On December 17, 2009, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old, unemployed Tunisian man, set himself on fire in front of the local governor’s office in response to police denying him the ability to sell produce from a cart. They confiscated his cart, which was his sole source of income for providing for his family, and allegedly slapped his face. He died in the hospital weeks later due to his burn injuries (Cottle).
Many view Bouazizi’s act as the beginning of what is known as the Arab Spring – a time when members numerous Middle Eastern countries took to the streets in protest to their suppressive government regimes. With the current statistic that 65% of the population in the Middle East is under the age of 30, this acknowledges the increasing population of younger individuals with more secular views and tech-savvy skills. These people advocated for democracy, the protection of their rights and a cease in government corruption (Cottle). Their human rights were being suppressed and state-run media strived to mask this to the world as much as they could – but the rise of social media gave these citizens an opportunity to revolt like they had never had before.
The importance of social media was especially true and can be easily seen in the case of Egypt in early 2011. Sites like Twitter and Facebook were crucial in organizing initial protests, garnering support and spreading word of perceived wrongdoings on the side of the government throughout the protests. Twitter hash tags such as #Jan25, #Tahrir and others were used to inform social media users of the time and place of protests, such as the “Day of Anger” protest on January 25 that caught fierce attention around the world (Cottle).
Social media outlets were the beginning strains of resistance of Hosni Mubarak’s leadership, but almost more importantly helped catch the attention of international – and especially Western – media outlets. Western journalists (many of which were from the United States) flocked to Egypt to get in the midst of the action and find out more about these uprisings and the people involved, which combatted the skewed angles of the state-run media. This is where the widespread images of thousands of Egyptians gathering in Tahrir Square every day came from. Prominent media outlets were covering the story daily and showing some startling accounts of the action such as when pro-government supporters rode into Tahrir Square on horses to scatter the crowds. Journalists got personal stories, showed human faces and captured the passion in these protesters to make the situation connect with outsiders more and seem more human.
Though days after the January 25 protest Mubarak’s government essentially shut down the internet in Egypt as an effort to diffuse the uprisings, this tactic was ineffective. The word about what was occurring in the country was already out, Western journalists were already there or on their way and many Egyptians had figured out how to counter this tactic by setting up “proxy” servers where people could still utilize the internet and spread information (Cottle). As the shutdown made international news, this demonstrates yet another example of making the government seem more suppressive, lending legitimacy to the protesters striving for more rights and democracy.
Cottle, Simon. “Media and the Arab uprisings of 2011: Research notes.” Journalism. Oct. 10, 2013. http://jou.sagepub.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/content/12/5/647.full.pdf+html