DUBAI // The most popular Twitter "hashtag" search terms in the Arab region in the first three months of 2011 were Egypt, Jan25, Libya, Bahrain and protest.
Nearly nine in 10 Egyptians and Tunisians surveyed in March said Facebook was being used to organise protests or spread awareness about them. All but one protest called for on Facebook ended up coming to life on the streets.
These and other findings from the newly released second edition of the Arab Social Media Report by the Dubai School of Government (DSG) give statistical weight to the conventional wisdom that Facebook and Twitter helped to enable the region-wide uprisings of early 2011.
In part by using the sites, activists organised and publicised the protests that gave rise to the Arab Spring, in which regimes in Egypt and Tunisia have fallen, governments in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain have clashed with the opposition, and leaders in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have offered more benefits to their people.
"People have grievances, and they found a venue to express their grievance and take it further and protest about it," said Fadi Salem, co-author of the report and director of the DSG Governance and Innovation Programme, which published it.
“That doesn’t mean these events wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t have social networking tools. Maybe the internet would have been enough,” he said. “It definitely speeded things up.”
The report said of Facebook pages: “As the initial platform for these calls, it cannot be denied that they were a factor in mobilising movements.”
During the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, the vast majority of more than 200 people surveyed during three weeks in March said they were getting their information from social media sites – 88 per cent in Egypt and 94 per cent in Tunisia.
This outnumbered those who turned to non-government local media (63 per cent in Egypt and 86 in Tunisia) and to foreign media (57 per cent in Egypt and 48 in Tunisia).
On Twitter, the hashtag #Egypt had 1.4 million mentions in the first three months of the year, #Jan25 had 1.2 million mentions, #Libya 990,000, #Bahrain 640,000 and #protest 620,000. A hashtag is a word preceded by a hash symbol in a tweet used to help relevant.tweets come up in searches.
The flurry of tweets increased sharply during the turning points of the uprisings.
In Tunisia they peaked around the January 14 protest start date. In Egypt they spiked around February 11 when Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president. And in Bahrain they jumped in the days after the demonstrations began on February 14.
Facebook usage swelled in the Arab region between January and April and sometimes more than doubled, the report found.
Overall, the number of users jumped 30 per cent to 27.7 million, compared with 18 per cent growth during the same period in 2010. In the past year, the number of users has nearly doubled from 14.8 million.
Usage in Bahrain grew 15 per cent in the first three months of the year, compared with 6 per cent over the same period last year.
Egypt had 29 per cent growth compared with 12 last year, and Tunisia 17 per cent compared with 10 last year.
The exception was Libya, where usage fell by 76 per cent. One possible reason is that many there have fled amid fierce fighting between the regime and rebels.
Government attempts to ban such sites ended up backfiring, the survey of Egyptians and Tunisians found.
Just more than a quarter of those polled – 28 per cent in Egypt and 29 per cent in Tunisia – said blocking Facebook disrupted their efforts to organise and communicate. But more than half – 56 per cent in Egypt and 59 in Tunisia – said it had a positive effect, motivating them to press on and mobilising newcomers.
“That generated outrage among youth – who are the majority of users of internet and social media online regardless of their political view,” said Mr Salem. “And that pushed people to take sides.”
The full report is available at www.arabsocialmediareport.com.