[The following article on R-Shief was written by Ursula Lindsey and published in The Chronicle for Higher Education on 9 March 2015 under the title "Scholar Re-Examine Arab World`s `Facebook Revolutions.`"]
In January 2011, Laila Shereen Sakr realized something momentous was happening in the Middle East when her server crashed.
Shereen Sakr, at that time a graduate student in the University of Southern California’s media arts and practice program, had been monitoring digital activism in the Middle East for several years. When protests began in Tunisia, she says, "I began collecting data immediately." After the incident with her server, she quickly transferred it all to the cloud, and kept on building the database that would eventually become her dissertation.
Today R-Shief (the site’s name is the Arabic pronunciation of "archive") contains 18 billion tweets in English and Arabic and years’ worth of Facebook, YouTube, and website data. Every month, it processes about 100,000 million new tweets. Shereen Sakr compares English and Arabic hashtags, as well as different hashtags referring to the same events, looking for interesting patterns. Anyone can log onto the R-Shief site and do a number of searches and comparisons, using tools developed by Shereen Sakr and several collaborators.
At the moment, Shereen Sakr doesn’t have the resources to make the full archive available to a large public. If she did, she says, she’d turn it into a tool that anyone could use to answer the many shifting questions regarding the relationship between social media and political mobilization in the Arab world.
"It’s difficult to tell the story of the Arab Spring without talking about social media," says Philip N. Howard, a professor in the department of communications at the University of Washington. But "after years of excitement and effervescence," he notes, "we’re in a much more jaded or critical stage of inquiry."
Working on his book (with Muzammil M. Hussain) Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring, Mr. Howard developed a causal model that weighed access to new communication technology in Arab countries alongside other socioeconomic factors. He concluded that that access was part of the basic infrastructure needed for collective action to take place.
But by the time the book was published, in 2013, those mass mobilizations for change had seemingly collapsed. Today, out of half a dozen Arab countries that witnessed uprisings, only Tunisia has managed to see its democratic transition through. Across the region, the bloggers and activists who helped plan and publicize protests were sidelined by Islamist parties and military regimes. They have been silenced, imprisoned, or driven into exile.
Knowing What to Do Next
Scholars are now asking a different set of questions: How did these huge and hopeful social movements fizzle? Why were they unable to achieve political gains? How is social media being used today by resurgent autocratic governments and by terrorist groups?
Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, argued in a recent paper that the ability to "scale up" quickly that social media offers to protest movements means they don’t have to do the hard and necessary work of building traditional organizations that know how to make decisions collectively, change strategies, and persevere. In a TED talk she gave in October, Ms. Tufekci compared today’s social movements, in the Arab world and elsewhere, to "start-ups that got very big without knowing what to do next."
Clay Shirky, whose 2008 book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations focused on the transformative power of new communication technologies, now says he underestimated the need for traditional organizations. Mr. Shirky, an associate arts professor at New York University, interviewed the Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah for the book and says he considers Mr. Abd El Fattah’s status a "benchmark" of political freedom. On February 23, the activist was sentenced to a five-year jail term for breaking a ban on protests; he is one of many convicted recently on similar charges.
Laila Shereen Sakr built a database of digital activism in the Middle East as part of her dissertation at the U. of Southern California
"It’s not enough to just show up in Tahrir Square when you’re angry," says Mr. Shirky. "It’s not enough when you are up against other organizations who have long-term horizons and significant resources."
Nevertheless, he emphasizes that the autocracies of the Middle East are less secure than they were five years ago. "Every autocratic state is now terrified by social media, as it should be," he says.
"Part of the problem is we tend to expect too much of social media," says Rasha A. Abdulla, an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo. "It’s not there to cause uprisings. It was a good facilitator in 2011 because the environment was ripe."
Ms. Abdulla is collaborating with researchers from the University of Amsterdam to analyze the content of the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, which was created in honor of a young Egyptian beaten to death by police in 2010 and was instrumental in encouraging the protests. The page was a site for political discussions and even decision-making (it regularly polled its millions of followers). Ms. Abdullah hopes to learn more about the page’s readers and commenters and their political leanings, to find out how social media can "best be used now to create more social and political change."
‘The Elites Have Learned’
"The protesters used information technology to catch political elites off-guard," says Mr. Howard. Today "the elites have learned, and started investing very heavily in using social technology as a means of social control rather than conversation." He has been looking at the way regimes use automated scripts ("bots") to neutralize their opponents online (they can do so, for example, by flooding a critical Twitter hashtag with extraneous material).
Dalia Othman, a research fellow and visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, is helping to update the center’s landmark 2009 report on the Arab blogosphere. She is interested in observing the biggest differences pre- and post-uprisings, and in figuring out what the main online communities in Arab countries are today, and how they communicate with each other.
Ms. Othman also studies how different kinds of narrative are created and disseminated, or hijacked and smothered. The Arab Spring "was always a war of narratives," she says. Now, with more government censorship and pro-government groups joining platforms to dilute revolutionary messages, "activists are being drowned out."
Unfortunately, "social media can become an effective tool not only in the hands of proponents but opponents of democracy as well," notes Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University. He believes that the online campaign of fear being waged by terrorist groups is another blow to the chances of democratization in the region.
Mr. Salamey wonders how social-media users build resilience against antidemocratic images, and avoid infatuation with images of violence. "What kind of countercampaign can balance this out, to allow people to still believe in peaceful protest and peaceful mobilization?"
Other scholars are analyzing the online activities of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to try to understand its ideology and strategy, or to figure out how effective social media really is as a recruitment tool. British authorities recently announced that they were searching for three teenage girls believed to have traveled to join the group. Shereen Sakr warns against thinking that one can easily answer questions like "Who is ISIS?" just by looking at social media. But she says R-Shief has been used as a resource to study, for example, whether ISIS spreads its ideology differently according to gender.
This fall, Shereen Sakr will join the faculty of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Department of Film and Media Studies. She hopes to find the funds to make all of R-Shief’s data publicly available, to turn it into an interactive resource "where everybody could build their own archive."
And she is interested in posing creative questions. She is working on an experimental documentary in which she will use the data she has collected as a basis to envisage different scenarios: What if Egypt’s President Mubarak hadn’t turned off the Internet? What if the Houthi party hadn’t taken power in Yemen? What if—as so many people have wondered by now—things had turned out differently?