The dynamic of social media: A case of usage in Saudi Arabia

Literature Review


With the continuous advancement in technology, the global use of social media has achieved exponential growth. As such, these inventions have created a more advanced and interactive platform for communication and exchange of social, political, and economic discourse. As much as this has been an advantage to all countries all over the world, Middle Eastern countries such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has benefited the most from the emergence and spread of social media usage. For example, most western countries had never had several problems engaging in activism and putting the government to account using the mainstream media. However, in the Arabian Gulf States, such an undertaking is highly restricted due to government censorship and restrictions on the mainstream media. Hence, social media has created an avenue for discussion pertinent socio-political issues without the fear of government limitations. As such, this chapter aims at exploring the various literature and studies that have been undertaken in regard to the dynamics of social media usage, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the case study country.

The purpose of this literature reviews the existing studies on this area, explore the discourse therein, and identify the existing research gaps that will help in paving ways future studies on the same. Various empirical studies have been undertaken to explore the capability of social media to facilitate political and social engagement on public affairs (De Zúñiga, Jung and Valenzuela 2012; Harlow and Harp 2012; Al-Saggaf and Simmons 2015). In all these studies, the consensus has been that social media breaks the restrictions and censorship that may exist in the mainstream media, hence creating a seamless flow of information. Subsequently, social media has created a digital platform where people can discuss issues, share information, experiences, as well as provide an exchange of educative ideas with other participates. In this chapter, the researcher aims to critically evaluate the existing literature on the increasing use of social media and how it has helped in pushing for important social ideas such as gender equality and political participation in various countries all over the world, with a specific interest in Saudi Arabia.

The Increasing use of Social Media and its Dynamics: The Global and National Review

Over the last decade, the number of people using social media has consistently increased, making this endeavour the most popular online activity in the world. This growth is mainly attributed to the flexibility of this medium of communication. Additionally, there are diverse social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, among others, which offers alternative solutions to users. In a study done in 2011, Hansen, Shneiderman and Smith concluded that all these social networking sites (SNSs) have common important functionalities, the enable users to interact, communicate, share, and edit content within their social environments. Unlike the traditional mainstream media, SNSs rely on user-generated content which is not affected by political forces or professional inefficiencies of journalists and writers (Bertot, Jaeger and Hansen 2012). Due to these advantages of social media, the whole world has recorded exponential growth in usage over the past years. Figure 1 below shows the number of people using social media from 2004 to 2019.

Figure 1: Global Social Media Usage from 2004-2019

The growth of social media usage has provided an avenue for discussing and sharing sensitive socio-political issues which are censured in mainstream media – especially in less democratic countries such as Saudi Arabia. The spread of social media has provided a catalyst for online deliberation where people can share their experiences, knowledge, and perspectives regarding issues that affect various members of society. Against this backdrop, Halpern and Gibbs (2013) undertook an empirical study to explore the effect of Facebook and YouTube in catalysing the online political and social deliberations. They concluded that these SNSs “expand the flow of information to other networks and enable more symmetrical conversations among users” (Halpern and Gibbs 2013, p. 1159). This result is coherent with the long-held position by various scholars that social media forms an important tool for democratizing political communications, as such, enhancing civic participation in less democratic countries (Lerman 2007; Macintosh 2004; Janssen and Kies 2005). Social media has helped in the decentralization of communication, giving every person the opportunity to share their thoughts and engage in economic and social-political discourse that they are interested in. In Saudi Arabia, citizens have tapped into this technological tool to advance their debates on controversial and sensitive issues such as gender equality and discrimination in the country (Samin 2012).

One of the major areas in which online social networking has been used in Saudi Arabia is feminism activism and the fight for women’s rights. A study done by Newsom and Lengel (2012) revealed that the traditional consumer media system has made the gendered message invisible to the public by essentializing and reconstructing such information before disseminating them. As such, the authors have applauded the benefit of social media in castigating online social change. As Khamis (2011) puts it, “the prolific online and offline political activities of Arab women over the last several months have contributed a new chapter to the history of both Arab feminism and the region” (p. 748). Through social media, feminist organizations and activists can produce knowledge, mobilize, and share information and resources online that may go a long way to push their course forward (Al Jaber 2009). With the increasing popularity of SNSs, the entire face of feminism has changed. A study by Schuster (2013) has pointed out that more young women have become active in feminist endeavours. As such, a bigger percentage of women can now come forward and discuss issues that affect the level of social inclusion within the kingdom (Schuster 2013). In order to understand the current dynamics of social media, it is imperative to overview the major differences between social media and the mainstream media.

Social Media Versus the Traditional Mainstream Media

The landscape of Saudi Arabian media has undergone drafting changes – thanks to the continuous rise of social media, replacing the traditional mainstream media. Research by Oxford Business Group (2017) estimates the rate of internet penetration in the country at 93%. This implies that more than 30 million Saudi Arabian have access to the internet and can use social media. A subsequent study by Digital Marketing Community revealed that Facebook is the most popular SNS with over 15 million users, followed by Snapchat at 13.65 million, Instagram at 13 million, and Twitter at 11.27 million (Davis 2019). As more people are getting into social media, traditional mainstream media is becoming less popular. While traditional media used to have a strong impact on information delivery – due to its presumed credibility – social media creates a more conspicuous image on issues under debate. It gives the opportunity for everybody to share their views and experience. The contents are generated and shared, commented on and discussed by the consumers and users (Bertot, Jaeger and Hansen 2012). This characteristic makes social media more reliable in terms of diversity and plurality as far as socio-political discourses are concerned.

With more young people getting involved in political issues, it is important to understand their ability to navigate between the online social media and the traditional mainstream media. As much as social media has become more popular, it is important to realize that more people still believe on the authenticity of the mainstream media. According to Skoric and Poor (2013), more attention is given to news and information disseminated via traditional media. As such, it is important to understand the dynamics of social media and why it has become more popular regardless of credibility concerns. One major reason for this shift in the minimum government interference with social media. Saudi Arabian government has significant political control over the mainstream media but they have mostly abstained from inferring with an internet connection and social media usage (Chaudhry 2014). While the political coverage by traditional media has a significant impact on creating a perception among the public, social media offers the best platform for discussing these political concerns. When news hits the traditional media, the level of reception and the views of the public can easily be seen using social media platforms such as Twitter which highlights the trending issues (Asur, Huberman, Sabo and Wang 2011). As such, social media plays a vital role in amplifying the impact and reach that traditional media has created, hence strengthening public participation and eventual activism or other forms of citizen involvement.

Social media offers diverse, pluralistic, and uncensored space without major state regulations. In Saudi Arabia, most of the televisions and radios are controlled by the government. Al-Saggaf and Simmons (2015) conducted a study to evaluate the effectiveness of social media, versus traditional media in case of a sensitive national issue. They found out that, while traditional media plays a vital role in bringing news to the people, social media helped in communicating the gravity of the issue; provides a platform for discussing the issues; criticize the authority in areas where they have demonstrated failure, and in expressing the general emotion and perception regarding the issue (Al-Saggaf and Simmons 2015). As such, social media is more effective in creating the political and social trends which may eventually culminate in major social changes. This technological advancement offers a vehicle through which the government and conservatism receive undesirable demand for change from the people (Chu 2009). In social media, everybody can share their thoughts – regardless of age, gender, social status, or race. This platform offers a diverse avenue for social and political debate without restriction or prejudice. Unlike traditional media, social media does not have the editorial structure, supervision, euphemism or censorship which may hinder the free transfer of information and open discussions (Sterns and Tennen 2016). Due to this nature of social media, young men and women have become activists pushing for major social changes. The former now have a platform where they can share the traumatizing experience that they have as a result of polarizing gender laws in the country (Sterns and Tennen 2016). Subsequently, the latter can now engage in political activism. Hence, Social media has offered an indiscriminate opportunity for all citizens of Saudi Arabia to get engaged in economic and socio-political discourses that affect them. Below are some of the ways in which social media has reshaped the social, economic and political fabric of the countries, with special reference to Saudi Arabia.

Virtual Collective Consciousness

Virtual collective consciousness (VCC) is a term coined by Yousri Marzouki and Olivier Oullier in 2012 through their article Revolutionizing Revolutions: Virtual Collective Consciousness and the Arab Spring which was published in Huffington Post. These two behavioural scholars postulated that social media has created a platform where people can think and act in one accord guided by a collective emotion drown from political, social, and economic issues. “The incredible connectivity amongst people that are provided by social media, combined with the speed at which information is exchanged and its potential global reach, have significantly empowered people (Marzouki and Oullier 2012, p. 17). Using the case of the Arab Spring, the authors explained how social media has been used to foster a collective movement which acts as an important recipe for political and social revolution. Arab Spring became a successful popular uprising without any specific leader or a political party that could have been said to organize this movement. This political event was a demonstration of social media’s greatest potential which helped the Arab countries to topple dictators (Alperstein 2019). In the same way, this technological tool has brought forth major debates in Saudi Arabia calling for political transformations and gender equality.

Social media has become a platform for Saudi Arabians to call for political and social change. SNSs have form efficient platforms which catalyse the online democratic deliberations on issues that affect the people (Halpern and Gibbs 2013). With the rise of several forms of social media tools, each one helps in expanding the constant flow of information, hence engaging more people in such political discourses. Stieglitz and Dang-Xuan (2013) undertook a study to explore the effectiveness of social media in political communication. The scholars found out that SNSs are increasing the popularity of political participation, citing Twitter and Facebook as some of the sites that have been used to forge new political ideologies (HICSS 2017). As such, these tools have been used to “continuously gather, monitor, analyse, summarize, and visualize politically relevant information from online social media” with the aim of understanding the general political landscape of the country (Paris and Wan 2011; Stieglitz and Dang-Xuan 2013, p. 1278). In Saudi Arabia, SNSs have resulted in increased civic awareness especially among the youths who used to have little interest in public issues (Alothman 2013). While most Saudi Arabians use social media as a platform for obtaining information and sharing issues regarding the political status of the country, most of them have shown interest in using this tool to encourage social movements which will foster political and social changes.

Saudi Arabia, as well as other countries all over the world, has used social media as a tool for cyber-activism. Sandoval-Almazan and Gil-Garcia (2014) undertook a study to explore the social media has been used for social and political activism and how such endeavours have resulted in influencing government decision-making and its relationship with the people. They concluded that social and political protests have shifted their nature form the traditional approach to contemporary cyber-activism. Bevington and Dixon (2007) and Morrice (2019) write that activism is changing and technological growth has formed new ways for individuals and groups to advocate for change. The ability to call for change on social media has created the opportunity to redefine the basis of transparency needed for various organizations, which make it possible to achieve the desired change (Newton 2020). Dwonch (2015) and Murthy (2018) assert that for more than a decade now, an increasing variety of movements, mobilizations, and protests have been formed and executed through the internet. Especially from 2011 onwards, a rapid and global emergence and expansion of such online-generated movements has caused so much debate on the roles of digital activisms for emerging social movements across various fields.

Major social revolutions such as the case of Ukraine, the outrage in Spain, as well as the Arab spring are all culmination of social media activism using tools such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube (González-Bailón, Borge-Holthoefer, & Moreno, 2013). In order to undertake effective activism which will result in social movement, these four parameters are necessary “collective challenge, common purpose, social solidarity, and sustained interaction” (Sandoval-Almazan, and Gil-Garcia 2014, p. 366). Collective challenge in this instance refers to a scenario where different people work together to achieve similar objectives despite the challenges or constraints they experience. Collective challenge is a vital requirement to performing effective activism because the notion takes into account that people have varying views as well that could influence the activism approach and influence (Mansell & Hwa 2015). A common purpose is an important factor in performing effective activism because the approach allows members to contribute as much as they can to the subject without any restrictions (Meikle 2017). Having a common purpose is important in achieving the desired objective of social media activism because groups come together while sharing similar intentions and purposes. Social solidarity is a vital requirement because it emphasizes the interdependence between people in a society, which permits individuals to feel that they can improve the lives of others (Oliver, Cadena-Roa & Strawn 2003). Social solidarity improves the chances of attaining the desired goals and objectives of social media activism because it is founded on shared beliefs and values among the various groups in a society (Morrice 2019; Yamamoto & Morey 2019). Also important is sustained shared thinking, which allows people to have common ways of viewing things. Tilly and Tarrow (2015) consider shared thinking to be a vital requirement to a successful activism process because it presents the chance to work together in an intellectual manner to solve the common problem or clarify particular issues. Tilly and Tarrow (2015) consider sustainable shared thinking to be important in conducting successful activism because it can happen anywhere, anytime and only needs interest and time on the part of the participants. Social media allows users to practice all the four parameters, which make it is a suitable avenue for practicing activism. All these four properties can be achieved by the use of social media. When people share a common interest, they can use these tools to bring their thoughts together and forge a way forward. Such resolutions often culminate in an activist undertaking which may eventually result in social and political revolutions and movements.

Social media has become a tool of bridging the discourses between liberals and conservatists on social issues such as the place of women in Islamic countries. Generally, both conservatives and liberals are often intolerant to each other’s notions which are ideologically dissimilar to their points of view (Brandt et al. 2014). As such, these two political and social groups have always positioned themselves in the antagonistic state. However, with the emergence of social media, the two have now found a platform from which both sides can bring forth their ideas without restriction or discrimination (Stieglitz and Dang-Xuan 2013). One of the major social issues in which these two groups have encountered several conflicts is the position of women in the Saudi Arabian Community. While the conservatisms still hold to the thought that women should be supervised as citizens with no equal consideration as men, the liberals are taking a much better stance in regard of gender equality (van Geel 2016). Through social media, the debate of gender equality and women’s rights is no longer a conceptual issue but a debate coupled with real-life experiences of the victims of gender violence. By bridging this discourse, social media has created a platform on which the context of gender can be discussed and a possible social change can be achieved, especially in countries with discriminative gender laws such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Newsom and Lengel 2012). The effects of social media on activism processes call for increased evaluation of how the various platforms could transform current and future practices, with regard to advocating for individual and group rights.

Social media is fast becoming a tool for empowering women in Saudi Arabia, which make it necessary to understand the significance of using various social media avenues for activism in the Arab region. Goyanes (2019) and Mourtada and Salem (2011) write that the political and societal changes sweeping the Arab region have empowered large portions of the population. Mourtada and Salem (2011) assert that stereotypes have been crushed, with Arab women and youth becoming the leading drivers for regional transformations. Particularly, Arab women have increasingly become engaged in civic and political actions, serving essential functions in the historic and rapid transformations that have occurred in the region (Marzouki 2015). Boczkowski, Matassi and Mitchelstein (2017) and Mourtada and Salem (2011) attribute the increased participation of the youth and women in political and civil practices to the social media that developed exponentially across the Arabic world starting 2011, coupled with major changes in forms of usage. Other than just offering people the chance to socialize and entertain them, social media now transforms every aspect of everyday life, influencing how people do business, interact with the government, or take part in civil society movements.

The influence of social media on the empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia has been highlighted repeatedly from 2011, but very few researches have been conducted to provide more insight into the area. The Gender and Public Policy Program and the Governance and Innovation Program (GIP) performed a joint study at the Dubai School of Government with the motive of exploring and explaining the virtual gender gap, the trends of social media usage, and the impact of social media as a tool for empowering women (Mourtada & Salem, 2011). The survey that ran from August to October 2011, targeting male and female participants of all ages showed that whereas it is essential to overcome the gender gap associated with social media use in Saudi Arabia where more males have the chance to use of express their views through social media, the online avenues enhances the participation of women in civic, economic, political, and legal areas (Mourtada & Salem, 2011). A larger percentage of men than women, for example, used social media to raise awareness, and spread information concerning the happenings leading to revolutions and uprisings during the Arab Spring and other uprisings (Gerbaudo & Trere 2015; Trere 2020). The study exposed that social media offered women the chance to express their feelings regarding the societal barriers and obstacles placed on them, which deny them the chance to progress with equal measure as men (Mourtada & Salem, 2011). The findings of the study indicates that social media changes how women engage in various issues that were initially impossible prior to the introduction of the technological innovation, which makes the social media platforms a suitable avenue for change.

Despite the initiatives put in place to improve women’s participation and social place using social media, the Saudi government is investing in pro-government groups that use social media avenues to attack and criticise activist groups. Manal al-Sharif decided to quit Facebook and Twitter stating that the social media avenues have become channels for oppressive states to silence and harass activists and campaigners (Graham-Harrison 2018). al-Sharif had managed to attract nearly 300,000 followers using her Twitter account to call for increased freedom and rights for women, but chose to close the account following her realization that the Saudi uses a lot of money to use leading social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to castigate campaigners, especially those who advocate for women’s rights (Graham-Harrison 2018). A Human Rights Watch report informs of The High Cost of Change document detailing ongoing abusive and arbitrary acts by the Saudi authorities targeting dissenting groups and activists since the start of 2017. The report detailed how despite the significant transformations for Saudi youth and women, the ongoing violations indicate that the rule of law in the Kingdom requires changes and can be toppled by the nation’s political leadership (Human Rights Watch 2020). The attempts to use social media to express the opinions of the oppressed populations in Saudi Arabia may not make significant strides if all parties do not support and embrace change, which entail switching from traditional media forms that are highly regulated by the government to social media which is user generated and managed.

The Global and Domestic Context of Women and Gender

Various countries all over the world – as well as numerous international organizations – have put in place several policies, legislations, and frameworks to curtail and correct the harmful gender stereotypes that have been affecting women for centuries. With women and girls constituting more than 50% of the world’s population, initiatives that boost their social inclusion is necessary to ensure the total well-being of the entire society (Newsom and Lengel 2012). However, the world is still a long way to achieving gender equity and social inclusion among the female gender. For example, employment opportunities and leadership positions are some areas where women all over the world have experienced acute discrimination (Hutchings, Lirio and Metcalfe 2012). As such, organizations such as UN Women have put in place various interventions to ensure women’s empowerment and to dismantle the human rights challenge of gender inequality. With the increasing desire for democracy and clean politics, various countries have started putting more pressure on the government to initiate gender equality intervention measures. “Processes of political liberalization have opened spaces for social movements in several parts of the developing world to articulate demands for more effective social policies that mitigate the effects of gender inequalities” (Hassim and Razavi 2006, pp. 1). While some countries have made major steps in this endeavour, others such as the MENA regions are still a long way to go.

One of the major calls during the Arab uprising was the call for gender equality and women’s rights. In this region, there are three major forces that have always affect the nature of gender dynamics: the traditional Islamic teachings regarding women and men; the inversion of western culture and their concept of women’s rights; and the existing jurisdictional policies and legislative frameworks which define gender (Megahed and Lack 2011). With the colonial legacy and the technological creation of the global village, various citizens of these regions have started appreciating the need to foster equal opportunities for the male and female gender. However, the cultural and religious constraints have played a major role in maintaining the traditional lens for viewing gender in these societies (Megahed and Lack 2011). According to a report by the United Nations Development Program, most women in the Arab world are still struggling to achieve fair treatment (Sika 2011). As opposed to their chauvinist male peers, women still have the least political participation, they have low access to education and employment, and all their activities, aspirations and conducts are watchfully monitored by tradition-minded kinfolk.

Saudi Arabia is one of the Arab countries with the highest rates of gender inequality and women discrimination. For Example, this country was the first to pass harsh and stereotypical legislation that banned women from driving (Bishin & Cherif 2018). While Saudi Arabia is among the world’s top 20 most industrialized countries, women still do not enjoy the rights that women do – curtesy of the mistreatment and discrimination that this society has subjected them to. Subsequently, the country has passed legislation that demands “subservient status of women, such as the “male guardian” legal requirement, which deprives women of autonomy in personal decisions, including the freedom to travel without the company of a man” (AlMofawez 2016). However, since 2011, there have been several shifts in the perception of gender in the Kingdom. Most Arab countries are now upgrading their gender rights with several of them adopting gender quotas (Bishin & Cherif 2018). Under these initiatives, policies are set to ensure that in any political or social undertaking there is a minimum percentage that must be represented by women. This move has resulted in increased access to education among Saudi women. Currently, 53% of women in the country have at least a college degree, with ranks very high in global comparison (AlMofawez 2016). However, this achievement has not reflected in the distribution of leadership and employment opportunities among women. As a result, several feminists and women rights activists have resorted to capitalizing on the power of social media to engage in this discourse and pressure the government and the society to appreciate and formulate more inclusive gender-based policies.

Social Media: A Tool for Voicing the Plight of Women and Gender Rights

Social media has acted as an important tool for voicing the pleas of women in countries all over the world. As mentioned before, social media provides an uncensored space where affected individuals and interested parties can discuss the problems, share experiences, and offer a solution to a political or social problem. Social media tools such as Twitter helps in mobilizing responses on particular socio-political issues, hence enabling women to talk freely about the problems that they face in their society. Social media offers a “media ecology mix in the conduct of environmental politics, playing a direct role in political communication, strategies, and actions” (Hutchins 2016). Using various initiatives through Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, Saudi women have initiated collaborative engagements in a bid to foster policy deliberations and demand for more inclusive policies by the government (Newsom and Lengel 2012). Using the SNSs tools, these women have managed to mobilize various like-minded individuals in order to speak as one voice and share their frustrations with the public (Keller 2012). As such, the rise of social media has made the Saudi women experience a major shift from a system where issues such as gender equality were censored to a society where they can make these issues public discussions.

Through social media, debates such as disproportionate employment opportunities in the country have become public discourse. Even with high levels of academic achievements, Saudi women still face discrimination in regard to employment and leadership opportunities. A study by Syed, Ali and Hennekam (2018) concluded that this unfortunate status is a result of socio-cultural factors defined by the wasta which calls for modesty and family honour among women while encouraging gender segregation and discrimination in regard to work. A study was done by Global Gender Gap Report (WEF) (2017) revealed that Saudi Arabia has one of the widest gender gaps in the world – ranked at position 138 out of 144 countries – making it very difficult for women to achieve equal economic and political empowerment. Similarly, the wage gap between men and women is wide, with women getting at least 40% lower than men for a similar job (Syed, Ali and Hennekam 2018). Labour market participation is also is still at a ration of 2:8 in favour of men – as much as the literacy levels between men and women are as impressive and 96.5% and 91% for men and women respectively (WEF, 2017). These are some of the statistics that the general population may not be aware of. By using social media, such information has been disseminated and the experience of their repercussions has been shared by various women in the country.

Social media has provided an opportunity for people to understand the injustices among women as they hear them from the narrators’ voices. The patriarchal structure of the Saudi community has subjected women to a position where most of their fates are determined by the males in the society (Alwedinani 2016). Some women who have come from such backgrounds are more likely to see no problem in the oppression and the discrimination that they face. However, there is a section of women, as well as men, who have realized the atrocities that this social system has burdened the female gender with. As such, they have used various approaches to air their grievances and push for positive social changes. Through social media, women have gotten the opportunity to bargain for better social status, resist oppressive policies, and negotiate with the existing patriarchal regime to consider formulating more inclusive policies (Alwedinani 2016). Several women have been pushed to planned marriages, discriminated, forced to work in dismal and humiliating conditions, and even barred from essential undertakings such as driving (Keskġn and Turan 2017). These occurrences have resulted in painful experiences that several women now share through their social media handles. By sharing experiences and knowledge regarding this topic, powerful discourses have been initiated. Such discourses have resulted in gender activism and the push for social change.

Through social media, feminist and women rights activists have the opportunity to share knowledge with the public, helping the victims of gender oppression, and fostering a positive relationship between men and women. One of the ways through which women activists have won the hearts of the public is through sharing the dismal statistics regarding gender inequality in the country (Xiong, Cho and Boatwright 2019). Through social media, feminists can offer public education women rights and the existing Saudi policies and culture that should be blamed for the women’s oppression. Subsequently, it has become apparent that millions of Saudi women are victims of oppression and discriminative marriage laws (Voorhoeve 2012). Some conservationists still push for planned marriages and strict sexual rules that only apply to women. In several cases, women who have tried to defy such laws to end up victims of severe punitive measures such as being disowned by the family. Through social media, some of these victims get to share such experiences and even get help from willing individuals (Manikonda, Beigi, Liu and Kambhampati 2018). Such undertakings have not only provided solace to the victims but also opened eyes of the public on how adverse some of these gender-based laws can be polarizing.

Subsequently, social media has provided an opportunity for feminists and gender rights activists to bring men into the fight and foster a healthy partnership between men and women. In order to fight for the rights of women, it is imperative that men are equally part of this battle (Messner, Greenberg and Peretz 2015). Over the last decade, more men have seen the overall benefit of giving women equal opportunities (Baily 2015). As such, several men have joined the bandwagon of feminism, fighting to topple discriminative gender laws in various counters all over the world. A study which was done by Wiley, Srinivasan, Finke, Firnhaber, and Shilinsky (2013) revealed that bringing men into this struggle for gender equality fosters a sense of solidarity with feminists hence creating a collective force to support women. Such an undertaking has become more popular mainly due to the increasing use of social media in feminist campaigns. For this reason, Social media has created a platform where women can bring men on board and join forces to put more pressure on the government and conservatists to end gender-discriminative laws and policies.

Social Media as a Tool for Normative Change

The social norms are based on social paradigms which were set and enforced by those who existed before. In the Arabic culture, most of these norms are based on Islamic teachings and Arabic traditions (Wekke 2015). However, with the dynamics in contemporary society, changes have become inevitable – against the backdrop of strong cultural bonds. While part of the society has adopted a liberal approach to issues, there are reactionaries that will always advocate for strong adherence to traditions (Driver 2013). With a sharp divide between the liberals and the conservatists, the former has to work harder to dislodge these deeply-rooted beliefs. Social media has provided the tool and platform for advocating for such normative change (Müller 2015). One way in which liberalists and activists have affected this change is by fighting for deliberative democracy. Rishel (2011) undertook an empirical study to explore the effect of social media in achieving an optimum citizen engagement for an effective normative change. The researcher concluded that “social media have the capacity to fundamentally shift the normative dimensions of deliberative democracy” and facilitate the replacement of archaic cultural practices with those relevant to the contemporary society (p. 411). As such, the people of Saudi Arabia are now capable of calling for these changes without the fear of censorship and control that was the characteristic of the traditional media.

Currently, the Arab world is undergoing drastic cultural change. This change can be attributed to the open communication which has grown among citizens as well as between the government and the people. Through social participation, there has been an increased engagement on social issues and several debates on cultural norms that others consider to be retrogressive (Rotman et al. 2011). With the growth of social media, there has been a transformative impact on media and information dissemination, especially in less democratic regimes. As Mabweazara (2014) puts it, “the interactivity and ‘viral connections’ engendered by social media have facilitated a rise in User Generated Content (UGC), which has impacted upon the broader ecology of the news media as well as challenged the traditional cultures and norms” (p. 75). However, such endeavours are even more complex in countries with strong cultural ties such as Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Müller (2015) undertook a similar study but with the context of Malaysia – another country with strong Islamic ties. Using the case of the Islamic party of Malaysia (PAS), he found out that the party has become more flexible, accommodating modern popular culture. Through social media activism and communication, PAS has changed dramatically from a group of conservative zealots that endeavoured to prevent any normative change to one that now has given room for cultural change (Müller 2015). If social media could be this effective in Malaysia, its impact on the Saudi Arabian culture cannot be gainsaid.

Social media has, and can still be used as a normative change agent in melting down the traditional concept of gender. Over, SNSs have played a vital role in creating major changes in the fight for women’s rights. Through such social media campaigns, the public has been made aware of the plights of women – calling for normative transformation within various societies. One of the most significant examples where social media has transformed the women’s status quo is the #MeToo campaign. As much as this is an American example, it provides a vivid picture of how social media can bring people together and form a collaborative force towards fighting transformative movements. As much as this hashtag was originally coined by African American women’s rights Activists in 2006, it gained popularity form October 2017 in response to raising an allegation of sexual assaults in Hollywood (Mendes Ringrose and Keller 2018). On 24th October 2017, Alyssa Milano went to Twitter and to share the traumatic experience of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein. In response, several women (and even men) came out, using the hashtag #MeToo similar experiences that they have had working in the same industry. Influential individuals such as Terry Cruz came out and narrated traumatizing experiences that most people thoughts were a reserve for women only. By the end of this campaign, several culprits were named and subjected to lawsuits and contract terminations (Mendes Ringrose and Keller 2018). This social media movement enforced a radical change in the entertainment industry, creating a major milestone in the fight against gender oppression and normative transformation in rape culture.

Social media has been and can still be used to correct the culture of rape and the laws pertaining to the victim and the culprit. In 2007, a case of a 19-years old woman who was raped and sentenced to jail for the same hit the international media. The woman was raped and took the matter to the court. Number of Arab nations, where the courts are guided by sharia law. However, in several cases, rape is considered as tazir – a crime whose punishment is not stipulated in the Quran or Sunna (Tonnessen 2016). As such, the resulting judicial precedence is guided by the discriminative tendency towards women, resulting in victims of rape getting punished while the culprits do not receive the appropriate punishment (Haddad 2017). In his judgment, the judge sentenced the raped woman to a 6 month in jail and 200 lashings, citing the violation of gender segregation law which forbids women to associate with men who they are not related to (Harrison 2007). The Saudi Arabian judicial system has given more emphasis on sex segregation with more interest in punishing gender mixing as opposed to sexual assault. As such, cases of rape are often left in the hand of the judges – with no codified Penal Codes – who are often keen to punish both the rapist and the victim for associating with men they are not related to (Tonnessen 2016). In several Arab countries, when the rapist could legally marries the rape victim, the case becomes null and void with nobody getting punished for this atrocious act (Haddad 2017). Even with these discriminative laws, the mainstream media still giver very little emphasis on providing the true picture of sexual violence and women’s oppression in the country.

While the traditional media censures the violence and oppressions that Arab women undergo, social media has provided an alternative through which these painful voices can be heard. Halim and Meyers (2010) undertook a study to examine the rate of traditional media coverage of violence and sexual assault among women and resultant implications. The scholars found out that there are major censorships on broadcasting such news, resulting in insufficient public information regarding these vices. Furthermore, the coverage blatantly ignores the systematic nature of these oppressions and its association with the patriarchal and male supremacy ideology in the region (Halim and Meyers 2010). However, social media has provided a convenient alternative with uncensored space where victims and concerned individuals can have an effective conversation on the same. According to Rentschler (2014), social media has been pivotal in fighting the culture of rape and gender-based violence by building an effective feminist network and providing a platform for online criticism and activism. Through SNSs, different generations of feminists can come together and collaborate in a bid to create a more conducive environment which provides for women inclusion. Through “social media-organized movements and communities like #MeToo and #BeenRapedNeverReported, feminists are using participatory digital media as activist tools to speak, network, and organize against sexism, misogyny, and rape culture” (Mendes, Ringrose and Keller 2019). Social media has resulted in normative change by encouraging debates that fight the misogynistic culture and push for gender equality.

Human Right Discourse on Social Media

Saudi Arabia, as well as other international organizations, face several concerns regarding human rights provisions form various international bodies. On several occasions, Amnesty International, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and other rights organizations have pointed out to specific human rights concerns which they believe to ail the social welfare of the citizens (Gallagher 2005; Cox 2010). Nonetheless, in the recent past, the country has made major milestones in achieving standard human rights levels. The government has assented to various UN human rights instruments and signed various international treaties to eliminate human right violation and discrimination of women (Alhargan 2012). However, the implementation of these treaties has not demonstrated a positive outcome as the citizens of this country still suffer from various elements of human rights violations (Alhargan 2012). Against this backdrop, several rights organizations have sprung in the region, with activists pushing for social and political revolutions.  Harrelson-Stephens and Callaway (2014) undertook a study to establish the level of resiliency of the Arab human rights regime, using the cases of Arab Spring. The authors concluded that “Access to new forms of social media allowed civil society to organize, publicize, and protest relatively efficiently. Social media expanded the potential role of individuals and created newly empowered latent human rights activists who emerged as leaders of the norm diffusion process” (p. 413). As such, social media has demonstrated its effectiveness in addressing human rights discourse.

Social media plays an important role in the fight for human rights and the eventual need for political such in such endeavours. As much as the country has made major steps in correcting most of its rights policies, the existing violations have still attracted several protests and activisms. During the 2011 Arab Spring, a faction of the Saudi dissidents attempted public protest – and endeavour which was thwarted by the authorities leading to the arrest of several protestors (The Guardian 2011). Amidst such strict laws, social media has provided a platform where people can successfully undertake political protest without much interference from the government. Social media provides access to information that, subsequently, create conversations and debates from which various political opinions are formed (Shirky 2011). As Shirky puts it, “access to information is less important, politically than access to conversation” (p. 49). Social media has created an important facilitator to mass communication from which people can have both one-to-one conversations as well as collaborative discussions in a bid to push for political changes on human rights. This salient effectiveness of social media in this endeavour is borne from the governments’ attempts to limit, block and monitor the production, dissemination and consumption of mainstream media products.

Subsequently, social media has enabled activists within the country to interact with those outside the country for support and information sharing. Now, the people of Saudi Arabia are able to compare their socio-political issues with those in the western world in order to appreciate the need to push for more changes (Greco 2016). “Activists use information technologies to promote a movement’s main ideas and gain global support” (Sandoval-Almazan and Gil-Garcia 2014). By sharing their problems with the whole world through social media tools such as twitter, various rights activists have obtained immense support form major rights organization – with others criticizing the government and calling for major socio-political changes. For example, Saudi Arabia has jailed several women rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul, Hatoon al-Fassi and Eman al-Nafjan for pointing out at the government’s complacency in fighting women oppression (Kalin 2019). However, through social media, these detentions have become an issue of global concern with various organizational all over the world putting pressure on the Saudi government to release these activists. Hence, social media plays an important role in connecting rights activists with other activists as well as with human rights organizations all over the world.

As social media bring people together towards social movements, it helps in championing and instigating social resistance and protest against an oppressive political power. A study by Chiluwa (2012) aims at expounding the effectiveness of social media in creating and pushing for discourses of resistance. The scholar concludes that social media is important in creating an ideology that may encourage the public to participate in social resistance. Wilson and Stapleton (2007) maintained that resistance occurs mainly through political and social discourse. Normally, the process starts with an individual or a group of people come to start showing concern about some political or social issues (Treré 2015). Through social media, these people can create pragmatic strategies and thematic framework by collaborating and creating a discourse for resistance (Velasquez and LaRose 2015). By creating this discourse, more people start to see the need for resistance. Through social media, the activists can share the benefits of fighting for the course, regardless of imminent consequences (Sandoval-Almazan and Gil-Garcia 2014). As such, social media creates a strong political force that may culminate in a protest in a bid to fight for human rights.

Social Media as an Instigator of Political Participation in Less Democratic Regimes

            Social Movements in Saudi Arabia

Jurisdictions within the Middle East, especially the Gulf Region is mainly characterised with the undemocratic and authoritarian political system. Saudi Arabia, for example, political leadership is a reserve for a few selected elites with the remaining population having almost no chance of leading the country (Abir 2019). As such, very few people are interested in involving themselves in political issues. Subsequently, there are scared by the government’s tendency to subjecting political dissidents to punishments – forcing them to either accept the existing political system or decide to keep quiet about it. The royal family have managed to keep the status quo by suppressing any form of democratic endeavours by the general public. A Saudi Prince once said “We, who studied in the West, are of course in favour of democracy. As a matter of fact, we are the only true democrats in this country. But if we give people the right to vote, who do you think they’ll elect? The Islamists. It is not that we don’t want to introduce democracy in Arabia—but would it be reasonable?” (Ménoret 2016, p. 1). This has always been the mentality of the country’s elites, claiming that the Islamists can never observe democracy even if they are democratically elected. The irony is that the Saudi leadership is suppressing democracy so that they can maintain their own form of democracy. For this reason, dozens of thousands have been imprisoned and even executed for attempting to disrupt the regime continuity (Sloan 2014). Despite the repressive environment and dire consequences, a number of Islamism-inspired social movements have sprung in Saudi Arabia, protesting or attempting to protest the existing political regime.

One of the earliest social movements in the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the Sunni Islamist Movement – which was also referred to as the Islamic Awakening. This movement was organized by the Sahwa which was a combination of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. While the Salafis believed that the religious morality of the Kingdom should start from an individual level, Muslim Brotherhood argued that this society can only be reformed if the state takes the mantle in exercising absolute moral authority (Ménoret 2016). One thing that the two groups believed in was that people should not use religion as a way of immersing and maintaining power. They accused the Al Saud royal family of subjecting religion to politics and political powers (Ménoret 2016). They believed that the royal family is subverting the will of God by mobilizing religious networks so that they can gain power which they use as a bargaining chip in their collaboration with other countries such as the United States and Middle East (Al-Rasheed 2006). For this reason, during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, the Sahwa organized protest movement in response to Saudi’s alliance with the Americans. The former was used by the US as a major launching ground during the war – a situation that the Islamists considered a gross violation of Islam teachings (Al-Rasheed 2002). They also demonstrated against other political vices such as “independence of the judiciary, respect for human rights, freedom of expression, a ban on torture, a stronger welfare state, and an end to corruption” (Ménoret 2016). In response, the Saudi government repressed this movement by torturing and killing protestors, while sentencing others to prison.

One of the relatively recent political movements which have taken place in Saudi Arabia is the one which was headed by the Association for Political and Civil Rights (HASM) which is referred to as jam‘iyya al-huquq al-siyasiyya wa-l-madaniyya  in Arabic. This organization was founded by human rights advocates, Sahwa activists, and other civil society activists. HASM’s major contribution was that it reinvented the concept of Islamism and converted it into civil society activism with the main aim of creating political reforms (Al-Rasheed 2016). They used a nonviolent approach to protesting while encouraging the philosophy of “struggling by words.” (Al-Rasheed 2016). Their primary means of opposing the state was founded on the peaceful struggle which involved public speeches that pointed out of the political and social problems that need to be addressed. While HASM encouraged peaceful demonstrations, they are advised the government to stop repression of peaceful protest as it will accelerate political violence. Despite the peaceful nature of HASM, the members were arrested and subjected to public trials. According to a study by Ménoret (2016), their trials provided an opportunity for other activists to push further for advocacy and collective action – in response to the level injustices that the Saudi government was demonstrating in this case. Through the Riyadh Specialized Court, the founders of HASM and other members were sentenced to long-term imprisonments. This court was formulated in 2008 to try and sentence terror suspects and terrorism cases (Baitalmal 2019). In 2013, the same court dissolved HASM and categorised it as a terror organization. This is an example of dozens of other cases where activists are considered terrorists pursuant to the vague definition of this term in the country’s legal system.

Another social movement which has hit the political fabric of Saudi Arabia is the Anti-Corruption movement which started in 2009. On November 25, 2009, marked the “Black Wednesday” for the people of Jeddah – a major port city in Saudi Arabia (Momani and Fadil 2010). This day was characterised by heavy rain and storm which resulted in flooding. The flooding resulted in the destruction of properties worth millions, with approximately 400 people losing their lives (Momani and Fadil 2010). This catastrophe occurred during the time of the Mecca pilgrimage. As such, most of the security, civil defence workers, as well as firefighters were deployed to the Holy City, leaving Jeddah with no substantial government support. It was now the residents and few activists who took the role of providing aid to the flood victims. Other organizations such as pro-Palestine activist networks, Sunni Islamists, and architectural conservationists led the process of mobilizing support and rescue for the victims (Ménoret 2016). Using social media and other communication platforms, activists launched a relentless pursuit to find the answer. They soon realised that the municipal government was responsible for the adverse effect of the flood. They accused the local government of haphazardly providing building permits without following the due process and failing to properly manage stormwater systems. The activists posited that the disaster was manmade as the municipal government failed to provide a proper development of flood plain, maintenance of drainage, and provision of sufficient sewer connections (Momani and Fadil 2010). This is one of the few cases in Saudi Arabia where the activists won the favour of the government. After a commission of inquiry which was created by King Abdullah, several municipal officials were found callable and sentenced to jail (Al-Sibyani 2013). Through collaboration and effective communication, the activists were able to influence the decision of the government which provided them with the justice they sought.

Another significant social movement that has taken place in Saudi Arabia is the anti-repression movement. This movement was borne from the collaboration between the Saudi government and the US in their war on terror. After the 9/11 bombing, the US used Saudi Arabia as a major base for evidence collection and suspect interrogation of the alleged Al-Qaeda members (FBI 2004). During this period, thousands of Islamists “disappeared” in the hands of the security forces. Subsequently, there were tens of thousands of political prisoners on the Saudi prisons (Alsharif 2011). These prisoners underwent obscene violations of human rights. They were tortured, raped, forced to confess, and subjected to inhuman physical punishments (Sampson 2005). Any effort by the public and the activists to lobby for justice among the suspects was forcefully thwarted by the Saudi government. Due to the high levels of repression, more people became conscious of the atrocities that the government was subjecting to the terror suspects (Ménoret 2016). As such, several family members of the prisoners started demanding due process for their loved ones. This case is an example of a social movement that was accelerated by repression rather than being slowed by it. As more prisoners were getting arrested, more family members joined the activist group. This process has resulted in one of the most significant social movements in the country.

This social movement is one of the most unique ones with most of its elements still present in the country to the present time. The peaceful project was officially launched in October 2003 and was ironically headed by the Interior Ministry. Thousands of political prisoners’ families and friends gathered around the Riyadh Human Rights Conference, while others made sit-ins in various Riyadh mosques. Some of these protests involved camping in front of the Interior Ministry’s offices as well as confronting the police officers (Ménoret 2016). Even with the end of the US war against Al-Qaida, the Saudi Government still has hundreds of political prisoners which have solicited continuous demonstrations in demand for proper due process. Even during the 2011 Arab uprisings, the protests continued in the country, with women chanting and making slogans compelling the government to release the prisoners (Al-Rasheed 2016). In order to repress the continuation of these protests, the Saudi government formulated a royal decree which provided a general, vague and incriminating definition of terrorism. According to this decree, terrorism was defined as “any action that is aimed at harming public order, or disturbing the security of society or the continuity of the state, or insulting the reputation of the state” (Royal Decree 2013). The decree further stipulated that any act that propagates the tendency of atheism, any form of doubt towards the Islamic law, allegiance or membership to any political party, organizing and participating in sit-ins, attending meeting that may bring discord to the society, and any form of political dissidence will be considered as an act of terror. With such a vague and broad definition of terrorism, every act of activism in the country is now considered terrorism. As such, several activists have been jailed, for trying to push for social or political change.

How Social Media has Increased Political Participation

While some of these social movements failed miserably amidst the government repressions, those that occurred later after the onset of social media tended to have registered some elements of success. The main cause of failure in the past movements has been the lack of collaboration and collective force from all geographical locations of the country. However, of late, this problem has been addressed by the power of social media. The anti-repression movements continue to rise in the country with hundreds of activists going to jail while others even lose their lives in this endeavour (Wilson and Graham 2016). However, the most important factor is that, despite the endless effort by the government to thwart dissent, more forces are coming up, fighting for the same course. Currently, the world is aware of the atrocities in which Saudi political prisoners are subjected – thanks to the power of social media. For example, a leaked medical report of these prisoners, which was disseminated using social media tools, has revealed that most of them are suffering from bruises, cuts, burns, and malnutrition (Hopkins, Kirchgaessner and Shaheen 2019). This is an indication of the torture and the physical abuse that these people undergo. Another common example was the murder of Jamal Khashoggi – a prominent Saudi dissident journalist – by the Saudi Agents in Saudi’s consulate in Istanbul (Roth 2019). Through social media, this information reached the whole world, soliciting condemnation from various rights organizations globally. In response to the global pressure, mainly accelerated by Twitter and Facebook, the Saudi government sentenced some of the agents to execution and others to long jail terms (Hubbard 2019). These examples are some of the very several cases where social media has acted as a tool for pushing for political change and involvement.

Social media provides uncensored space that the government cannot control but has a crucial effect on shaping individual decisions in relation to political participation. Tufekci and Wilson (2012) undertook a study to explore the effect of social media on the public’s involvement in political and civic issues. They found out that, through social media, individuals are more influenced to participate in protests, organize for the logistics of protest, and even have more chances of success in such an endeavour. People learn about these protests and political participation primarily through Twitter and Facebook posts. “Controlling for other factors, social media use greatly increased the odds that a respondent attended protests on the first day” (Tufekci and Wilson 2012, p. 363). Halpern, Valenzuela and Katz (2017) conducted a parallel study to understand how sharing of political contents and news via social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook can influence an individual’s decision to participate in political activities. They concluded that “frequent usage of Facebook and Twitter for sharing political information is conducive to higher levels of participation through different efficacy measures” (p. 320). Social media posts help in exposing the weak ties that exist among citizens and help in augmenting the user’s likelihood to learn about an impending political action and participate in the same (Gil de Zúñiga, Jung and Valenzuela 2012). From what others post or share, new people learn of an existing political or social issue that needs to be addressed. By facilitating the learning of these political issues and appreciating their gravity, social media influence more people to participate in these activities while offering a platform for collaboration and organization of these endeavours (Xenos, Vromen and Loader 2014). Hence, social media has made political issues more contagious, calling for maximum public participation.

Political participation does not only involve protests and sit-ins but also entails the ability of individual citizens to communicate and share their political views. With the traditional media system, citizens were confined as consumers of political news, without any chance of their thoughts getting shared out (Skoric and Poor 2013). However, with social media, every individual has the chance to speak out and to participate in political discourse. In their study, Gil de Zúñiga, Molyneux and Zheng (2014) endeavoured to examine the role of social media in political expression among citizens. They found out that social media is not just a tool for social interactions but also a platform for political engagement and discussions among the people. They concluded that “social media news use has direct effects on offline political participation and indirect effects on offline and online political participation mediated via a political expression” (p. 612). By opening an avenue for open political discussion, even young adults are now drawn to engage in such discourses. For a long time, young adults found very little interest in political issues (Xenos, Vromen and Loader 2014). This trend was mainly attributed to the fact that youths were mostly excluded from leadership posts and those that purport to represent them did very little to ensure their inclusion. However, with social media, the curtain has been broken and everybody can now say what they feel regarding various political discourses. With social media, the public is exposed to up-to-the-minute information on political and social issues, hence giving them a better opportunity for political expressions (Kushin and Yamamoto 2010). As such, as more people use social media, a larger percentage of the public get to involve in political expressions and discussions.

The Current Evidence of Social Media Benefits

Benefits of Socio-Political Movements

Before the rise of social media, social movements and political dissidence in the country were unimaginable endeavours. Any effort to such a course was thwarted by the government’s repressive policies. This trend has not changed much, but what has changed is the resilience of the people. While the previous movements were easily destroyed by the government, the current ones tend to continue amidst the government’s intimidations (Davis 2015). According to Davis (2015), the major political dynamics that the country has experienced in the last couple of years have been largely attributed to the spread and intensified use of social media in Saudi Arabia. SNSs have played major roles in deepening civil society and creating politically liberalized reforms for effective and positive socio-political movements. A country like Saudi Arabia does not encourage self-determination, but social media has broadened the state-society dialogues which have engendered the process of widening the political space (Davis 2015). Since 2010, the Arab world has experienced waves of political uprisings, an indication that there has been a major growth in the political awareness at the grassroots levels, which has prompted the endeavour for inclusiveness in the political systems (Lynch 2012). By using social media tools as a way of information dissemination, the country has experienced pluralization of political ideas and opinions, enhancement in the political expectations of the public and development of a collective political space for the people of Saudi Arabia (Lynch 2012). As Davis (2015) puts it, social media has transformed the Saudi Arabian political system by “increasing the plurality of voices, enhancing popular interaction, and facilitating “political and civic engagement” (p. 2). Through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, political persecutions, acts of human oppression, protest techniques, and martyr narratives can go viral making more people develop the need for political participation. As such, the new changes evident in the contemporary Saudi political systems are majorly attributed to the disruptive nature of social media.

One of the most influential social movements in the Arab world is the Arab uprisings which started in 2011. As opposed to most socio-political protests in the region’s history, these uprisings bore some fundamental fruits. While the earlier movements were thwarted before they could become successful the Arab uprisings were successful in several countries such as Egypt, Sudan, and Tunisia. Several scholars (Rane and Salem 2012; Wolfsfeld, Segev and Sheafer 2013; and Markham 2014) have attributed the success of the Arab uprisings to the disruptive nature of social media. Most of them argue that the earlier movements did not become successful because it was more difficult to bring people together and collaborate with these protests. However, with social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter, organizations of such protests became simpler as one would easily Tweet or share the information via SNS tools. As such, “the use of social media in the Arab uprisings has significant implications for diffusion theory in terms of contact and identity among the social movements involved” (Rane and Salem 2012, p. 97). As opposed to the failed revolutions in the past, the “Twitter and Facebook Revolutions” have proved to be more successful in the Arab world. Several long-standing regimes in the Middle East and North Africa have been toppled by these social media-induced revolutions. Some of the regimes that have been changed by these uprisings include Egypt where President Hosni Mubarak was ousted, Tunisia where president Ben Ali was taken away from his seat, and Libya where they toppled president Muammar Gaddafi. Subsequently, these movements have forced countries such as Yemen, Syria, Jordan, and Bahrain to make major socio-political reforms and concessions. For example, Syria and Bahrain have been forced – through peaceful protest – to formulated legislative provisions that will address the lethal force which has been used in these countries (Rane and Salem 2012). For this reason, it is empirical to contend that the power of social media is yet to create some major social and political changes in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Benefits on Women and Gender Equality

While several feminist activist movements have faced major repression form the government, there have been major breakthroughs in the fight for gender equality in Saudi Arabia. It is important to underscore the fact that there are several feminists and women rights activists who are still behind bars, charged with “terrorism”. However, the force which has been magnified by social media has become more overwhelming. Currently, Saudi Arabia is enacting various legislations and policy changed to expand the rights of women in the country. For example, Saudi women were never allowed to travel without the consent of their husbands or male guardians. In a bid to loosen the demeaning restriction on women, the Kingdom has made a provision that women who have attained the age of 21 years can now travel without the consent or permission of the male guardians (Pepper 2019). With the pressure from the public and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s need for modernizing the country, several drastic measures have been made – some which even contravene fundamental principles of the Islamists. According to Pepper (2019), bin Salman’s actions are not only attributed to his endeavour for modernizing the Saudi culture but also the pressure he has gotten from several factions all over the world in response to the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. Other important reforms that the country has witnessed include allowing women to drive and increasing the number of women in Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers (Abumaria 2019). As such, the rise and dynamics of social media have informed major milestones in the fight against gender inequality in Saudi Arabia.

Social media networks have become very critical in the organization and disposition of women’s rights’ social movements. The social media tools “help recruit members, sustain organizations, nourish participants’ movement identities, and disseminate information” (Crossley 2015). Over the last decade, there has been a tremendous shift in feminist movements in the Arab world. Initially, the common movements in the region were more political and religious. Political protests were mainly instigated by what Islamists considered a violation of Islam laws. However, as the world becomes more connected, especially through social media, other forms of social movements have intensified. The success of the Arab spring and the effective use of social media during the period facilitated the creation and revitalization of feminists’ movements in the region (Al-Rawi 2014). In other words, it is the success of social media in other forms of a social movement which ignited the rise of feminist activism in the region. In as much as some of these activists are still behind bars, the country has been seeing the dawn of new progressive policies regarding women and gender rights. Through social media, both men and women can now come together in a bid call for changes. “These online movements, which were organized by Arab women who challenged moral codes, stereotypes, and old customs, are never confined to specific countries as they seem to unite several Arab women and men from different states, forming collective identity and character” (Al-Rawi 2014, p. 1147). Hence, it is logical to attribute the major gender-based milestones that Saudi Arabia has experienced in the recent past to the growth and expansion of social media in the country. While social media has provided platform for engaging in social and political issues regarding gender and human rights, it is still important to mentions some areas in which this technology has helped in improving the welfare of the society. Below are some other areas in which SNSs have played vital roles in.

Social Media as Source of News and Information for Public Consumption

Production and Dissemination of News

Social media has become a real-time and efficient source of news for billions of people all over the world. With this technological advancement, most people do not need o read a newspaper or watch television for them to get news updates. Over the last few years, various major news organizations have rushed into the social media space, using tools such as Twitter and Facebook to market and distribute their news content. A study by Hermida, Fletcher, Korell and Logan (2012) revealed that two-fifths of all social media users receive news shared by people that they follow on these social media platforms, while a fifth reported that they regularly receive news for individual journalists and news organizations that they follow. The reason for the preference of social media as a source of news is becoming more prevalent because it helps users to get access to a wide array of news and to keep up with real-time events. In a study done by Marwick and Boyd (2011), the result suggested that social media has played a vital role in disrupting the traditional authorial structure where news was created and disseminated with a structured flow of information. With this new advancement in technology, the audience does not only consume the news but also engage in discourses created by such information.

SNSs tools such as Twitter enable the users to network among various audiences and offer a platform where news can be created and exchanged through the model of several-to-several. In other words, in social media, the connection is not just between the audience and the author of the news, but also among other news consumers. As such, as opposed to the traditional news media, social media gives the news consumers the opportunity to interact and share their thoughts regarding the news (Hermida, Fletcher, Korell and Logan 2012). Social media creates a networked mode of communication altering the entire publishing dynamics and shifting the roles of the audience from mere consumers to participants in the news dissemination and collaborative discussion on issues culminating as a result of such news. Marwick and Boyd (2011) portend that, “in contrast to the imagined broadcast audience, which consumes institutionally-created content with limited possibilities for feedback, the networked audience has a clear way to communicate with the speaker through the network” (p. 129). Social media sites form the latest generation of the public sphere where one creates a piece of information, share it with those whom they share a connection, and create a political, social, or economic discourse on which they can debate over.

While the traditional news media only had the provision for news creation and dissemination, social media has now created a space in which such news can be shared among millions of people, discussed, and provides an opportunity for the audience to contribute to the news. A study done by Purcel et al. (2010) revealed that over 75% of online news consumers receive most of their news from links shared through social media sites such as Facebook. Subsequently, Facebook and Twitter have emerged as the major source of news traffic where individual journalists, news organizations, leaders and members of the public share news (Olmstead, Mitchell and Rosenstiel 2011). As such, major news organizations have adjusted to such trends towards social media. These organizations are now using these social media sites to share links containing news and encouraging users to “like” and “retweet” such information (Singer et al., 2011). By so doing, the information reaches more people with little effort on the side of the media houses. Subsequently, using the audience to share the news via their social media sites, media houses have gotten the opportunity to promote their content while increasing visibility and promoting customer loyalty.

With sharing and discussing news items, social media provides journalists with the opportunity to assess the desirability and level of importance in relation to news selection and distribution. Social media has reshaped the relationship between the news producer and the consumers. As opposed to the traditional trend where the producers had autonomy in deciding what to share and how to share it, social media has created a situation where the audience decides on what they need and how they want the information to be presented (Grzywinska and Borden 2012). Through social media, news organizations are now “understanding not only what content users will want to consume but also what content they are likely to pass along may be a key to how stories are put together and even what stories get covered in the first place” (Olmstead, Mitchell and Rosenstiel 2011, p. 1). As such, social media has created major dynamics in the news production and dissemination industry with a shift from journalist-centred to consumer-centred.

As early as the 1990s, satellite channels were the main sources of news in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. The main broadcast players in the industry were Al-Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which were the only satellite television channels that aired news 24-hours. Al-Jazeera was even more invasive and controversial as it talked on an issue such as human rights and gave airtime even for Arab dissidents (Harb 2011). As such, these news organizations played a vital role in influencing political change in the region. However, with the rise in the use of social media, the spreading of news has become even more efficient. For this reason, major political movement – which relies heavily on news dissemination and reception – has become successful, thanks to the power of these social networking sites. For example, the success of the revolution in Tunisia can be credited to social media as these SNSs became major tools for mobilization and spread of news (Harb 2011). Hussain and Ahmad (2014) undertook a study to examine the extent to which online newspaper companies have used social media to spread the news within the Saudi Arabian context. These scholars concluded that these companies have benefited by integrating social media handles on their websites. This finding was further reinforced by a study conducted by Lee and Ma (2012), where they portended that the exponential trend of this culture is mainly attributed to the benefits of using social media in the news broadcast industry. The scholars portended that sharing news through social media enables the public to participate in the process of production and diffusion of news contents.

The ease with which information is generated and distributed through social media serves vital roles in promoting the growth of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The ability to reach many people within a short period and the ability to create and distribute content without government criticism or editorial review encourage many women to interact through social media avenues while expression their views without any fears as it would happen when using the conventional means (Reuters 2017). Women get the chance to share their tribulations on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, and discuss some of the social and legal aspects that need to change to become more independent and respected in the society. Social media give women to grow their affairs in the country because they get adequate time to discuss how the patriarchal society and regulations impact on their progress, and how it denies them their fundamental human rights (Bergstrom & Belfrage 2018). Women get undisturbed opportunity to address the effects of female genital mutilation, domestic violence, and sexual harassment that are some of the major issues hindering the growth of women in the region (Abu-Hantash 2017). Women should not relent on their use of social media to advocate for growth considering that they can express their opinions without any fears of criticism or detention because Abu-Hantash (2017) discovers that even Westerners acknowledge social media a cure for the social and political oppressions against some groups.  Saudi women should see social media as a suitabnle opportunity to make their voices more audible.

The content on social media platforms is generated and distributed by the users and are free from government restrictions, which offers the chance to improve discourse on gender inequality. Many women authors and activists consider social media avenues as appropriate places where they can post their publications and get to interact with people on their subjects (Odine 2013). The use of social media to promote discourse on women empowerment earned three Saudi Arabian women awards in 2011 after the Nobel Peace Prize Committee rewarded them for their non-struggle approach to advocate for safety of women and full participation in peace-building initiatives (Odine 2013). Odine (2013) refers to Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt and Libya where women made use of social media to post content that helped to empower women. The freedom users enjoy while using social media offer women the chance to advocate for the content and discourse that they produce.

The authors and activists feel that social media avenues provide the autonomy that is highly needed when advocating for change, especially from a government that does not put enough emphasis on achieving gender equality. The ability to generate and share content without much restriction give authors and female scholars from various part of the Kingdom the chance to meet and deliberate on some of the issues that women face, and to come up with common views of overcoming the challenges through increased advocacy without relenting to the increased opposition against campaigners (Rampersad & Althiyab 2019). Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has one of the highest forms of censorship globally, its capacity as a country with the highest number of internet users among Arabic nations offer the chance to reach many people through the content posted on social media platforms (Rampersad & Althiyab 2019). Feminist scholars can now plan for meetings and seminars with the lifting of the ban against driving by women creating more opportunity to come together as women and form discourses that improve the welfare of Saudi women.

The spread of Knowledge and Information

Social media plays a vital role in the sharing of vital information for general knowledge, tacit knowledge, strategic planning, or positive experience. As such, the SNSs now provided a platform for knowledge sharing which has become instrumental in several academic undertakings in Saudi Arabia. Panahi, Watson and Partridge (2012) undertook a study to assess the effectiveness of social media in sharing tacit knowledge. Through a theoretical investigation and the mapping of social media concepts, the researchers found out that social media creates a collaborative environment which is necessary for imparting tacit knowledge. In tacit knowledge sharing, it is imperative that there is a free form of communication and collaboration which enables the participants to discuss the issues and influence the general understanding of the learners (Mitri 2013). Through online discussion forums and social networking platforms hosted by SNSs, individuals and specialized practitioners can share their knowledge and experience while validating and critiquing existing paradigms (Abidi et al. 2009). As such, social media sites have provided both formal and informal platforms for knowledge sharing. Tacit knowledge is an important step in the human learning process. They are learnt and developed through skills, experience, intuitive feelings, observations, mental nodes, and beliefs which are personalized and kept in the mind of an individual (Panahi, Watson and Partridge 2012). This type of knowledge forms an important step in acquiring the explicit knowledge gained in academic endeavours. It is the tacit knowledge that eventually evolves to form explicit knowledge. As such, the sharing of tacit knowledge points out the fundamental role of social media in the sharing of academic knowledge.

The Saudi Arabian higher education system has adopted the use of social media in the learning process. Alsuraihi, Almaqati, Abughanim and Jastaniah (2016) conducted a cross-sectional study to establish the trend and effectiveness of using social media in the learning process of medical and healthcare students. The result showed that 95.8% of the students believed that using social media in sharing academic resources and information is beneficial for their study. As such, they concluded that it is imperative that various faculties of medical schools in the country should endeavour to strengthen and utilize social media in the education process. This study was founded on a previous one which was conducted by (Huang 2012) which portended that social media has become a popular way of engaging learners and teachers in the sharing of both tacit and explicit knowledge necessary for healthcare practices. This benefit of social media is accrued from its ability to encourage the sharing of information, social interaction, and active participation. A supporting study was conducted by Alwagait, Shahzad and Alim (2015) to examine how the use of social media in education influence the students’ academic performance in Saudi Arabia. While the researchers pointed out the issues of time management in using these tools, they concluded that social media tools can be used to boost grades of students who have the ability to balance study with the leisure that SNSs provide. As such, Saudi Arabia has become one of those countries that embrace social media technology in higher education.

Social media has become an instrumental tool in communicating information related to health issues as well as healthcare promotion. According to Neiger et al. (2012), social media has taken a vital role in healthcare promotion among the members of the public. Due to its collaborative and interactive nature, healthcare organizations can now share information with the public and use the same platforms to track feedback and performance. As such, social media form a key performance indicator in healthcare provision and promotion. Further, McKenzie, Neiger and Thackeray (2009) maintained that social media can be used by healthcare organizations in measuring success and tracking the number of services, products, and participants required in a healthcare provision endeavour. Subsequently, social media has been equally used in communicating healthcare tragedies to the public. A study conducted by Househ (2016) outlined how social media was used to communicate the spread of Ebola in West Africa and other parts of the world. Under such significant healthcare events, social media has become instrumental in spreading information regarding the disease. The news which was disseminated by the broadcast organization was accelerated by social media traffics, hence providing real-time information on prevention and management.

While social media can be used in sharing emergency communication, it has also become imperative in sharing beautiful and happy experiences. According to the study by World Travel and Tourism Council (2018), Saudi Arabia still remains the biggest tourist destination in the region, with more than 16 million visitations in 2017 alone. Still, the country strives to increase these visits in a bid o generate at least 25 billion USD by the end of 2019. In order to achieve this target, the country has to ensure the effective promotion of its tourism destinations to all countries all over the world. One way of doing this is through social media. Social media has become increasingly relevant in tourism practices, with positive effects on businesses and destinations.  Munar and Jacobsen (2014) maintained that social media affects the “motivational factors like personal and community-related benefits as well as the social capital that influences a sharing of user-generated content” (p. 46). Through social media, visual content and community-related factors can be shared in order to encourage others to visit the destinations. Through the user-generated content, the experience and the authenticity of the tourism sites and effectively relayed to various people all over the world, hence motivation tourist involvement with these designations. 

Saudi Arabia Vision for the year 2030

The Saudi Vision 2030 is a framework to lower the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil, expand the economy, and improve various service sectors such as tourism, infrastructure, recreation, education, and health. The primary objectives of Saudi Vision 2030 are to improve investment and economic practices, strengthen non-oil sector trade between nations through consumer and good products (Moshashai, Leber & Savage 2018). Many believe that proper implementation of Saudi Vision 2030 will have significant impact on KSA’s development and improvement of people’s welfare (Vision 2030).  The government has demonstrated the desire to achieve the provisions of the Saudi Vision 2030 since its introduction in 2016 by the Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman (Moshashai, Leber & Savage 2018). The plan outlines the country’s long-term expectations and goals, and it is based upon the country’s unique capabilities and strengths, and guides the nation’s aspirations towards a new era of development that would form a vibrant society where every citizen has the capacity to attain their ambitions, hopes, and dreams to be prosperous in a flourishing economy (Kinninmont 2017). Many Saudi citizens hope to gain many benefits through the implementation of the Vision, but this may only happen if people get the chance to give their contributions in the most effective manner, and without any impediments.  

One of the most important aspects of the Saudi Vision 2030 is it calls for the formation of a vibrant society where people interact collectively and have better chances of becoming prosperous. The Vision hopes to form a society that manages a quality of life program that makes life better for everyone (Vision 2030). The Vision hopes to create a vibrant society where the housing program is effective and every person has the chance to live a descent life (Moshashai, Leber & Savage 2018). The vibrant society the Vision hopes to create is one that aspires to create a fiscal balance program where the public investment programs are strong and people can venture into the private and public sector (Vision 2030). The vibrant society the Vision hopes to create will boost strategic partnership programs as well as boost human capital development initiatives that would enrich the lives of Saudi citizens.

The government understands that an effective way to achieve the goals and objectives of the Vision 2030 is to embrace technology that would facilitate operations in the various areas. Other than mechanical technology required to run and improve activities in various industries, employing social media may hasten the efforts to achieve the objectives that are set to improve the lives of many people (Vision 2030). Social media, which emerged as a result of developed technology will allow businesses to perform their functions more effectively, and will improve how people interact with each other. Furthermore, improving the use of social media and removing the impediments that obstruct its use may create better chances of attaining a vibrant society where everyone contributes to the well-being of the country through their opinions and suggestions (Surf & Mostafa 2016). It emerges that public awareness regarding the how to achieve sustainable practices as outlined in the Saudi Vision 2030, especially with regard to achieve better health and environmentally sound and affordable projects remain a major challenge in the country (Surf & Mostafa 2016). Allowing people to explore social media, however, may help to overcome such hindrances because it is possible to reach many people through such avenues.  

The Saudi Vision 2030 should formulate a society where people express their opinions candidly regarding some of the political issues that happen in the country. So far, Saudi Arabia has indulged in political practices that have generated much criticism by citizens on social media. The harsh reactions against the government following the death of the prominent Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey shows that the country is heading towards a direction where people do not support irresponsible acts that do not have solid evidence and support (Human Rights Watch 2020 a). The criticism the government faced from many people who expressed their views through social media avenues was part of the reason the state admitted to the journalist’s murder and warranted the arrest of few individuals and the firing of senior personnel. People also took to the social media to react to the report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that the Kingdom had committed serious violations of international humanitarian law. Many social media users in particular reacted to the issue that about 6500 people had lost their lives by August 2015 and tens of thousands of others wounded (Human Rights Watch 2020 a). Many further expressed their disappointment in the way the Joint Incidents Assessment Team handled Saudi handled its conflict with Yemen and criticised the government for being too harsh, particularly in its deployment of air strikes. The increased participation of members of the public through social media avenues suggest that the technology growth is influencing societal practices in a way that could shape how leaders make decisions (Human Rights Watch 2020 a). Restraining how people use social media, however, could derail the attempts to create a vibrant society where people participate in creating policies that define how the country runs. Failing to permit members of the public to contribute towards the political affairs may not only affect their social, political, and economic well-being, but will also derail the efforts to achieve the Saudi Vision that the country really needs to attain.

Even as the Saudi Vision 2030 continues to elicit varying reactions, it is apparent that the fundamental role of technology in achieving the goals and objectives will not prevent the use of social media that is fast picking. Encouraging the use of social media will facilitate awareness and implementation of the economic blueprint that transform the whole of KSA (Nuruzzaman 2018). The best way to prepare for Vision 2030 would be to improve the infrastructure that support social media use such as expanding internet connectivity and lowering taxes on electronic devices such as routers, smartphones, receivers, laptops, and modems to allows as many people as possible to access social media to get the chance to communicate more effectively, cheaply, and in a way that contributes to the realization of the social, economic, and political aspirations as outlined in the Vision 2030.

Research Gap

As shown in the above literature review, several studies have been conducted on the dynamics of social media and their benefits in various countries – including Saudi Arabia. Various studies have explored the growth of social media and how it has changed the social and political dynamics of various countries. Subsequently, scholars have made various juxtapositions between social media and traditional media. However, one existing research gap in this area is a deeper exploration of the nature of contemporary mainstream media and their efficiencies alongside social media. Subsequently, no such studies have been done in the context of Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, little has been done in regard to the use of social media in feminist activism in Saudi Arabia. Most available studies either focus on the use of social media in other forms of social movements or on the feminist movement in the western world. As such, a more analytical study should be done with the main focus on Saudi Arabia.

Several pieces of literature reviewed herein have provided a deep analysis of the effectiveness of social media in socio-political movements. Most of these studies have focused on the western world with very little concentration in the Arab world. The few that focus on the Arab world have given the most emphasis on a single major event – the Arab Spring. For this reason, there are several areas that are yet to be studied in regard to social media and political movements. For example, there have been several protests and movements in Saudi Arabia. However, very few or no study has been done to examine the use of social media in these movements – with a specific focus on Saudi Arabia. Hence, this study is imperative in bridging these research gaps and creating a new body of knowledge in regards to this area of study. By focusing on social and feminist movements in Saudi Arabia, and how they have been influenced by social media, a better understanding of the dynamics of this technology in the country will be achieved. 

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