The Menlo Roundtable

How did the Arab Spring shape the internet’s role in social movements?

What is a revolution? It’s a broad term that has been ascribed to everything from the beginning of permanent agricultural settlements in Mesopotamia to the 1776 American revolt against British rule.

It’s a “positive” term in comparison to related words like “anarchy” or “turmoil.” It’s a temporal term associated with a period of rapid progress. It’s a fickle concept that can shift with the tumultuous tide of public opinion. Scholars, presidents, and dictators alike have all tried to repurpose this word as a manifestation of their academic arguments, or, in some cases, to bolster support for their regime. As an example, Muammar Gaddaffi, the former dictator of Libya, eagerly designated his military coup and resultant regime as representative of popular revolution. Ironically, he was deposed and executed just over 40 years later in a similarly violent revolt. Libya wasn’t an outlier: suddenly, in 2011, Arab regimes around the Middle East began to face remarkable resistance to their rule. Mass protests engulfed the region, promising a bright future of economic security and democracy. Unfortunately, many scholars have dismissed this event as a failed uprising, with little long term political change enacted across the Middle East. Some historians even believe it to be an anomalous event in a reliably statist and authoritarian region. However, this period, referred to as “the Arab Spring,” was one of the most impactful revolutions in recent history because it was the first major movement to be enabled by globalized internet technology. Fundamentally, the Arab Spring event revolutionized the manner in which mass social movements are organized and conducted.

Photo: Courtesy of Al Jazeera English, via Wikimedia Commons