Mining Twitter data from the Arab Spring

1 Nov 2012

This article draws on social movement theory to help explain how the use of social media, in particular Twitter feeds, may have played a role in the emergence of the Egyptian Arab Spring revolution.

More precisely, it suggests that activists' uses of Twitter may have facilitated the framing of grievances in ways that resonated with their target audience. An examination of a subgroup of primarily Arab-speaking Twitter users found that not only did traditional media and activists appear to play a large role in framing the events in Egypt, but so did a fake Twitter account impersonating Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. This account's tweets attracted a large audience, and may have helped disseminate a portrayal of Mubarak as a corrupt leader who should resign, both of which were goals of the Egyptian revolution.

People often assume that all that is needed for a social movement, an insurgency, or other form of collective action to emerge is for enough individuals to become sufficiently angry about a particular social condition. While grievances are certainly necessary for sustained collective action, they alone are not enough. As social movement scholars have noted, in most societies there are plenty of individuals who are angry with the status quo, but few become activists or engage in contentious politics. For a social movement or insurgency to gain traction, other factors need to fall into place. In particular, not only do individuals need to harbor grievances of some kind, but:

  1. the grievances have to be framed in such a way that people recognize they share them with others, and believe that together they can do something about them (i.e., insurgent consciousness);
  2. the aggrieved population needs to have access to and be able to appropriate sufficient resources so they do not have to rely on external support (i.e., sufficient mobilizing resources); and
  3. they need to perceive (whether correctly or incorrectly) that the broader socio-political environment is either vulnerable to collective action, or that it represents a significant threat to the group's interests or survival (i.e., expanding opportunities or increased threats). In isolation, none of these factors is sufficient to generate and sustain an insurgency. When they converge and interact, however, collective action becomes a possibility although, we should emphasize, not a certainty.

This paper explores how the use of social media, in particular Twitter feeds, may have played a key role during the Egyptian Arab Spring of 2011. It focuses on Twitter's role in the framing of grievances, but along the way we also note how it may have been used to attack some of the Egyptian government's vulnerabilities and as a communication network among activists. It begins with an overview of social movement theory, and explains the process of framing. The paper next considers how Twitter functions, and how activists and others used it during the Egyptian Arab Spring. It then examines Twitter data gleaned from the Arab Spring and what it possibly tellsus about its role in the framing process. It concludes with a few thoughts on the role that social media could play in facilitating the development of social movements, insurgencies, and other forms of collective action.

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