Twittering the #ArabSpring?

An Empirical Content Analysis of Tweets

Master's Thesis, 2012

69 Pages, Grade: 72% (Distinction)


Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures



1 Introduction

2 Literature Review and Discussion
2.1 Twitter in a Nutshell
2.2 Twitter Revolution or Revolution by the People?
2.3 Quantitative Studies
2.4 Government Responses to Social Media and Online-Activism
2.5 Conclusion

3 Research Questions and Hypotheses

4 Methodology
4.1 Content Analysis
4.2 Data Collection and Sampling
4.2.1 Crawling Tweet Data
4.3 Validity and Reliability
4.4 Methodological Limitations

5 Findings and Discussion

6 Conclusions



List of Tables and Figures

Picture 1.1 – Mubarak vs. Social Media

Picture 2.1 – “He’s Twittering”

Table 4.1 – Inter/intra-coder Reliability

Chart 4.1 – Content Validity

Chart 5.1 – Overall Tweet Content

Chart 5.2 – Overall Tweet Tone

Chart 5.3 – Tweet Tone per Content

Chart 5.4 – Link Content

Chart 5.5 – Hashtags per OP

Chart 5.6 – Tweet Content per OP

Chart 5.7 – Tweet Content per OP

Chart 5.8 – Tweet Content per OP and Tone

Chart 5.9 – Link Content per OP

Chart 5.10 – Broadcast Channel per OP

Chart 5.11 – Tweet Language per OP


I am deeply grateful to my parents, Gabriele and Dr. Johannes Sieben, who have always supported me and have given me incredible opportunities throughout my life. I am also thankful to my two supervisors Dr. Ayşe Göker of the Department of Information Science at City University London and Professor Frank Webster, Head of Sociology at City University London, who supported me with invaluable advice on a range of issues. Further I would like to thank David Corney and Martin Carlos of the Department of Information Science at City University London, who advised me on technical issues regarding tweet crawling. Lastly I would like to express my appreciation to Dr. Cornelius Puschmann of the School of Library and Information Science at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and Dr. Axel Bruns, Associate Professor in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, who have graciously shared their tweet datasets with me.


This dissertation examines tweet content from key periods of the uprisings in Egypt and Syria of 2011 and 2012, generally known as the “Arab Spring”. Some authors and the mainstream media have suggested that these uprisings were significantly influenced and organised by Twitter and subsequently referred to them as “Twitter Revolution”. Other authors have strongly opposed this idea and attributed it to self-deception in the light of marvellous inventions of the Western World. They have suggested Twitter was predominantly used as an information-sharing network. In an effort to contribute data to this debate, this dissertation analyses tweet content from three different observation periods; two tweet datasets were collected from other academics and third one was crawled from the Twitter API; this process made use of the crawling tool cURL and the database software mongoDB.

The combined tweet dataset contained about 1.9 million tweets out of which a sample of 1945 tweets was drawn. This sample was then evaluated in a quantitative content analysis according to a coding manual. These codes were entered into the statistical analysis software SPSS, in which they were also processed.

This study found that in the context of these uprisings, Twitter was indeed used more as an information-sharing tool and only to a relatively small fraction for organisational purposes. This result does not negate the possibility of a mobilising effect of that small fraction. A further, central result is that almost every second tweet contained a hyperlink and that most of these lead to visual stimuli.

“We had no freedom of assembly in the streets of Cairo, so we assembled in cyberspace instead.” – Egyptian activist[1]

1 Introduction

A wave of democracy has swept through Northern Africa and the Near East. While the uproar and consequent toppling of their respective dictators was concluded within weeks in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrians are still fighting, bleeding and dying to this day. The media have labelled this recent wave of social uproar with the catchy phrase “Arab Spring”. In many publications and certainly in the mainstream media the term Arab Spring often goes hand in hand with another term: “Twitter Revolution” (Sabadello 2011: 11). This expression first emerged during the civil unrest in Moldova and the presidential election in Iran of 2009 and ascribed Twitter a role of growing importance in online and on-the-ground activism; this role was mainly propagated by mainstream media and bloggers (e.g. Stone and Cohen 2009). The British author and blogger Andrew Sullivan, who tirelessly twittered about the 2009 protests in Iran, became one of the frontrunners of the Twitter Revolution advocates; Evgeny Morozov, renowned for his scepticism towards social media’s organisational capabilities, calls him the godfather of Iran’s Twitter Revolution (2009: 1). It was thus probably inevitable that Twitter’s role in the political subversions would become subject of sociological study.

However, it was not only scientists, journalists or bloggers who believed that Twitter was playing a role in the Iranian uprising. The government of the United States obviously attributed at least some influence to Twitter when the US State Department asked the platform operators to postpone a scheduled server upgrade so that access to the platform would not be interrupted (Burns and Eltham 2009: 299; Gaffney 2010: 1).

Once Twitter had been affiliated with revolutionary capabilities for a suppressed populace for the first time in Moldova and Iran, some were quick to do it again: during the uprisings in northern Africa and the Near East, specifically during the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. Subsequently to the media debate, the concept of the organisational and mobilising capabilities of social media has been put under the scrutinising eye of researchers; some of whom are more convinced of the importance of Twitter for revolutionary events than others. Morozov found that a great number of television networks and newspapers ran stories advocating how crucial Twitter’s role in the Iranian protests was even though the question of whether or not technology was an essential factor “remains a big unknown” (2009: 10).

Authors such as Stepanova (2011) contend that tools such as Facebook and Twitter had mobilising effects and functioned as a catalyst to an already tense political and sociological situation. Stepanova (2011: 3) further claims that “no […] state, or form of government can remain immune to the impact of new information and communication technologies on social and political movements.” The political cartoon below accurately visualises this assessment. Sabadello (2011: 11) on the other side of the argument suggests that the revolutions in the Arab world would “most likely still have taken place without the Internet” just like other revolutions have in the past.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Picture 1.1 – Mubarak vs. Social Media


When one tries to evaluate all these assertions, opinions and discussions on whether or not Twitter was fundamental, instrumental, a catalyst, helpful or inherently unconnected from events that transpired, it seems rather striking that very little empirical evidence is presented by most thinkers, bloggers or journalists. To be precise, there is an apparent lack of research on the content of tweets. What did the people use Twitter for? Did they mainly use it to organise themselves? Did they use it to spread information? Or was it used for something entirely different? It is thus the explicit aim of this dissertation to shed some light on this issue. I will endeavour to ascertain what Twitter was actually used for during the uprisings. In order to accomplish this task, I have collected tweets concerning the Arab Spring and conducted an empirical content analysis looking at concrete tweet texts and specific metadata. Additionally, I have analysed two tweet datasets collected by other researchers in early 2011. No matter the result – this study does not claim to ultimately determine whether or not Twitter was instrumental in the uprisings but add empirical data to a somewhat hollow discussion.

“…let them tweet, and they will tweet their way to freedom” – Evgeny Morozov[2]

2 Literature Review and Discussion

As this dissertation is based on an empirical analysis of tweet content and since there is relatively little literature on this very topic, the literature review section shall primarily focus on studies that are closely related to this subject. It will further summarise the debate on the influence of technology (predominantly information and communication technologies such as Facebook and Twitter) on ‘revolutionary’ events and the so-called Arab Spring itself, namely the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia of 2011 (and the on-going struggle in Syria) but also the protests spurred after the allegedly forged Iranian elections of 2009.

2.1 Twitter in a Nutshell

Before entering deeper into the debate, it seems necessary to precisely determine what Twitter is, what it can and cannot do. The Twitter platform went online in 2006 and is therefore one of the younger social media tools when compared to Friendster, Myspace or even Facebook. By definition, Twitter is a micro-blogging tool written in the Ruby on Rails programming language and is entirely free of charge to its users (Kavanaugh et al. 2011: 3). It is considered a micro -blogging tool in reference to the maximum length of messages (so-called tweets) a user can send, which cannot exceed 140 characters and are often used for “status updates, news comments, and to ‘retweet’ or repost the messages of other users” (Burns and Eltham 2009: 298). Every tweet sent by a user is automatically forwarded to their ‘ followers’, which is a group of people who have decided to subscribe to the tweets of that person. If users decide to forward a received tweet to their own followers, we speak of ‘ retweeting’. Even though Twitter is often referred to as a micro-blogging tool, it is in a very cardinal way different from a blog. While most blogs are devoted to one single topic or theme, most Twitter users are not. Hermida (2010) has described Twitter as a form of ambient journalism breaking news in almost real-time albeit circumventing gatekeepers at traditional news media. Circumventing gatekeepers is obviously an equally important benefit of Twitter when the gatekeeper comes in the form of a governmental authority that blocks or controls traditional media (Papacharissi and de Fatima Oliveira 2012: 4).

A fundamental difference between most social networks such as Facebook and Twitter is that Twitter does not require reciprocity, a relationship can be (and in most cases is) one-directional, meaning that following a user does not require that person to follow back (Kwak et al. 2010: 1). Kwak et al. in their 2010 study on the entire Twittersphere (which was a lot smaller then with only about 41.7 million user profiles) found that only about 22% of the users have a reciprocal connection (meaning they follow each other) and conclude that Twitter is more of an information sharing network than a social network. A feature employed by Twitter that is quite central to this study is the use of ‘ hashtags’, which are – generally speaking – words that are preceded by a pound symbol (#). That pound symbol serves as a form of metadata tag and results in that tweet being found if one searches for the tagged term in the twitter search bar. These case-insensitive tags can be clicked and lead to a global search for tweets using that hashtag with the intention of “facilitate[ing] a global discussion on a topic beyond a user’s follower network” (Lotan et al. 2011: 1376). In part due to this function, Twitter has by now evolved to a point where hashtags are often used and integrated in the coverage of live events (O’reilly and Milstein 2009 as cited in Bruns 2009: 298), e.g. by superimposing suggested hashtags on the screen. Papacharissi and de Fatima Oliveira (2012: 2) find that most of the trending topics on Twitter are headlines of breaking news on sports, cities or brands forwarded from news feeds of more traditional online news media.

The exponential spread of web-enabled smartphones in combination with applications that make use of the Twitter application programming interface (API) have contributed to making twittering possible on-the-go; around 80% of people in the UK logging in, do so via their mobile phones compared to an average of 55% globally (Arthur 2012). By its own statistics, Twitter has revealed that in May of 2012 it had 10 million active users in the UK alone and around 140 million active users worldwide (ibid) sending 340 million messages every single day. The total number of registered accounts is a lot higher with some reports estimating up to 500 million accounts as of February 2012.[3] These figures alone certainly seem to make Twitter quite an interesting subject for sociological study.

2.2 Twitter Revolution or Revolution by the People?

The on-going key debate on whether or not social media can play an important role in revolutionary events and its organisational capabilities in general has been going on for years. This debate is most certainly not restricted to the recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Syria; the term “Twitter Revolution” has been attributed to the civil unrest in Moldova in 2009 and the violent demonstrations after the allegedly forged elections of 2009 in Iran. This part of the literature review aims to do the entire debate justice.

Up until the uprisings in the course of the Arab Spring, the Middle East was the only region on the planet where democracy was basically non-existent with not a single democracy among 16 Arab countries (Diamond 2003: 9 and Ajami, 2012: 1). Did Arabs simply not have a desire for democracy? Survey data seems to suggest otherwise: In Arab countries just as many Muslims as non-Muslims support democracy (ibid: 9) and Islam appears to have little influence on political views (ibid: 10). A 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Survey found that a clear plurality of 59% of all Egyptians Muslims found democracy more desirable than all other system of government (Kavanaugh et al. 2011: 5) – a fact clearly backed up by millions of people marching in the streets of Benghazi, Cairo or Damascus calling out for democracy.

So what role did the Internet play here? Evgeny Morozov holds the opinion that it is just wishful thinking on the part of people he calls “cyber-utopians” hoping for a new and improved Radio Free Europe that will peacefully bring down dictators at the fingertips of bloggers (2011: xii). He adds that these bloggers were mainly Americans who greatly overestimated the role of technology (2009: 10). Further he argues that it is naive to believe that social media favour an oppressed population over a totalitarian regime that usually does not shy away from the most vicious atrocities let alone have any regard for the rule of law (ibid: xiii). Morozov moreover recognises the fact that dictators have become quite good at using social media for their own propaganda purposes and against its users (as I will demonstrate in section 2.4) as cheap surveillance tools (ibid: xiv). He concludes that installing a democratic government requires more than many cyber-utopians believe and that rioting crowds in Teheran 2009 are not much different from crowds in Berlin 1989 (ibid: 5); he infers that a Twitter revolution would theoretically only be possible in a state where rulers are completely oblivious to social media and have no hand in them, which is obviously a utopia (2009: 12).

Sabadello in his 2009 paper agrees with Morozov that terms such as “Twitter Revolution” not seldom come from cyber utopians’ minds hoping for a better world spurred by technology. According to him, these are precarious generalisations and should be avoided. Social media should rather be considered new tools in an old fight – available to both sides.

According to Iosifidis, the ‘twittersphere’ is an “ideal space[…] for initiating public debate and social change” (2011: 4) and to direct joint action. He further argues that Twitter’s capability of overcoming suppression of free media and general censorship by authoritarian regimes is undeniable (ibid: 7). He refers to Splichal’s (2009) account of the Moldovan uprisings in which demonstrators allegedly used “social networking website tools like Twitter, LiveJournal and Facebook” (Iosifidis 2011: 7) to spur and direct the demonstrations as well as the above mentioned uprisings in Iran. Splichal himself admits that the impact of Twitter in these events may have been “heavily overstated” (Splichal 2009: 404). No empirical evidence is given for any of these arguments. Contrary to this, the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) has gathered quite specific data to back up their claim that “the political unrest in Iran has demonstrated as never before the power and influence of social media” (PEJ 2009) by tracking links posted on blogs and Twitter. They found that during the week of June 15th to 19th 2009 98% of the links posted on Twitter concerned Iran. Those links were used to spread information or “organize support for those involved in the struggle” (ibid). While the authors insist that these tweets clearly show cyber activism driven by new media (ibid), they have to admit that protesters may have twittered false information intentionally and that the potential influence of social media may have been overestimated by the mainstream media (ibid). It goes without saying that the given numbers are no proof of a direct causal correlation between what happened online and on the ground, especially since the location of tweet sources was mostly unknown. According to PEJ (2009) social media also had quite a stark influence on more traditional news channels since the harsh measures taken against Western journalists lead to an increase of social media topics in mainstream media with one in every twenty stories dealing with videos or pictures taken by Iranian activists while the Persian version of the BBC had to rely on user-generated content entirely due to threats by the Iranian government.

Rich (2011) goes so far as to say that the assumption of the Arab Spring being spurred by American-built technologies such as Twitter and Facebook was just a truism caused by Western bigotry about their own fabulous inventions. He further cites CNN anchor Jim Clancy saying that the largest demonstrations in Egypt actually took place on January 29th of 2011 – a day when the Mubarak government had pulled the plug on the entire Internet (and mobile coverage) throughout Egypt. So those large demonstrations could not possibly have been organised or amplified by Twitter or Facebook. Instead the uprising, he maintains, had very much more to do with the people’s poverty, self-respect and inability to nourish their families than with the simple fact that some of them may have connected through Twitter (ibid).

Stepanova (2011) contends that the entire upheaval in Tunisia was initiated by a Facebook group (called “April 6 Youth Movement”) controlled by the opposition in which several ten thousand people responded to a call for action. As mentioned in section one, Stepanova admits that socioeconomic and political friction had already been so extensive in Egypt that protests were inevitable, but she also suggests that social media had rallying effects causing protests to spill over from Tunisia to Egypt. Stepanova does not give concrete evidence for these assertions. In an effort to corroborate her argument she provides data on overall Internet usage in Egypt being at over 17 million users as of 2011. More recent data by the International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency, suggests an Internet penetration rate of 35.6%[4], which equates to about 29.3 million out of Egypt’s total population of roughly 82.5 million.[5] This is indeed quite a high amount for an Arab country (Arab average is 29.1%) and even more so for an African country (continental average is only 12.4% as of 2011), but compared to developed countries with 70.2% Internet penetration, this is still comparatively low.[6] The Arab Social Media Report, authored by the Dubai School of Government (2011:16-17), found that Twitter has a penetration rate of 0.15% (which would equate to roughly 1.2 million people) of the population in March of 2011 but only 131,204 active users in total. In her argument Stepanova joins Splichal in saying that the role of Twitter in comparison to other technologies may have been “somewhat overemphasized” (2011: 4). She adds that no direct correlation between Internet or social media access and likelihood of uprisings can be proven as Arab states such as Bahrain with a very high Internet penetration rate of 88% and states with very low penetration such as Yemen all saw mass upheaval (2011: 3). Naturally all these numbers do not negate the possibility of a mobilising effect through Twitter, but they surely seem to make it relatively unlikely that a significant proportion of the population could have been reached through Twitter. It appears more likely that most people heard about the events through more established channels like TV, Radio or even word-of-mouth (Sabadello 2011: 12).


[1] cited in Sabadello 2011, p. 11.

[2] cf. Morozov 2011: xii. Quote is actually meant sarcastically; Morozov believes the supposed democratising power stems from wishful thinking on the part of “cyber-utopians”.

[3] cf.

[4] cf. International Telecommunications Union:

[5] According to the World Bank:

[6] cf. .International Telecommunications Union:

Excerpt out of 69 pages


Twittering the #ArabSpring?
An Empirical Content Analysis of Tweets
City University London  (School of Informatics and School of Arts and Social Sciences)
MSc Information, Communication and Society
72% (Distinction)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1782 KB
Arab Spring, Twitter, Content Analysis, facebook, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, uprisings, moldovia, arabischer frühling, Inhaltsanalyse, Ägypten, Syrien, revolution
Quote paper
Johannes Sieben (Author), 2012, Twittering the #ArabSpring?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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