Social Media and the Arab Spring

social media arab spring
Tahrir Flags by AK Rockefeller

It was not because of social media that Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by the Tunisian Government.

But it was social media that helped turn his self-immolation into a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the more comprehensive Arab Spring against autocracy.

The Tunisian Government was overthrown in January 2011.

But it helped activists fuel revolutionary fervor in Libya, Yemen, Oman, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, and Morocco, giving rise to the Arab Spring.

As Steve Coll writes in The New Yorker, ‘…youthful populations, high unemployment, grotesque inequality, abusive police, reviled leaders and authoritarian systems” are the real cause.

So, let’s give credit where credit’s due. Anti-government protests are a response to bad government, not social networking sites.

Social media platforms make mass protests impossible to ignore. Social media is not so much a disruptor as it is an accelerator. And can be used to organize pro-democracy protests.

Armed with a report published by Wikileaks confirming what they already knew was a systemic abuse of power, the Tunisians ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Next, despite a state-sponsored internet blackout, Egyptians ousted President Hosni Mubarak and took to Tahrir Square to fight for their future.

Mubarak stepped down just 14 days later in February 2011.

King Abdullah ll of Jordan also dealt with a wave of regional discontent and thousands of young Sundanese braving beatings and arrests to protest his government. And it has all happened in a matter of weeks.

In October 2011, Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed, by rebels, another despotic casualty of the Arab world.

And finally, in late 2011, Saudi Arabia confronted anti-government demonstrators when Faisal Ahmed Abdul-Ahad (aka Abdul-Ahadwas), was terminated by Saudi security forces for planning anti-government protests inside the kingdom. The Facebook group he has been using to organize protests has over 26,000 members.

Social media policies are useful because they help organizations push decision-making authority down through the ranks.

Command and control style management hinders organizations from responding, reacting or engaging in real time.

Organizations with military social media rules can move quicker because everyone is empowered to participate responsibly, not to mention the potential of social media sites as a related information operations capability.

Conversations move faster and farther than ever before in a world where we check our activity streams every minute or so and blog posts. Recruiting was already making use of social media marketing. Why not leverage public affairs, too?

The logic applies to revolutions and diplomacy as well.

Twitter may not be so much a driver as it is an enabler.  Social media posts accelerate the pace of communications.

For the US, which sometimes aligns with corrupt, autocratic regimes to preserve economic stability and access to natural resources, we’re now learning that social media cuts both ways.

What empowers the people to band together and overthrow their governments, can also be used to challenge hypocrisy.

But given the openness that social media provides active users, Washington has only one choice: to find a way to leverage these channels to protect our national security interests.

But perhaps more importantly, social media’s velocity forces organizations to re-evaluate their decisions.

In this light-speed environment, command and control, hierarchical models are severely handicapped because by the time they decide, the opportunity has passed them by.

Old school marketing strategy says to control the conversation, perfect their “talking points,” and get everything right before opening your mouth.

But you can’t please all the people all the time.

As the use of social media in the Arab Spring has shown, we will never be able to leverage real-time conversations to achieve measurable outcomes if we don’t push decision-making authority to the edges of the organizations and enable the frontline to participate in discussions on social media in real-time.

Conversations trend online too quickly to afford the luxury of a traditional approval process.

Organizations must push more authority to its edges and train individuals to make choices based on practical, rational guidelines.

But reorganizing authority internally while jeopardizing operational security requires a shift in thinking.

It will demand a level of social media literacy that does not currently exist at most organizations.

In my next post, I will discuss a strategy for overcoming this challenge with a holistic approach to digital marketing training.

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