On December 17, 2010, a 26-year-old vegetable vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of a provincial government building in Tunisia. It was a bold, dramatic act of defiance, and it touched off cascading protests across the country and region. Since those early days of the Jasmine Revolution and the swift exiling of its longtime dictator to Saudi Arabia, Tunisia has seen a rocky but still-imperfect democratic process unfold. In October, the Nobel Committee awarded its key civil society groups the Peace Prize for steering the country away from an impending civil war.
The Nobel notwithstanding, the Jasmine Revolution might stand as a clearer, crisper beacon for the world in terms of human rights and democracy—were those events self-contained. Instead, many observers now relegate Tunisia to the category of the "exception," even a kind of quaint oddity. The powerful storm of the wider Arab Spring and its aftermath has obscured the Tunisian achievement; in the inevitably reductionist media shorthand, the promise of the early "revolutions" has given way to the long and ongoing "Arab Winter" or "Islamist Winter."
For perspective, while Tunisia was winning the Nobel Prize, Syria's life expectancy was dropping—thanks to the Civil War—by an astonishing 27 percent, from 75.9 years in 2010 to an estimated 55.7 years at the end of 2014.
Lost, too, as the years have dragged on and nascent hopes have turned to bitter disappointment in places like Yemen, Egypt, Syria, and Libya, is the fascinating and unresolved debate over the role of technology and digital connectivity in helping to facilitate these historic upheavals and changes. What exactly happened to the "Facebook revolutions"? For the public, which now hears endless horror stories of ISIS's application of social media as a recruitment and branding platform, the energy and promise of the early Arab Spring might seem like it's all been tragically short-circuited and re-routed into a "Facebook jihad."
Social scientists and historians have been steadily tracing many of the different connective strands and causal links that help to explain the complex, cascading chain of events leading from (to put it simply) Bouazizi's fatal demonstration to Syria's severe splintering. Of course, even now, we may still be in the fog of current events, imprisoned by our own short-term perspectives.
"It's way, way too early to draw any conclusions about where this is going or what it means," says Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University.
Many other scholars agree. "It is very hard to say that there is one single outcome of the Arab Spring, characteristic of the region, since we have at least six different patterns," says Abdeslam E. Maghraoui, an associate professor of political science at Duke University.
Still, time has the virtue of bringing these debates into a slightly better focus, and a massive amount of research in this still-emerging sub-field has been published since 2011. Entering in "Arab Spring" and "social media" into Google Scholar brings up some 16,000 papers, citations, and references. In short order, these events created a cottage industry.
Taken together, the research literature suggests a phenomenally complex picture, with myriad factors influencing decisions to protest and face down police across diverse cities and contexts; at times technology played a strong role—and there is some good evidence that "information infrastructure" and mobile phone usage rates were important—while in others digital connectivity was more of a sideshow.
THE MISSTEPS OF SPRING
The "big data" studies of online activity during the protests provide some clarity and quantitative support to the claim that all of these various regional revolts and revolutions were highly connected. As one study puts it, there was a high degree of "diffusion of regime contention." That may seem obvious, but how protest groups learned from one another has not, until recently, been pinpointed.
In a 2014 study published in the journal Research and Politics, Marc Lynch and Sean Aday of George Washington University and Deen Freelon of American University analyzed five million tweets mentioning Syria between 2011 and 2013. Their goal: to see how ideas, memes, and events morphed and evolved over social media. Their paper comes perhaps closest to nailing down precisely the question of how the early ferment in Tunisia and Egypt diffused across the region. The scholars see a pattern of early identification between protest actions in Syria and collective actions elsewhere for political reform. However, they also find that linkage to have almost entirely evaporated over time.
"This intense interconnectedness lasted less than a year, however, and then sharply plummeted," the researchers write. "The 'Arab Spring' lens was replaced by both a regional sectarian and Islamist narrative, and by a focus on the immediate neighbors most affected by the conflict."
Meanwhile, a group of scholars from the Qatar Computing Research Institute, Walid Magdy, Kareem Darwish, and Ingmar Weber, published a study in March re-tracing the support for ISIS among Arabic-speaking Twitter communities. The researchers performed a nifty analytical move by locating and examining Twitter handles that are now pro- or anti-ISIS, and then moving backwards in time to see their evolution and what sorts of traits might best "predict" their ideology later on. The idea in the paper is to examine the "soil" from which violent extremism springs.
The answer, according to the available social media patterns? "Looking at discriminating hashtags suggested that a major source of support for ISIS stems from frustration with the missteps of the Arab Spring," the authors write. Put another way: "ISIS supporters largely differ from ISIS opposition in that they refer a lot more to Arab Spring uprisings that failed."
According to other research, some of the core concepts associated with the Arab Spring—civil society and democracy—were linguistically co-opted on Islamist social media networks, sites, and message boards to mean just "overthrowing non-religious regimes." These Western ideas were thus re-purposed in creative ways by extremists. In a 2014 paper, researchers James A. Danowski of the University of Illinois–Chicago and Han Woo Park of Yeungnam University found evidence that, in countries where the early uprisings took place, there was a strong association with "increases in radical Islamist concepts in their Web domains." The scholars say the digital patterns show how the terms "democracy" and "civil society" were "transformed into meanings strongly associated with the Islamist ideology terms Jihad, Sharia, and others," representing "an unintended consequence of the U.S. and other Western nations' policies regarding civil society."
JUST A STRATEGIC TOOL
Online data can only say so much. On-the-ground field work, in addition to wider historical and political science frameworks, can also help better understand these intervening five years since the initial Arab Spring.
For Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill who studies the intersection of technology and social movements, the Arab Spring reveals a new insight: Technology, while helpful in the short term, may force confrontation too quickly. Mass protests can outrun the slower but crucial work of developing organization, structure, and committed personnel, with little left to show after mass demonstrations. It's an observation informed by her online analytical work and her field ethnography, which has taken her everywhere from Tahrir Square during the Egyptian protests to the Tunisian blogger conferences.
"There was no time or space for them to become any stronger," Tufekci says of the social media-aided protesters who looked so formidable early on. "They kind of came out of nowhere. That's where the Internet helps them. It helps them take the stage and trigger the upheavals. But it doesn't help them create the kind of institution-building that was necessary. And the outside world wasn't really willing to support that fledging process."
These last five years have also come to demonstrate the fundamentally neutral nature of technology. "The connection between the 'Facebook jihad' and the 'Facebook revolution,'" Tufekci says, "is that digital technology allows people to be exposed to ideas that would have been filtered out by the gatekeepers.
That's a similar conclusion to the one reached by Duke's Maghraoui. He says that, while social media initially showed an impressive ability to create a larger public sphere for debate—a "democratic space of spaces"—the enlarged cyber public sphere has brought in many different voices over these past five years.
"At the same time, other groups are also using it to recruit, to propagate extremist ideologies, to reach out as far away as Moscow and Paris," Maghraoui notes. "In the end, technology is just a strategic tool. It can be used both ways."
NOT THE FIRST DEMONSTRATION
A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Press/Politics lays out two subtle but profound principles relating to the relationship between activism and social media during the Arab Spring. After reviewing much of the relevant literature, researchers Gadi Wolfsfeld of IDC, Elad Segev of Tel Aviv University, and Tamir Sheafer of Hebrew University concluded that, in "studying the role of the social media in collective action, politics comes first both analytically and chronologically." This is to say that social media does not typically drive politics. Rather, the evidence suggests that a "significant increase in the use of the new media is much more likely to follow a significant amount of protest activity than to precede it."
So politics drove protest, according to this finding, and stimulated information communications technology usage in order to coordinate action and spread messages of outrage and solidarity. The political groundwork and backstory, therefore, become a crucial area of inquiry and understanding with respect to the Arab Spring. And that's where the historians come in.
James L. Gelvin, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California–Los Angeles and author of The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, notes that popular media narratives around the Arab Spring can make it seem as if the protests came out of nowhere, and digital technology provided a kind of "mystical" spark. Yet, he notes, it's vitally important to remember a long chain of political-historical events: the "Black October" riots in Algeria in 1988; the Bahraini Intifada of 1994–99; the "Damascus Spring" of 2000; the Kifyaya (Enough!) movement in Egypt in 2004; and the Lebanese "Cedar Revolution" of 2005.
"This wasn't the first time you've had demonstrations for human rights and democratic transition," Gelvin says. As for the social media-fueled Islamist movements following the early Arab Spring, Gelvin says there have been periodic "revival movements" as far back as the 19th century—and these are cyclical patterns found in almost all religions, including Christianity and Judaism.
"We're in the midst right now in one of these periods of bubbling up," Gelvin says with regard to the rise of ISIS and other extremist groups.
For his part, Beinin, the Stanford historian, says that we must understand the vital history of collective movements that long predated technology if we are to see clearly the successes of Tunisia or the failures of Egypt.
"I'm not a big fan of the notion that the original popular uprisings of 2010 to 2011 were substantially motivated by social media," says Beinin, though he admits that digital technologies did play a "salient role" at certain moments.
Beinin also asserts that there is fundamental difference between the Tunisian and Syrian situations, one so profound as to sever any link between the early Arab Spring and our present moment: The Tunisians, he points out, largely managed to fend off outside influence—from France, the United States, NATO, and other powerful nations. By contrast, the protest movement in Syria, which early on was unarmed, was eventually "hijacked' by regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, with each arming the various factions it supported.
"In that sense, what happened in Syria," he says, "has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what happened in Tunisia." International politics, then, is the real place to look for broad explanations—not technology—if we are to understand the regional landscape now.
In any case, the history of technology use itself in a given country can help explain the powerful network effects of the Arab Spring, which took place in countries that had allowed for little dissenting media discourse—and where people had therefore long remained politically isolated.
"The more there was control over both the public sphere and the private sphere was suppressed ... then the more powerful is the effect of technology helping break those pressures," Tufekci says. It's another lesson, five years on, to come from the Arab Spring and its aftermath. "I think that technology's destabilizing effect is strongest in places where there was more control of the previous wave of technology, which were more centralized, like TV and radio."
Five years after Bouazizi's consequential act of protest, there's perhaps a more noteworthy statistic: According to the Pew Research Center, citizens of the Middle East are now the most likely in all the world to talk about politics on social media.