Last week Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi began hosting Twitter sessions designed to connect with citizens and ease concerns about government policies that critics say encroach on free expression. The government that came to power on the wings of a Twitter revolution is now attempting to use social media to build support and prevent protests of its own. Given a recently released study that shows Egyptian citizens continue to use social networks to discuss politics and state building long after the Twitter revolution has ended, Morsi’s Twitter chats are a well-designed strategic move with the potential to give the president a voice in some of the country’s most important political discussions.
Social media analytics firm Crimson Hexagon and Sanitas International conducted a study of tweets in Egypt after the revolution, spanning from February 2011 to June 2012. After analyzing more than 12 million tweets, the results revealed two main categories of tweets that citizens used to discuss the revolution and state building: instrumental and interpretive. Instrumental tweets were used to report events and new political developments, as well as coordinate action. Citizens used interpretive tweets to interpret their social and political experiences and share their thoughts on what these mean for Egypt’s future.
The study also revealed that the more time that passed, the more tweets shifted their focus from reflecting on the past revolution to state building and planning a better future for Egypt, for example through discussing new government institutions. Before the first post-revolution election, between February and November 2011, the majority (54%) of tweets were focused on reflecting on the revolution. By January 2012, the number had fallen to 26%, and the majority of tweets shifted their focus to elections and state institutions. At the end of the study in June, 90% of tweets were about state building activities.
As an interesting side note, the study’s findings for other countries that overthrew similarly oppressive regimes were significantly different. In Libya, for example, the transition from reflections on the revolution to new state building occurred at a much slower rate. Months after the revolution, conversations stayed focused on topics such as “the punishment and fate of Gaddafi’s family” and “the crimes of the Gaddafi era.”
This study, which points to Twitter’s important role in Egyptian political discussions and debates, is helpful in broadening the common understanding of the Twitter revolution. Often when we think of the role social media played in the Egyptian revolution, we focus on it as a tool that was used to organize the mass protests that helped topple Mubarak’s regime. In their analysis of the revolution, Eltantawy and Wiest (2011) focus on resource mobilization theory, the idea that resources such as organizational skills determine the success of social movements. With its ability to help activists disseminate information, schedule protests and share safety warnings during the revolution, Twitter probably played a substantial role in mobilizing the resources that lead to a success revolution.
However, it’s also important to note that in addition to logistical uses, activists had spent years building up Twitter as an online space to discuss political issues and grievances (Bhuiyan, 2011). Social media gave citizens a place to voice their opinions and concerns when traditional media outlets were heavily censored. The Twitter revolution was not limited to a burst of organizational activity in early 2011. It also included a gradual and sustained effort to develop a public sphere for political discussions online. That sphere is still alive and well today, and as a result, it is a space where post-revolution leaders need to have a strong presence as well.
In conclusion, a social media strategy makes sense for Morsi in theory, but so far its execution has been poor. In his first 30-minute Twitter session, Morsi only answered eight questions and his responses lacked any real substance. If Morsi truly wants to engage in the important political discussions taking place on Twitter, he will need to adopt a more engaging, authentic tone that goes beyond canned PR responses. As the controversial president of a country that demonstrated the revolutionary power of Twitter to the world, he simply cannot afford to neglect this platform that continues to host vibrant political discussions.
Bhuiyan, S. (2011). Social Media and Its Effectiveness in the Political Reform Movement in Egypt. Middle East Media Educator,1(1), 14-20.
Eltantawy, N., & Wiest, J. (2011). Social Media in the Egyptian Revolution: Reconsidering Resource Mobilization Theory.International Journal of Communication.
Franceschi-Bicchierai, L. (2013, March 9). What Happens to Social Media After a Twitter Revolution? Mashable.
Kingsley, P. (2013, April 11). Egypt’s president to host Twitter sessions to connect with his people. The Guardin.