Elections, revolutions, change and hope from the US to the Arab world. The profile of the online user and what to expect in the future.  

By Eleni Delimpaltadaki 
January 28, 2011 

For third day in a row, hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to Egypt's streets to protest the presidency of Hosni Mubarak. Egypt is currently experiencing high levels of food price inflation, with prices rising 17.1% year-over-year in December, and 17.2% year-over-year in November. The reported 2010 unemployment rate in Egypt is 9.4%, but it is likely much higher.

 

As academic and Tunisian writer Nouri Gana wrote for the Guardian in the U.K. "Grassroots change in the Arab world is inevitable. Egyptians, Algerians, Libyans, Jordanians, Yemenis, Palestinians – almost all Arabs are struck by Tunisian fever. It is no longer a question of place, only a question of time." http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jan/28/after-tunisia-nouri-gana-tunisia.

 

In response, the government effectively shut down online communication in the country later Thursday, January 28th. "As a result of widespread disruption to the Internet in Egypt, people there are unable to access Google and YouTube services or at best are having real difficulty doing so," said Scott Rubin, a Google spokesman, via e-mail (http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9206980/Egypt_s_Internet_block_ai...). 

As many suspect, such a drastic measure might indicate that more targeted measures that the government tried the days before, such as blocking Twitter, didn't get the job done. This measure was intended to make online coordination of anti-government action impossible; at the same time, the mushroom cloud may give protesters hope that their efforts are not in vain. As one blogger writes: "It's as if the regime has done the information aggregation for you and packaged it into a nice fat public signal."

 

There are reports the government also is limiting cell phone usage, including text messaging, in a bid to disrupt protest organizers. 

 

Clearly, what's rattled the government is the role that social media has played in the protests in Egypt and before that in helping Tunisians learn about the actions their fellow citizens were taking and in making the decision to mobilize. "How powerful and significant this influence was will be something that academics will study and argue over for years to come (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/01/14/the_first_twitter_revolution)."

Since the revolution in Tunisia, which led to the fall of Ben Ali's government, in the public discourse has debated whether what happened there was the first twitter revolution and the significance of the internet and especially social media in the social movements. 

 

The impact of social media on civic and political life has been experience at a greater, even if not as dramatic, degree in the U.S. where the internet much more widespread and used by a vast majority of Americans. Barack Obama's campaign for President exemplifies the influence of social media on grassroots movements. 

 

Social networking though is still a young phenomenon and a global one. According to a recent survey by Pew Research (Internet and American Life Project, http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1830/social-networking-computer-cell-phone-u...), "in regions around the world -- and in countries with varying levels of economic development -- people who use the internet are using it for social networking. And this is particularly true of young people." The question is who is active on social media online and what should people, governments, advocates and the media expect from them? 

 

"The education gap in internet usage and cell phone ownership is just as striking. In Jordan, nearly nine-in-ten (88%) of those who have attended college use the internet, while only one-in-five of those who did not attend college say the same. Education gaps of more than 50 percentage points are also found in Egypt, Kenya, Brazil, Turkey and Mexico."

 

Young people are much more likely to use social networking. In Egypt, 37% of ages 18-29 do so compare to 8% for groups 30 and over. In the U.S. 77% compare to 55% for groups 30-49 and 23% for groups 50 and over. 

 

The education gap in internet usage and cell phone ownership is just as striking. In Jordan, nearly nine-in-ten (88%) of those who have attended college use the internet, while only one-in-five of those who did not attend college say the same. Education gaps of more than 50 percentage points are also found in Egypt, Kenya, Brazil, Turkey and Mexico.

 

Because our knowledge of online behavior of countries such as Egypt, Tunisia or others in the Arab world (due to lack of studies), we will examine data from the U.S. and take the liberty to imagine what these data would mean for other countries if they applied to them. 

 

"A new national survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project has found that 75% of all American adults are active in some kind of voluntary group or organization, and internet users are more likely than others to be active: 80% of internet users participate in groups, compared with 56% of non-internet users. And social media users are even more likely to be active: 82% of social network users and 85% of Twitter users are group participants."

 

The study asked about 27 different kinds of groups and found great diversity in group membership and participation using traditional and new technologies. It becomes clear as people are asked about their activities that their use of the internet is having a wide-ranging impact on their engagement with civic, social and religious groups. Asked to assess the overall impact of the internet on group activities:

  • 68% of all Americans (internet users and non-users alike) said the internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to communicate with members. Some 75% of internet users said that.
  • 62% of all Americans said the internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to draw attention to an issue. Some 68% of internet users said that.
  • 60% of all Americans said the internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to connect with other groups. Some 67% of internet users said that.
  • 59% of all Americans said the internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to impact society at large. Some 64% of internet users said that.
  • 59% of all Americans said the internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to organize activities. Some 65% of internet users said that.

At a personal level, those who are active in groups say the internet has had varying influence over their connection to groups:

  • 53% of the online Americans who are active in groups say the internet has had a major impact on their ability to keep up with news and information about their groups; 30% say the internet has had a minor impact on that.

In the U.S., some 21% of online adults used social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace in the months leading up to the November 2010 elections to connect with a campaign or the election itself, and 2% of online adults did so using Twitter. http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1871/internet-politics-facebook-twitter-2010...

 

Compared with the rest of the online population (i.e. those who go online but did not use Twitter or social networking sites for political purposes in 2010) the "political social media" user group differs in some respects from other internet users:

  • Political social media users stand out for their overall use of technology. They are significantly more likely than other internet users to go online wirelessly from a cell phone or laptop (91% vs. 67%), own a laptop computer (79% vs. 63%), have a high-speed broadband connection (94% vs. 80%) and use the internet on their cell phone (61% vs. 40%).
  • Demographically, political social media users are younger and somewhat more educated than other internet users. Two-in-five (42%) are younger than age 30 (vs. 22% for the rest of the online population) and 41% have a college degree (34% of other internet users have graduated from college). However, they look quite similar to the rest of the online population in their racial, gender and income composition.