The Arab Spring: the birth of mobile journalism

How an unsuccessful revolution changed the way mobile was used in the media.

A nation overruled by corruption is the sort of leadership that those of us living in a democratic society fear the most. We have seen it in movies, on the news and have read it online, watching civilisations suffer from constant turmoil, abuse and neglect – an experience that is way too familiar in many Arabian countries.

It was only until the uprising of the Arab Spring that allowed the rest of civilisation to witness the upsurge of controversy impacting citizens on the other side of our world.

Late one evening in early 2010, young Egyptian man, Khaled Said, was approached by two police officers who asked him for money. When Said denied that he had money on him, the officers proceeded to beat him. Shortly after, Said died from his injuries and was taken away in a police vehicle.

Witnesses at the scene captured photos of Said’s shattered face and bruised body which were later uploaded to social media. A Facebook page ‘We are all Khaled Said’, created by former Google executive Wael Ghonim, was also made and attracted thousands of followers, circulating Said’s story around the world.

“When Khaled Said died, I felt like he is someone I can relate with…I wanted to make sure that no matter what the regime is gonna say, they’re not gonna [sic] be able to deceive the public,” Ghonim told the New Yorker in 2011.

In December 2010, unlicensed fruit vendor Mohamod Bouazizi was abused by a female council inspector. Embarrassed by the situation and seeing little purpose to life, Bouazizi set himself alight in the local square while being filmed by his cousin. Bouazizi also died from his injuries and the video was posted to Facebook.

These two examples show how social media became the key for activism in countries where there were no rights. Mobile gave voice to those with little political power through social media apps such as Facebook, this enabling ‘lower class citizens’ to connect with the rest of the world.

A week after the death of Bouazizi, a series of protests erupted around Tunisia where “protestors armed themselves not only with signs but with cell phones” as quoted by History Channel.

From this point, global citizens received an insider’s view into the turmoil that erupted not only in Tunisia, but in the Arabian countries of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.

So with the Arab Spring indicating that mobiles were an essential tool for digital storytelling, what did this mean for the journalism industry?

Mobile journalism has led to an increase in citizen witnesses, where non-certified journalists per se, use their phones to film unfolding events around them. This footage then acts not only as potential b-roll but also as evidence which couldn’t have been obtained without witnesses present.

WordPress blogger Sarohisar reviewed the role technology played in the Arab Spring, explaining that if it wasn’t for the footage shared by protesters, the world would have been uneducated about the unfolding situation in some Arabian countries.

“Almost all of the content that was shared by protestors with fellow Egyptians and the rest of the world were such that would have been censored by government-controlled media channels and authorities,” Sarohisar writes.

While such footage may be helpful in understanding the bigger picture of the filmed event, once that footage is uploaded to social media, it goes against standard journalistic gatekeeping approaches where editors filter the type of content that is exposed to a larger audience. Therefore, content filmed by a citizen witness may not always be reliable when it comes to understanding all the information.

The Arab Spring was described as the 2.0 revolution because it gave mobile users the freedom to distribute information freely. However, while it provided citizens with freedom of speech, uprising radical leaders eventually learnt how to use social media to their advantage in order to bring terrorism to the streets, contributing to the revolution’s failure.

In 2016, Guardian journalist Adam Roberts wrote an opinion piece on the downfall of the Arab Spring, stating that there were three lessons to learn from revolution’s demise while focusing on civil resistance.

“Five years on, it’s clear that civil resistance can force out dictators but isn’t enough to bring people power,” Roberts writes. While the Arab Spring movement itself wasn’t as successful as first anticipated, it was the start of a new technological era that changed how mobile technology was used around the world.

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