Looking for Facebook in the Arab world

The dispute around the political influence of social media is over.  Social media won.  Fused symbiotically with satellite TV, it played and continues to play a decisive part in the Arab uprising.  Maybe these weren’t “Facebook revolutions” – in the sense that such complex events can’t be traced to a single cause – but they were revolutions in which a rebellious public exploited Facebook for coordination and persuasion, with important consequences.

Social media was a significant factor, not the cause, in the uprising.

Having settled that, a natural next step, I thought, was to dig up hard facts on the subject.  How prevalent is Facebook in Egypt, for example?  How many people can be found tweeting revolutionary ideas on the streets of Benghazi in Libya?  What’s the relation between the spread of social media and success in overthrowing a regime?

So I went looking for data on the use of Facebook and Twitter in Arab countries, using Alexa and Google Trends.

(A note on method:  for Alexa, the list of popular sites is as of March 19.  For Google trends, the timeframe is all of 2011, and the units of measurement are “search volume,” in which one site’s volume is measured in proportion to another’s, and “news reference volume,” which counts the number of times a term appeared on Google News.  I will be comparing the search volume of Facebook and Twitter to that of BBC Online.  Alexa measures the percentage of the web audience captured by a given site.)

Tunisia was the spark that lit the fire – a good place to begin.  The country has a population of about 10 million, of which, according to the Economist, 27 percent are internet users (other sources have that as high as 35 percent).  In other words, there are between 2 and 3 million Tunisians online.  Since the Economist tells us 4.3 million overall are under 25, we can safely assume a large overlap between the online population and the under-25 group.

So what are these online, presumably young Tunisians doing?  Alexa says they are deep into social media.  Facebook is the top site in the country, ahead of Google.  YouTube ranks third, Blogger sixth, Wikipedia ninth, Twitter twelfth.  Forums, video sharing, and porn rank ahead of the first pure news site – Le Monde, at 60.  Tunisians online show far more interest in exchanging information with one another than in passively receiving stuff from some authority.

This is the background to the political upheaval which began in mid-December.  The sequence of events is by now well known.  Local protests followed the self-immolation of a 26-year-old street vendor who had been humiliated by the government.  Video of these protests, posted on Facebook, was picked up and re-broadcast by Al Jazeera on December 17.  A pattern was set.  The symbiotic relationship between social media, with Facebook in the front rank, and satellite TV, particularly Al Jazeera, produced a powerful mix of communication and propaganda which transformed a local disturbance into a world historical event.

President Ben Ali, Tunisia’s strongman for 23 years, fled the country on January 14.  Protests continued, demanding more fundamental change, and three days later the caretaker government collapsed.  Its successor lasted only until February 27.  By March 9, the political party which embodied the old regime had been disbanded.

Such serial crises left Facebook activity largely unchanged:  it continued its majestic march over the country’s online landscape, the object of 183 times greater search volume than BBC Online, according to a Google Trends search I conducted March 16.  Twitter, on the other hand, enjoyed a gigantic spike in search volume which peaked in mid-January, around the time Ben Ali resigned.  This tracks with global Tunisia-related traffic on Twitter, much of which involved new names.  The subsequent decline has been sharp – and may signal a gradual disengagement of the public from the country’s political evolution.

Twitter, like Facebook, was part of the connective tissue holding together the Tunisian protests and linking them to the world.  Using Twitter hashtags, we can track the growing momentum of the uprising:  from #bouazizi – the young man who self-immolated – to #sidibouzid – the town where the protests began – to #tunisia.

Egypt was like Tunisia on steroids.  Economist puts the country’s population at 84 million, more than half under 25.  The same source estimates web access at 16 percent (I have seen estimates as high as 25 percent):  say between 12 and 15 million people online, whom we can once again assume to be mostly young and well-educated.

We know what many of them were doing during the revolution.  In the fullness of history, the Egyptian uprising will probably be known as the heroic age of the Facebook group.  “We are all Khaled Said,” with over a million members today and hundreds of thousands when the turmoil started, made a political star of its moderator, Wael Ghonim.  The “April 6 Youth Movement” group, concerned with labor rights, had tens of thousands of participants.

Facebook rules in Egypt, if we believe Alexa.  The chart below, from Google Trends, shows that Facebook has averaged nearly 20 times the searches for BBC Online – and that search volume visibly spiked during the uprising.  It peaked the day Mubarak gave a televised speech which everyone thought would end with his resignation, but didn’t (January 26).

Were young, web-savvy Egyptians tweeting during the demonstrations?  The following chart strongly suggests they were.  It shows a tight correlation between the flow of events (search volume for news in BBC Online) and access to Twitter.

I can’t think of a better illustration of the symbiotic relationship between social media and news media – or of the public’s participation in newsworthy events – which has provided much of the energy of the Arab uprising.

So we come to Libya – poor, tortured Libya, lab rat of disconnectedness, where the script of the uprising seems to have gone terribly wrong.  Protests have given way to battles.  Opposition forces now look more like Al Qaeda guerrillas than the clean-cut demonstrators of Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  Worst of all, after surging to the edge of the capital city of Tripoli, the opposition has been butchered and pushed back by the Qaddafi regime’s superior weaponry, and can scarcely hang on to their last stronghold in Benghazi.

To stop the killing, the UN has approved a no-fly zone over Libya plus “all necessary measures” to protect innocent life there.  It looks like Western powers are about to intervene once again in an Arab country.  The situation, in brief, is a mess.

I have already made the case that, in Libya, the regime’s ability to fence out new media is causally connected to the opposition’s inability to organize either a persuasive narrative or a successful political campaign.  A quick glimpse at the facts on the ground provides support for my contention.

Libya’s population is 6.5 million, 5 percent of whom, we are told by the Economist, enjoy access to the web.  That’s roughly 300,000 Libyans online – or one-tenth the Tunisian total in a country with 40 times Tunisia’s area.  Alexa makes Google the most popular website in the country, with Facebook second and Al Jazeera seventh.  Given the small online population, however, those rankings are more likely to reflect the tastes of regime families and friends than any activity by the opposition.

What of mobile phones?  Are they being used to tweet revolutionary slogans in Benghazi?  Most assuredly, they are not.  Let’s conclude with a chart from Google Trends comparing search volume in Libya for BBC Online with that for Twitter.  Almost certainly, the absolute numbers are small.  Relative to BBC, Twitter disappears:  its volume is the statistical equivalent of zero.

There are many reasons why Libya’s uprising misfired.  Violent repression is the most obvious.  Lack of digital communications capacity by the opposition, in this case, may count under the label of repression of a more subtle kind.

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