Sharon Davis looks at the role social media has played in recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, and what this means for the rest of the African continent.

Several decades of simmering dissatisfaction with government corruption, high unemployment, rising inflation and lack of freedom both sparked and fuelled a civil uprising in Tunisia in December 2010. An uprising that ended Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ‘s 23-year reign as president of the North African country in January 2011. 

News of the unrest spread quickly over social media networks, and sites such as Facebook and Twitter appear to have played a role in igniting a wave of social and political unrest in neighbouring North African and Arab countries.

Long-time Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office in February following the revolution that started in Cairo on 25 January. A full-scale revolution broke out in Libya in an attempt to unseat Muammar Gaddafi and there have been protests and uprisings in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Syria, Mauritania and Yemen – as well as closer to home in Swaziland and further afield in China.

Internet access and the use of social media networks have been hailed as one of the tools underpinning the success of these uprisings. Used to spread the word, both to organise protests and protestors, and to let the world know what was happening on the ground, social media played a part - with protestors like those in Egypt finding, or being offered work-around solutions when government cut Internet access.

In several instances the protests led to the end of long periods of rule for seemingly entrenched African leaders. This has bred a growing concern that revolutions could roll out across the African continent and topple unpopular leaders.

Has Tunisia and the events that followed empowered and emboldened ordinary citizens, now armed with social media solutions, to make a stand for their basic human rights?

The revolutionary role of social media

Revolutions aren’t exactly new. They’ve taken place on the African continent and around the world, successfully and unsuccessfully, pretty much ever since there have been repressive and unpopular rulers. So it is nonsense to attribute the recent uprisings to social media or online networks.

Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The dark side of Internet freedom, and currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University in the US, says it is “cyber utopianism” to believe that Twitter and Facebook can magically free people. He agrees that social media was used as a tool to assist these revolutions but argues that the uprisings would have happened with or without social media.

Nobody is actually suggesting that social media causes revolutions, but opinion seems to be divided on whether it played a decisive role in the success of some of the recent mass protests. Expert opinion generally supports Morozov’s view that these revolutions have more to do with repressive dictatorships than social media, but Zeynep Tufekci, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland in the US and a specialist in the social impacts of technology, believes that social media played a critical factor in Tunisia.

It is highly likely that videos of street fights, minute-by-minute updates on clashes, casualties figures and the latest political situation held the attention of the revolutionaries, their supporters and the world at large. Good on-the-ground communication, local encouragement and international support could well have played an important role in turning some protests into successful revolutions.

Bechir Blagui, who runs the Free Tunisia website, was quoted in the Huffington Post saying that Twitter was crucial in organising the massive protest crowds. The Egyptian government, which tried to cut Internet access, also believed social networking played an important role.

There’s also the counter-argument that the April 12 – 15 uprising in Swaziland against King Mswati III had little chance of success because they couldn’t really harness the networking power of social media. They did use Twitter and Facebook to mobilise people and bypass highly censored media, but its usefulness was limited by dismal Internet penetration and the fact that only five percent of Swazis have Internet access.

Is there a risk of a roll out of revolutions in Africa?

Revolutions don’t combust spontaneously without cause. Revolutions require a critical mass of unhappy people – so it’s fair to say any risk of an Arab Spring-type revolution is more a factor of the current social, political and economic situation within a country than a risk of citizens suddenly being more inclined to revolt because they have a new tool to help further their cause.

It is certainly not a simple equation of assuming that uprisings will increase as people embrace the growing connectedness throughout Africa and network online using computers or mobile phones.

Control Risks, a business risk consultancy, does not expect a spate of Tunisian-inspired uprisings to occur in sub-Saharan Africa in the next few years, despite the fact that some countries on the continent do have social, political and economic situations similar to Tunisia and Egypt.

With 20 elections taking place on the continent in 2011, they do, however, believe that violence and political instability are likely and they have identified possible election-related threats in Nigeria, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

In its Risk Map 2011, Control Risks also notes that the threat of instability will increase as a result of rising food and fuel prices and warned that the Mozambican government could face protests if has to drop or trim its food subsidies.

They also note that intensifying urbanisation brings challenging social transformation issues.  According to the Risk Map 2011, the urban population in Africa will treble by 2050. This rapid urbanisation is not likely to be matched with well-planned infrastructure and good governance, and is expected to be accompanied by an increase in crime, corruption, chronic poverty and extremism.

Although there are obviously no guarantees (just projections based on the current situation and likely developments), it seems that sub-Saharan Africa will be spared the civil wars recently fought by their North African brothers and sisters. Life will not be without its fair share of turbulence, violence and challenges, however, and we need to read the fine print of the cautionary note: if the challenges of food security and rapid urbanisation aren’t managed, citizens in sub-Saharan Africa could also reach a tipping point and harness social media in an attempt to bring about the change they want to see.


This article by Sharon Davis was published in 2011 in the Wits Business School Journal.