Conflict Management at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests include digital social identity development, the use of new media for extremist mobilization, and digital technology utilization in non-violent resistance movements. Her dissertation examines the online hacktivist collective Anonymous and their mobilization efforts.