The roles of Facebook in the Egyptian Arab Spring

I recently presented a paper on the different roles of Facebook during the Egyptian Arab Spring at the International Conference on Social Implications of Computers in Developing Countries (IFIP) 2013. This conference is one of the most important spaces to critically discuss the social implications of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in developing countries. IFIP not only brings together scholars, practitioners, and policymakers from different parts of the world, but also provides a multidisciplinary and multicultural space to discuss, plan, and work on theoretical, methodological, and practical challenges that ICT for development faces. IFIP 2013 focused on outlining crucial future challenges for the area, gaps that have not been addressed sufficiently, new technological possibilities, better understanding of institutional dimensions, and critical reflection on methodological approaches and theoretical positions that may guide our future thinking.

Our paper, Human and political grievances for mobilization: Different roles of Facebook during the Egyptian Arab Spring, was part of the track on Social Media and Development, where we presented a study that compares the Facebook pages in Arabic developed by We Are All Khaled Said (WAAKS) and the April 6th Youth Movement (A6YM). These two groups represent some of the most important actors that were involved in the mass mobilizations that lead to the resignation of President Mubarak in Egypt on April 2011. Our study found that these two pages were crucial in 1) building political awareness and mobilizing youth to take the streets; 2) creating bridges between online spaces and the streets; and 3) raising political awareness of the meaning of the revolution and democracy in the country. This study is based on a larger project that mapped the trajectory of the April 6th Youth Movement in Egypt.

Three sets of comments and questions illuminated our discussion with the panel’s participants:

  1. The consistency between the research method and the sample that we used for this study (content analysis of Facebook posts), and the findings and inferences that we did, based on the application of this research method.  In other words, considering the sample and method we used, some participants considered some of our findings were going beyond the evidence and some of our inferences were perceived speculative. However we explained that our findings were not only based on a rigorous analysis on the content analysis of a sample of Facebook posts, but also they were the result of both contextual and historical analyses from a variety of sources we used for the larger research project. Additionally, our findings were contrasted with some of the most important academic studies on the Arab Spring in Egypt, analyzing the same period of time.
  2. The variety of sources used for the larger study and the methodological decisions our team needed to make in order to dealing with such diversity.  The contrast between online sources and fieldwork with activists were underlined here. This mix are seen as great possibilities not only to triangulate sources and analysis, but also to advance in more integral looks at complex phenomena such as social protest and political change, like the Arab Spring, represent.
  3. The analytical challenges of dealing with contemporary media embedded in contemporary social dynamics.  The bipolar debates between more technological and more social approaches were highlighted here, as well as the need for theoretical and methodological tools that help analysts to better understand the accelerated movement of these sociotechnical interactions.

We shared our panel with an extraordinary group of scholars and topics:

  • K. Awori, S. Benesch, and A. Crandall, who presented a paper on inflammatory speech in Kenyas’s online space, especially in the weeks surrounding the March 2013 presidential election;
  • N. Rangaswamy, G. Challagulla, M. Young, and E. Cutrell, who presented an anthropologically informed study on Facebook as appreciable and compelling new media for non-elite youth in urban India; and
  • C. Walfall, D. Harrison and R. Caruth who presented a research that proposes a campaign, using social marketing as a framework to create a digital literacy program in Jamaica.

IFIP 2013 was a prodigious space to share and discuss on challenging findings about the differential roles of Facebook and their different contributions for social mobilizations and social change. These findings are the result of challenging research methods, which are part of the search for more complex frameworks to analyze the interactions among youth, social media and social change. Questions, comments and discussions we had at IFIP 2013 are helping us to improve our analysis on ICT, social movements, and their contributions for development.