The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

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Social media spawns new age of information sharing in Arab Spring protests

It only read four words: “Stephen has been shot.”

Samuel Clayton read on his phone the words that stopped him, he says, and silenced him in the midst of gunfire and tear gas explosions.

Clayton, 36, of Seattle, was taken to the forefront of a political and social revolution Jan. 13, in what would later be called the birth of the Arab Spring, in Tunis, Tunisia.

For eight years, Clayton had been living abroad teaching English. In 2010, he moved to Tunisia to teach at a school owned by the U.S. State Department.

He says he expected to move to a calm, peaceful country.  He had never been in a fist fight before and was suddenly in the middle of a violent revolution.

The uprising in Tunisia started Dec. 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in protest. Clayton says from the time Bouazizi lit himself on fire until Jan. 13, international news covering the uprising could not be found. He says he relied on Facebook and blogs to attain information on what was happening around him, and soon in his town of Tunis.

Prior to the revolution, most communication was controlled by government, either directly or indirectly says Dr. Melissa Wall, CSUN journalism professor with a focus on international news, new media and social change.

Stephen was Clayton’s co-worker, friend and a veteran teaching English abroad. Clayton says Stephen wanted to photograph the historic events in Tunis.

Stephen, caught in the middle of a large protest, was shot in both legs by military personnel while he was holding a large camera. Clayton says soldiers mistook him for a foreign journalist.  Stephen survived, but many others did not.

More than 200 people died during protests in Tunisia from December 2010 to January 2011, according to Amnesty International.

Clayton, like many others in Tunisia, posted real-time messages and photos for the rest of the world to see on social media. For millions in the Middle East and Northern Africa, social sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, allowed them to anonymously organize and press for social change.

“People organized behind the scenes. It was an informal network,” Clayton says. “The government got scared. They thought that if they shut down Facebook, they would have a riot on their hands. The worst censorship of Internet was YouTube. It got completely shut down. Facebook was the only thing Ben Ali left up.”

Social networks gave people access they wouldn’t normally have, Wall says. Social media filled in where reporters couldn’t.

Media coverage increases the amount of eyes and ears on a story, and this can lead to international pressure, she adds.

Under Ben Ali, Tunisians did not have freedom of press or expression, Clayton says.

“There was a lot of corruption going on,” he adds. “After seeing on Facebook and from other media sources that 20 unarmed protesters had been shot and killed, it radicalized people for change.”
Former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was captured and killed Oct. 20. He led the country for 42 years without an official executive title or voters’ approval.

Gadhafi’s reign officially ended when anti-Gadhafi fighters pulled him out of a drain pipe. Since then, images have been pouring out of Libya showing the dictator’s final moments, covered in blood and beaten. The details surrounding his death are unconfirmed.

Mechanical engineering graduate student Muhammad Elgabali, 28, lived in Libya under Gadhafi’s rule.

“The protest in Tunisia and Egypt gave us hope again,” Elgabali says. “They showed us that there can be change.

“Before, people tried many times to change and Gadhafi was always able to control these people before they were able to do anything.”

Elgabali came to the U.S. in 2008 and went back to Libya in summer 2010. He says people were talking about government oppression then as they had for many years. People would step out to protest peacefully and often times would not return.

“The people had no freedom. They suffered a lot,” Elgabali says. “There were no jobs, no infrastructure, no human rights. Libya is a rich country, we have oil. Gadhafi didn’t spend it on the people.”

Gadhafi’s “era accumulated an appalling record of disregard for human rights at home and abroad,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Elgabali says he believes this uprising was successful because of media attention. The uprising of Tunisia and Egypt allowed the media to focus more on other nearby countries going through similar ordeals.

Kassem Nabulsi, CSUN lecturer who specializes in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies,  says in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, the governments toppled much faster than in Libya.

According to Nabulsi, Libya has a tribal, less homogenous society and weaker economic infrastructure than Tunisia.  He says Libya needed foreign intervention to fight the government.

More than anything, Elgabali says, the Libyan people want freedom, and he hopes for a democratic government, justice system and a shared interest to build the country with Libyans.

It is too early to determine what will happen in Libya, Nabulsi says.  With a tribal society, things are less likely to be predictable.

The fighting has ended in Tunisia and Gadhafi’s death marks the end of Libya’s civil war.

On Oct. 23, Tunisia held its first democratic election in history.

Nabulsi says the focus right now is on constructing a constitution.

“An election by itself doesn’t always makes democracy,” he says. “It can reflect religious, secular or neutral aspects.”

During the uprising, the government was watching everyone but, for unknown reasons, the Tunisian government never entirely shut down social media sites, Clayton says.

But perhaps it was because the “spectacular tool” was tied to the country’s economy, Nabulsi says.

“Shutting down the internet would impact the state’s economy, state bureaucracy,” he adds.

Clayton describes what he calls “Facebook Revolution” in his blog, Carnivals of Affection.

“Yes the real, exciting action mostly took place in the real world,” Claytons blog reads.  “But behind it all, Tunisia was like a sea of blinking laptops, with shooting messages, posted updates, pictures and videos, flickering back and forth through innumerable portals at pulsing speeds.”

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