This post was written by Tasniem Anwar and Nermin Elsherif as part of the GDC-funded project “Social Media after the Arab Uprisings”.
A decade of social media platforms
A decade ago, contentious and fluid conceptions of social media platforms dominated the discussions after the first wave of the Arab uprisings that emerged in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Libya. Initially, social media platforms were praised as sites of political mobilization that enabled users to organize and topple dictatorships. It did not take long for scholars and media experts to realize the dangers and the shortcomings of such an assumption. Soon enough, social media platforms became understood as sites of surveillance, public manipulation, and the festering of conspiracy theories in different parts of the world. In the Arab world, various social media legislations were issued to control the digital sphere and silence online dissent. In the United Kingdom and the United States, social media platforms were perceived as tools to manipulate voters. Aside from an overly optimistic outlook on social media, focusing on the emancipatory powers, scholars developed a rather pessimistic understanding of social media as a tool for oppression and manipulation. Yet, is it possible to think of social media platforms away from this duality? How can we understand the political implications and possibilities of social media in its full complexity?
Social media after the Arab uprisings
In the project “Social Media After the Arab Uprisings”, we argue that one way to move beyond this dichotomy is to conceive these platforms as political sites of cultural production where everyday public matters are negotiated and online identities are performed. This pursuit requires taking cultural texts – like Facebook posts, memes, tweets, and reactions – seriously. It is based on examining how these digital technologies are imagined and used by ordinary people. This approach goes together with the growing interdisciplinary field of digital cultures that brings together scholars from media studies, sociology, cultural studies, anthropology, and political science. By focusing on social media in the Arab world, we aim to contribute to a more detailed understanding of how social media enables or restricts political activities, and how it changes relations between the citizens and the state. The goal of this project is not only to produce publishable academic work, but rather extends to creating and cultivating a network of scholars, activists, and artists in/from the Arab-speaking world who are concerned with the roles of social media in everyday life. This way we do not only look back on the past decade but hopefully gain a different glimpse of the possibilities in the future.
Tasniem Anwar is a PhD candidate in the Political Science department of the University of Amsterdam working on the legal practices around preventing and criminalizing terrorist financing.
Nermin Elsherif is a PhD Candidate of Cultural Studies (UvA). Her dissertation examines online communities dedicated to nostalgia for the ideal nation in post-revolutionary Egypt.