Short piece I wrote for the Sky News Frontline Journalism Exhibition at Somerset House
History has shown that revolutions and uprisings take physical, often violent, acts by people intent on change. The Arab Spring was no different, but for the first time the people had a powerful weapon - social media. For those taking part in the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria social media was an essential tool to communicate, organise and disseminate news to the rest of the world. As opposition to the regimes built, key Twitter accounts, such as the Google Executive Wael Ghonim (@Ghonim) in Egypt, became go to places for information on the latest organised protests. Social media allowed organisers to spread information incredibly quickly as messages from the key Twitter or Facebook accounts were resent, reposted or commented on by other users.
The use of social media by protesters clearly rattled the regimes as alongside being used for organisation, tweets and Facebook posts provided a differing view to the narratives being broadcast on state controlled media. In Egypt, a country with cutting edge communications systems including 3G phone networks, the Mubarak regime was so threatened by mass communication that it arrested key social media users including @Ghonim, told Vodafone to broadcast state text messages and for a period took the entire country off the internet.
In Libya the Gaddafi regime shut the internet down completely, only a limited number of opposition members had technology to allow them to access it. As a result social played a different, but no less valuable role. To report from within regime held territory journalists had to stay under government watch at the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli. The Gaddafi regime attempted to control what journalists saw, but key opposition social media accounts disseminated Youtube videos and pictures which showed the violence the regime was carrying out on its own people. Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or Skype also provided those of us who reported from within Tripoli with a way of directly communicating with the opposition.
It wasn’t just protesters and journalists that realised the power of social media in the Arab Spring, foreign governments who took a stance against the regimes also sort to capitalise on it. The first statements released by the US government on developments were often first released on social media through State Department spokesperson @PJCrowley’s Twitter account. The US State Department even created a Twitter account in Arabic to communicate their message to protesters.
Social media has changed the way that people communicate, governments interact and news organisations report. At no moment was this more apparent than the capture and death of Muammar Gaddafi, where the world watched as social media spread the reports and mobile phone videos of his end.