To the international community watching mass public protests unfold across the Middle East in the first half of 2011, mobile, internet-dependent platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and other social media tools appeared to play a prominent role in mobilizing the protests and organizing focal points of protest activity. Using social media, individual activists posted calls for action, reported live from protest scenes, and reacted to relevant breaking news, allowing the international, regional, and local communities to watch the protests unfold in real time, with the story narrated by the protesters themselves. But how crucial were social media to engaging, inspiring, and organizing the protests? How did activists use social media tools? What other strategies were used effectively? What role did formal, registered NGOs play? In this paper, a research team led by the University of California, San Diego examined the online and offline activity of 30 activists and six formal and informal organizations and identity groups, three in Bahrain and three in Egypt, that were engaged in the 2011 protests. Key findings include:
- Offline community organizing techniques—spreading information via direct face-to-face contact, text messages, or phone calls and sharing resources and determining strategy in the offices of registered NGOs—drove mobilization and information dissemination once the protests were underway. Once the protests started, activists used Twitter primarily via mobile devices, suggesting that Twitter provided documentation of protest events, if not a forum for mobilization and organization.
- Activists used Twitter as a foil for authorities attempting to repress protest activity—posting on Twitter where activity would occur and then coordinating via phone calls, text messages, and face-to-face communication to move the activity to another location.
- Activists who used Twitter during the 2011 protest period had low levels of online interaction with protesters who were also on Twitter, and activists’ efforts to coordinate protest communication around common hashtags gained little local traction. Activists had substantial online interaction with international Twitter networks, suggesting that their main audience was international. However, the Twitter use during the protests did grow a local online community: the density of activists’ local online networks increased significantly in both Bahrain and Egypt after the 2011 protest periods.