Myth #28: The Internet promotes democracy, like during the ‘Arab Spring’.
Myth: Social media empowers the marginalized and the oppressed alike. Internet and social media as soft power assets exert pressures on political regimes to shift from authoritarianism to democratic and pluralistic societies. Social movements and uprisings like the Arab Spring are only made possible by the Internet and will occur wherever Internet access exceeds a certain reach.
Busted: Yes, the Internet and social media specifically played a role in spreading awareness and organizing protests in all countries where the so-called Arab Spring ‘revolutions’ took place. However, it has been shown in several studies since then that neither Internet-savvy young liberals have been the driving force in this turmoil, nor did regime changes result in newly democratized nation states. Arab Spring seems in itself a rather controversial and ambiguous notion, as it is now turning Egypt, Libya, Sudan and Tunisia into a state of turmoil, disorder and terror after the euphoria of the first years. Moreover, the movement has not led to substantial gains in terms of democratic norms, values and practices in all nations in the region.
Take the example of Algeria as one of those countries that could have seized democratic opportunities to move to a more social justice and freedom of the press. But its citizens are still striving to freely express their opinions and implement democratic ideals. Substantial changes in Algeria have not come out as direct results of Internet and social media use; the latter were mere tools of information, interaction and communication. Rather, calls for political pluralism, social justice and press freedom are deeply rooted in the society and were already expressed in the 1980s, even before the advent of the Internet. Thus, online communication tools are factors of propagation and dissemination of news and views. Although Algeria shares common cultural and social values and identities with countries where Arab Spring movements have been strong, ‘Internet revolution’ has not taken place. Like all countries, Algeria has its own political model as well as a different and unique mentality.
Generalizations are (almost) always misleading; Internet and social media have not ultimately contributed to sustainably achieving Arab Spring objectives. In fact, excessive personalization and narcissistic exercise of power, the weakness of parliament, the vulnerability of political parties and the role of government are major obstacles to positive political change. More than that, political authorities are clinging to power; they themselves use Internet and social media to wage counter-revolutions through ‘electronic flies’. Practices of misuse, abuse, fake news and distortion of the truth now make the users doubtful and skeptical about the efficiency and reliability of Internet and social media in general. It appears that a ‘hidden and invisible hand’ still continues to sow confusion and ambiguity.
Truth: The Arab Spring movement, if there ever was one beyond the Western narrative with this name, has neither resulted in newly democratized societies and nations states, nor did the upheavals have their origin in Internet or social media. Internet access and social media as platforms for awareness and organization have rather been supporting context factors for social unrest that yielded from deeply rooted wishes for (political) change.
Source: Kamal Eldin Osman Salih, The Roots and Causes of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, 35 Arab Studies Quarterly 35 (2013) 2,
http://www.pinxit.com/page101/page115/downloads-23/files/Arab_Spring_Causes.pdf; George Lawson, Revolution, Non-Violence, and the Arab Uprisings, Mobilization: An International Quarterly (2015) 4, 453-470, http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/63156/1/Lawson_Revolution%2C%20non-violence.pdf.