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Business Intelligence, Social Media and Social Protests

Originally published August 20, 2013

For those of us that monitored the role social media played in the in the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that are generally referred to as the “Arab Spring,” it seemed obvious that there was an important connection between these popular movements and the use of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other similar sites. The relationship seemed important enough for both academia as well as the U.S. government to spend a fair amount of resources trying to understand precisely that role and how it might be channeled and/or leveraged in the future.

Notwithstanding Malcolm Gladwell’s dictum that "the revolution will not be tweeted," the results of research carried out over the last few years are now being published with some interesting conclusions. While there is still much that we don’t know or understand, the metrics leave no doubt as to the importance of social media in the events of both Tunisia and Egypt in late 2010 and 2011.

The University of Washington’s Project on Information Technology and Political Islam recently published a report titled “Opening Closed Regimes.” The authors analyzed over three million tweets, thousands of blog posts and a large number of YouTube videos. They announce three important findings:

  1. Social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring.

  2. A spike in online revolutionary conversations often preceded major events on the ground.

  3. Social media helped spread democratic ideas across international borders.
Let’s look at these findings more carefully.

First, the role of social media in shaping the debate was clear. Their research shows intense use of social media by the educated urban youth, both men and women, for political conversations. It also helped that this important segment of the population – median age in Tunisia is 30 and in Egypt it is 24 – are already heavy users of mobile phones. (There are 93 cell phones on the street for every 100 Tunisians and 67 for every 100 Egyptians.)

Given that this demographic was already actively using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, it is not strange that they should resort to these sites as a principal forum for their discussions. This public dialogue, in turn, put substantial pressure on the governments of both Egypt and Tunisia.

In addition, videos became an important vehicle to spread news virally and often to “embarrass” the government, such as when the wife of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was featured on YouTube using a government jet to make expensive shopping trips to Europe.

The importance of social media seemed to be underscored when it was revealed that one of the heroes of the Egyptian protests was Wael Ghonim, a Google executive in Cairo, who opened an influential Facebook group.

Second, increased volumes of online transactions seemed to be good indicators that something important was imminent. While the authors demur on “whether online conversations were driving street protests or whether the presence of a large volume of people in the streets was feeding an ongoing discussion online,” the evidence was incontrovertible about what was happening in cyberspace as regimes were falling. “Conversations about liberty, democracy, and revolution on blogs and on Twitter often immediately preceded mass protests.” They cite the interesting statistic that 20% of all blogs in Tunisia, up from 5% the month before, “were evaluating Ben Ali’s leadership on the day he resigned.”

Right before Mubarak left office, tweets from Egypt, or about political change in Egypt, went from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day and videos about the demonstrations skyrocketed. The report points out that “the top 23 videos received nearly 5.5 million views.”

The sharp increases in the use of social media just before key events were remarkable. As business intelligence practitioners, we can start to think of how we might develop predictive analytics around these happenings.

Third, social media facilitated the spread of democratic ideas across borders. On the day Ben Ali resigned there were “over 2,200 tweets from Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and Yemen” about the resignation. The authors’ evidence is strong that democracy advocates leveraged social media to connect with individuals in other countries that could both inform the world about the situation in Egypt or Tunisia, while at the same time finding a source of support from the individuals in these networks. In many cases, their interactions appeared to have in turn fueled many of the protests that erupted later on in countries like Bahrain and Yemen.

The day Mubarak left office over 225,000 Tweets outside of Egypt informed the world of his departure. After the resignation, news about the Egyptian crisis sent by tweeters from neighboring countries averaged 3,400 per week.

So, given that we now know that all these activities in Egypt and Tunisia were aimed at the governments, what did these regimes and their security apparatus do? As we might surmise, the hostile online activity brought about attempts to block social media, especially in an Egypt where there is a long tradition of censoring printed and broadcast media. When social media were targeted in Egypt, there was an effort to completely turn off the cyberspace switch.  The government asked key Internet service providers (ISPs) to shut down; and for the better part of four days, there was a war of wits between the ISPs, Egyptian citizens and the government. The Muslim Brotherhood apparently worked via bloggers with London-based servers and hence was safe from being taken offline. Eventually the attempt to turn off the Internet failed, but the security forces became more skillful at both censoring the social media sites as well as anticipating events based on the alerts being provided by these sites.

The bottom line is that we now have some evidence that socialmedia did play an important role in the Arab Spring, and we are in the processof understanding better exactly what that role was. We are also eager todetermine whether it is also a key factor in the current round of protests inTurkey, Brazil and again in Egypt.

We have to remember that already the 2009 protests against Moldova’s Communist regime were referred to as the “Twitter Revolution,” and there were even allegations of it being behind the protests surrounding the 2009 elections. It was these arguments and the outpouring of sentiment about how social media was going to change the world for the better that prompted a former U.S. national security adviser to suggest that Twitter should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. This, in turn, led Malcolm Gladwell to offer his case against social media as the key driver of revolution. In his New Yorker article “Small Change,” Gladwell points out that revolutions require individuals who are going to be willing to step into harm’s way and take real physical risks in the streets. Interestingly enough, he points to the spread of sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement as a counter-example of how an event or activity could go viral even before the Internet existed.

In Egypt, it was the soccer fan clubs accustomed to fighting each other, and the police, at games and stadiums that took the front lines and manned the barricades. But these individuals, who might have been called hooligans in their sports context, had been politicized by the social media and became allies and supporters of the activists against the regime.

The results from the research done by the University of Washington shows that there certainly were some important influences and facilitating factors where social media played a role. It’s not clear what the full impact and the nuances were, so more work has to be done. But these are exciting times as business intelligence practitioners attempt to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the noise from the signal, in all of this data.

  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel


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