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#HashtagSolidarities: Twitter Debates and Networks in the MENA Region


Title: #HashtagSolidarities: Twitter Debates and Networks in the MENA Region

Author: Mareike Transfeld and Isabelle Werenfels (Eds)

Date of Publication: March 2016

Journal / Publisher: SWP - Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik German Institute for International and Security Affairs

Country of publication: Germany

Purpose of the study

Key questions 

The study seeks to understand how debates on important social and political topics in the MENA region have unfolded on Twitter to better understand ways in which the platform affects political debates and processes: 

  • Who drives the debates? 
  • What kinds of Twitter networks and digital solidarities are forged around these debates? 
  • To what extent do Twitter debates reflect more general social and political dynamics in the region?



The data set gathered for each case study involved a minimum of 600 tweets and did not exceed 1,200. This provided the basis for software-driven network analysis with the freeware NodeXL27 as well as for a qualitative analysis of the content of the tweets.

Qualitative analysis consisted of first identifying the main recurring arguments and narratives in the Twitter discussions and coding each tweet accordingly.

Then, where relevant, cross-media dynamics were identified, namely, how information traveled between Twitter accounts of journalists and traditional media, nationally and internationally. 

Finally, interviews were sought with agenda setters for the different debates about their use of Twitter, their input in the debates, and their general foci of interest on Twitter, geographically and in terms of issues.




The aim of this study is comparatively modest in that it focuses on only one social medium, Twitter, and does not try to construct a meta-theory

Key findings 

The Twitter debates on sexual harassment, fracking, and military intervention display a number of striking similarities despite their variance in content, size, and connection to specific social, political, local, and subregion-al contexts. Together with evidence from interviews with Twitter users across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, as well as insights into a number of other local debates, they allow for more general conclusions about Twitter debates ignited by events in the Arab world

It is quite paradoxical that given Twitter’s supranational character, the main frame of reference of the respective Twitter communities engaging in the debates examined was strongly national. The primary interest of the debates analyzed was revealed to be domestic. Whenever topics were picked up in another national context, they were reframed locally. For instance, the Tahrir Square rape incident served as a point of departure in other Arab countries for their own domestic debates with a different em-phasis. 

The case studies also show that Twitter debates spread only when an issue resonates in a local context.

Twitter did not serve to iron out the political or social rifts in the three case studies, and if anything, it sharpened them, at least rhetorically.

When Twitter served to build bridges, it did so primarily between the potentially like-minded.

The three debates analyzed provide no evidence of an “Arab public sphere” on Twitter, nor do they point to the subregional entities that policy makers tend to use as points of reference, such as the Maghreb, North Africa, and the Gulf.

Analysis of influencers in the three debates indicates that Twitter agenda setters in the MENA region are an elitist group of youngish, well-educated, multilingual, and tech-savvy citizensthe three case study debates also pointed to a blurring of hierarchies via Twitter. 

Journalists from a breadth of media increasingly relied on Twitter sources, which allowed many non-elite voices to be heard.

Key recommendations 

Twitter is neither a reliable early warning system for the next “revolution,” nor is it likely to unleash what some call “democracy’s fourth wave” in the MENA region. It is nevertheless a seismograph for tensions, fault lines, grievances, and visions of transformation in these societies.

The cases in this study show how defining domestic politics, local social developments, and history are to the dynamics of Twitter debates. Twitter moves from a space dominated by those promoting civil and political liberties to an instrument for those promoting radical ideologies, identity politics, and authoritarian regime control.

Reviewer's Notes

The literature provides policy makers and experts with few clues on how to deal with social media, be it for analysis, spreading one’s own message, or as a window into important social and political developments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  

Why Twitter? Twitter as a social media platform is an open and public space in contrast, for instance, to Facebook. Twitter allows for chronological examination of how a debate unfolds from the very first tweet on a specific event. It permits identification of so-called influencers, or agenda setters, in a debate. Twitter penetration is growing in the MENA region and is likely to continue to do so.

To circumvent or minimize methodological challenges, the research was conducted as follows; Three local or sub regional events that led to heated debates on Twitter were selected for tracking: 

  • A rape on Cairo’s Tahrir Square in June 2014; 
  • Anti-fracking protests in southern Algeria in winter and spring 2015; and 
  • Saudi Arabia’s military operation in Yemen in spring 2015.


In the second step, tweets that were retweeted a certain number of times were identified for transfer to the research database. Doing so allowed for the identification of tweets (i.e., content) deemed important by other participants in the debate and users who wielded a certain influence in the discussion.

The third step consisted of identifying the geographic location of Twitter accounts.

Who are the influential players in the debates? What efforts are made toward mobilization? What digital solidarities emerge? How does Twitter relate to traditional media? How do the debates spread geographically? How does the choice of language — i.e., Arabic, English, or French — affect network patterns?

When in December 2010 the young Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid to protest humiliation by the police, news of the inci-dent and videos of subsequent protests in the small Tunisian town spread via social media before finding its way into mainstream media, namely, Al Jazeera. On Twitter, information about the incident was first shared under the hashtag #bouazizi (the person), later under #sidibouzid (the town), and then under #tunisia (the country). The evolution of the hash-tags illustrates how news traveled from the local level to the national and international arenas through social media networks.

Twitter’s political relevance is possibly highest in strongly repressive contexts, like Egypt and Saudi, because Twitter freedoms are more restricted there than elsewhere, but substantially greater than for other media Twitter’s most frequently cited function — to mobilize emotionally and physically — can be seen in all three debates.

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