Published on Arab Voices

What are Arabs searching for?

ImageOne answer is available from Google Insight—“Facebook” – was by far the top search across countries in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. Only the people of Oman and Iran didn’t record “Facebook” in their top 3 searches. And Yemenis were searching almost exclusively for Facebook. This represents a big change from 2009, when Arabs (+Iran) were primarily searching for “Games” and “Images.” Interestingly, the only country that reported “Facebook” as a top search, back in 2009, was none other than the leader in the Arab revolutions –Tunisia. By 2010, all but 6 countries had “Facebook” in their top 3 searches. See the Table below for full details.

 Top Google Searches by Country (Click on Table Image)


Source: Google Insights, top web searchers as of 1/9/2012.  Note, in some cases, recorded searches may limit some terms because of government restrictions. 

The expanded search for Facebook from 2009 to 2011 reflects in part the contribution of social media to the Arab Revolutions. Technology Review, published by MIT, has an interesting article relating the history of the usage of the Internet and social media in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The opposition started using the Internet back in 1998 for discussion, then eventually to distribute photos, jokes, and commentaries. The internet was also used to bring soccer fans, uniquely experienced in brawls with authority, into the opposition.  

The absence of appropriate technology is also blamed for the failure of earlier protests to expand. In particular, protests in Tunisia’s mining district and the Nile Delta in Egypt in 2008 remained contained because usage of networking tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, and camera phones to document events were limited. Takriz, a Tunisian revolutionary, describes Facebook “as the GPS for this revolution.” Facebook’s importance is also highlighted by Samir Garbaya, from the Paris Institute of Technology, who finds thatin November, the average time for Facebook posts related to protests to receive comments was four days, “the day after Bouazizi burned himself: eight hours. On January 1: two hours. As Ben Ali left: just three minutes.”

Revolutions are made by people, and many dismiss technology’s contribution on the basis that many revolutions happened before Facebook or cell phones. Still, there is no doubt that better communication facilitates change. Otherwise, why do so many governments still restrict usage of internet searches and social network sites? 

Such technology is also a useful tool for improving government accountability. It can be used to track corruption and to record government effectiveness in providing services, such as education and health care. As Takriz so eloquently put it, Facebook was the GPS of the Arab revolution. Now, it can also serve as the digital thermometer for change and accountability.


Caroline Freund

Dean of the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy

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