First Monday

Contextualizing the power of social media: Technology, communication and the Libya Crisis by Laura C. Morris

At the beginning of 2011, revolution across the MENA region threw into question the potential power of new media to bring about large-scale revolutionary pursuits. In Libya, the correlation between social media usage and social upheavals seemed, at most, tenuous in light of low levels of Internet penetration generally and in light of the state-sponsored Internet blackout following the nation-wide protests there. This qualitative research intends, through content analysis and semi-structured interviewing of key communicators, to decode the realities of how and why people were communicating through the crisis in Libya from its inception and to overcome misconceptions about social media as a stand alone or predominant factor in liberation across the region. What emerged from this case study was a confluence of actions and tools responsible for communication through the crisis, of which social media featured significantly. This paper will further discuss the significance of the convivial relationships of the Internet-based campaigners working towards a ‘democratic’ outcome in Libya and working beyond the limitations of national Internet connectedness. I conclude that there is a great potential for Internet-based networks to support widespread social upheaval within ripe socio-political settings.


Patronage, power & paranoia: Stifling communication
Protest, action & response: Understanding communication through the crisis
Authentication & amplification: The symbiotic relationship between new technology and old




Much of the literature, crisis communication and otherwise, surrounding the crisis in the MENA region has been set against the backdrop of social media and its influence and impact on the political transformations occurring at the time. It is not uncommon to hear it dubbed the ‘Facebook Revolution’ or the the ‘Twitter Revolution’ [1]. This idea has sparked a debate as to whether new media is “inherently liberating” or not (Aday, et al., 2012). Many proponents of the debate believe that social media is an end in itself to socio-political transformation and responsible for catalysing action in the Arab uprisings (Howard and Hussein, 2011; Ghannam, 2011; Zuckerman, 2011a). Howard and Hussein [2] assert that “since the beginning of 2011, social protests in the Arab world have cascaded from country to country, largely because digital media have allowed communities to unite around shared grievances and nurture transportable strategies for mobilizing against dictators. In each country, people have used digital media to build a political response to a local experience of unjust rule. They were not inspired by Facebook; they were inspired by the real tragedies documented on Facebook.” Whilst Howard and Hussein may have captured the essence of what was happening, the reality of this Facebook inspired action is much more complex and it is necessary to uncover the complexity of the system at play enabling this to happen.

There has also been plenty of discussion about the ‘democratising’ nature of Web 2.0 and social media as its byproduct (Ameripour, et al., 2010; Castells, 2000; Coleman, 2004; Cottle, 2011; Ghannam, 2011; Rheingold, 2003; Ryan, 2010) which I will discuss later on in this paper with respect to conviviality and netizenship. Certainly there is ample evidence of new identities being found and fostered and new networks being forged within the world of social media that may lead to more democratic outcomes within certain frameworks (Ameripour, et al., 2010; Unwin, 2012; Shirky, 2011; Coleman, 2011), but one would assume that in order to extrapolate this outcome a significant level of participation is required. Within the context of Libya this direct correlation between social media and democratisation could not be easily assumed because at the time of the revolution direct participation in social media by Libyans living in Libya would have been extremely limited with at most 14 percent of the population having access to the Internet on a normal day [3]. Further, the Internet was largely shut down from 3 March 2011 to the end of the revolution (Cowie, 2011). The assertion that new media enables widespread protest and ultimately liberation is, in this case, an oversimplified one as it fails to explain the conditions under which its use brought about change in Libya.

New media pessimists on the other hand have denied its significance as a tool for real-time communication and advocacy in crisis scenarios (Aday, et al., 2012; Gladwell, 2011; Luckhurst, 2011, via Bennett, 2011). Gladwell (2011) has suggested that activism via social media is in its diluted form, requiring minimum participation and minimum commitment from actors, also referred to as ‘clicktivism’ [4]. Whilst it may be the case that communicating ones support for a cause is made simpler by the tools of social media, there is no evidence to suggest that it dilutes the potency of a given campaign. Instead, it can have the potential to create a ‘power in numbers’ effect (Anthony, 2013) [5]. Gladwell also purports that social media lacks the hierarchy needed to give direction to a given campaign. In this sense he has disregarded the communities and organisations at work behind the social media campaigns working hard to structure and progress their work and ideologies.

Aday, et al. (2010) were one of the first to write on the topic following the Green Revolution in Iran. In their follow-up paper on the role of social media through the Arab Spring they argue that, whilst it may help to empower individuals to voice their opinions, social media actually has little to do with mobilising national protest. Interestingly their research on the MENA uprisings draws in a lot of information, which can be used to assert a case for social media as a strong transformative force in “contentious politics” (Aday, et al., 2010, 2012). Instead they choose to interpret the data to reassert their position put forward in their 2010 paper on Iran: that social media has little potency in bringing about social and political change. I will draw on some of the information put forth by Aday, et al. (2012) to support an alternative conclusion.

Additionally some new media cynics have questioned the validity of social media reporting. Luckhurst (2011, via Bennett, 2011) asserted that “yes, social media makes a contribution but it makes the least contribution when you need it most. And it cannot always be relied upon. And it can only be relied upon when it is curated by professional journalists” [6]. This report will argue the contrary: where social media stands out is in societies where objective reporting is not possible: in societies suffering under severe conflict and under authoritarian regimes where traditional international media are not able to venture.

There are, however, also those who have tried to understand the Arab uprisings as separate but interrelated events, which contain nationally specific catalysts for action, as well as some who have tried to understand the tools for communicating that action within the context of a wider system of communication, of which this report is a proponent (Khondker, 2011; Anderson, 2011; Cottle, 2011; Ben Gharbia, 2010; Scott-Railton, 2013 [7]).

What is interesting about these opposing ends of the debate is that they can be both simultaneously justified and unjustified in so much as it would seem that social media has the potential to be liberating and equally it has the potential to be much less significant. Social media is a tool used by individuals and groups more or less dedicated to bringing about social change and existing more or less within the set of circumstances favourable to bringing about that change. New media can not embody activism in their own right. They are tools which can be used for communicating activism and their potency as tools lies within the context in which they are being used (Zuckerman, 2011b). As Ghannam (2011) asserts, the system of communication working within the region at the time was an “alchemy” mixing together new modes of communication and old. This paper intends to attempt to understand the interplay between new media and old, to put social media back within the aggregate of tools and actions responsible for crisis communication and to address the realities of how and why people communicated through the crisis in Libya.




This research is a case study, carried out through my position as virtual ethnographer. The decision to approach the research as Internet-derived research was less a matter of choice and more a matter of obvious necessity. Obvious, because the topic warranted it, but also because most research surrounding the Libya Crisis at the time was virtual due to the challenges of communicating directly with those inside Libya. The process itself became an important one as the ‘virtual’ seemed to me to provide protection and opened up opportunities to extract information from informants based on my Internet profile as credible researcher [8] who did not pose a security threat for informants [9]. That said, it was not possible for me to get any direct interviews with informants until after the fall of Tripoli in August 2011 at which time I had established a greater Internet presence through blogging about various topics as they arose on the subject.

A large part of the research was based on content analysis, including qualitative examination of social media, and secondary analysis of international media interviews with informants happening at the time of the conflict, which I viewed online. This became important in helping to develop a theory of what was going on and how reports from within Libya were being generated and processed for international consumption. Watching the crisis unfold and listening to reports on television prior to the start of the research influenced my assumptions about what was going on across the MENA region and helped me to direct and focus my research.

As a virtual ethnographer, unlike the traditional ethnographer, community submersion is not inevitable; in fact you might go completely unnoticed and no prior introduction is necessary to access the narrative of the virtual community. The level of participation one can have can be largely passive and yet you can still have free access to the rich textual accounts of virtual life.

I feel in this study that I have worked backwards ethnographically in that I started with an interest in the system used for communicating through the Libya crisis and I arrived at an understanding of an observable purpose built virtual community.

In terms of the semi-structured interviews I conducted I was fortunate to establish a relationship early on with one of the women working within the Libya Alhurra team [10] and was able to conduct a retrospective interview with Charlie in the latter half of 2011. Libya Alhurra are a media organisation which did a large amount of on the ground reporting, which was broadcast via the Web site (, in the lead up to and throughout the conflict. Within the first four weeks of the crisis they had over 150,000 unique worldwide viewers visiting their news channel and were also responsible for generating information and reporting via social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

In 2012, I made contact with the Libyan Youth Movement and was able to conduct a retrospective interview with the co-founder Ayat Mneina. The Libyan Youth Movement had one of the biggest social media presences during the Crisis, directed largely by members of the Libyan Diaspora. At the end of the first two weeks of the crisis they had over 15,000 followers on Twitter.

I was also fortunate to incidentally meet, online, one of the coordinators on the Libya Crisis Map project who was able to provide answers to questions about information gathering techniques used for this project during the early days of the crisis. This project was mandated by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) as an information gathering exercise using a crowdsourced voluntary community (V&TC) known as the Standby Task Force (SBTF). The aim was to help establish situational awareness for OCHA during the early days of the crisis.

Because at the time I felt it would yield the most successful results in terms of giving people the opportunity to reflect on their answers and in terms of actually getting people to agree to an interview I chose to format my interviews as written interactions mediated by e-mail. Through my questioning I was able to extract both qualitative information and quantitative information about these organisations involvement in communicating through the crisis.



Patronage, power & paranoia: Stifling communication

Between 1971 and 2003 Gaddafi pursued, what was perceived by many in the West as, eccentric, aggressive and imperceptive international policies (Anderson, 2003): namely vocal threats against many international leaders, open support of international terrorism and terrorist acts and mandated public attacks against Libyan dissidents on foreign soil. Gaddafi’s policies were met with a retaliatory backlash including an economic boycott by the U.S., a U.S. imposed ban on their companies doing business in Libya, including their oil companies, and other sanctions which lead to increased difficulty and expense for Libya in maintaining and innovating their oil industry (Vandewalle, 2006).

By the early 1990s multilateral sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council began to truly cripple the Libyan economy (St. John, 2008, Vandewalle, 2006) and shut Libya and its people off from the global world. Growth of corruption and lack of access to goods within Libya, due to its isolation, fed opposition to the regime and in turn counter-opposition from the regime itself. Media became an important mechanism for control and was tightly guarded and state regulated to the extent that it developed a reputation as one of the worst countries in the world with respect to freedom of the press, firmly holding its position amongst the worst of the worst right up until the revolution in 2011 [11].

By the mid-1990s the Gaddafi Regime was faced with the prospect of economic stagnation and popular dissent and so attempts were made to liberalise the economy and to repair their damaged relations with the west. In theory this should have provided some legitimacy to the regime, it instead further isolated the Libyan people from the regime because the top-down reforms contradicted Gaddafi’s premise of people centred action in Libya and because the reforms themselves undermined the system of patronage which had become the staple of Libyan life (St. John, 2008; Vadewalle, 2006). The collective actions of the regime, overtime, had engendered a nearly unanimous popular resentment amongst Libyans (Al Tarzi, 2011).

What the economic liberalisation did bring was a pressure for Libya to present itself as a modern power to be reckoned with and with this came pressure to improve telecommunications infrastructure. Mobile phones in Libya became the most prolific and popular form of communication with penetration rates of around 185 percent by the end of 2010 (ITU, 2010). Access to telecoms however meant greater access to information and ultimately to alternative ideologies for the ordinary Libyan. Christopher Kedzie, referred to this position in which Gaddafi found himself as the Dictator’s Dilemma. He states that “totalitarian societies face a dilemma: either they try to stifle [information and communication] technologies and thereby fall further behind in the new industrial revolution, or else they permit these technologies and see their totalitarian control inevitably eroded” (Kedzie, 1997). The Internet however was not widespread at the beginning of the revolution, although it was gaining popularity, and social media at the time would have been an indulgence of which only a very few partook.

On the other hand, widespread clandestine satellite TV was providing Libya with a taste of freedom of information not previously experienced, through access to Western-style Arab news channels such as Al Jazeera and other pan-Arab satellite stations [12]. In Libya, it could be suggested that Al Jazeera held a greater legitimacy than the regime itself and reached a potential audience of nearly two million people approximately 55 percent of the total adult population in Libya [13]. So significant was Al Jazeera’s influence across the Arab world that Gaddafi himself made a couple of appearances on the news channel hoping to bring more weight and legitimacy to his ideologies (El-nawawy and Iskandar, 2008).

The state-owned media outlets, however, remained heavily censored reporting only information that supported the position of the Gaddafi regime. In 2007, the regime made some moves towards liberalising the media within the country, briefly inviting independent media sources who began to report on politically sensitive issues. However this measure was quickly retrograded for fear of tarnishing the image of the state and in 2009 all private media outlets were nationalised and all media became again state regulated (OpenNet Initiative, 2009) [14].



Protest, action & response: Understanding communication through the crisis

Communicating protest

When the conflict in Libya erupted in February 2011, several things could be seen to have provoked widespread protest: Firstly and foremostly, Gaddafi and his regime had arguably established themselves as a force working against the people of Libya.

Secondly, Libyans at home (via pan-Arab satellite) and abroad had watched whilst Tunisians followed shortly by Egyptians had toppled their autocratic states by rising up in great numbers against their dictators. A visible momentous political shift within the MENA region was not only portrayed but narrated by international media outlets, the effects of which, on the Libyan people, may be incalculable, but certainly not irrelevant [15]. Aside from being the dominant story populated by international news broadcasters at the time, there was conspicuous international media rhetoric happening which was essentially calling for Libyans to rise-up; BBC’s Jonathan Marcus’ comments in response to the fall of Mubarak reflects the typical media declamation at the time:

The impact of the upheavals in Cairo — the overthrow of authoritarianism in arguably the Arab world’s most important capital — could have a galvanising effect well beyond its borders. Will other authoritarian governments fall? What new pressures for democratic change will the Egyptian example unleash? Instability and uncertainty could be the keynotes of the region for some time to come. But there are many who have long argued that the only fundamental answer to the Middle East’s socio-economic malaise is democracy — genuine political transformation. And here Egypt is pioneering a path towards one possible future for the region as a whole." (BBC News, As it happened: Egypt unrest day 18, 2011) [16].

Whilst international media outlets were inviting region wide protest, Libyans at home and abroad with support from other activists, had begun an Internet and social media campaign to engage the international community and to call Libyans to protest and unify in a ‘day of rage’ against the regime, planned for 17 February 2011. The campaign involved using well-known dissident blogs, Twitter and Facebook to discuss and generate interest in the day of rage [17]. These campaigns helped to raise the international profile of the looming revolution in Libya, as well as reaching and engaging ordinary Libyans without access to the Internet. The campaigns worked in various ways; For example, the plans for a day of rage in Libya were well reported on by media outlets in the lead-up to 17 February. Widely reaching channels like Al Jazeera did the job of informing ordinary Libyans about the planned protests by reporting from Internet based sources, including social media, as well as other anonymous informants.

Also, in Benghazi, Gaddaffi’s weak spot, protest began two days before the planned protests of the 17 February [18], whether or not it was strategic, these protests, the video footage of which was fed back into Internet and social media campaigns via YouTube and also given directly to international media outlets to report on [19], may have raised the profile and given credibility to the movement; demonstrating that many people were prepared to stand-up against the regime [20].

In fact, much of the initial activism in Libya was ignited from within Benghazi where alternative and independent clandestine media outlets were forming. One of the most significant was Libya Alhurra [21], which was founded by political activist Mohammed Nabbous. The popularity of this channel may have been a result of the comparatively professional footage and reporting coming from this organisation whose intention was to inform the international community of the situation on the ground in Libya [22]. However, the assassination of Mohammed, who was killed by snipers in Benghazi in the initial weeks of the conflict, was widely reported on by international media and may have widened the popularity of this channel. With support from overseas contacts and other more experienced media technologist they set up satellite communications to transmit regular reports and video footage to Internet radio and TV, reaching a wide international audience. They did this by using a two-way satellite Internet with iDirect modem [23]:

The satellite [receiver] was moved to its location with the assistance of regular citizens who literally provided a physical barrier with their bodies to protect from snipers. After set up, there were no issues other than bandwidth, which was upgraded with the ISP. (Interview with ‘Charlie’ from Libya Alhurra, 2011)

Gaddafi’s response to escalating nationwide protests had been largely anticipated: violent retaliation and repression of protest, imprisonments and a ban on all international journalists within the borders of the country [24]. The implications of which were that only those with ‘safe’ contacts outside the country could pass information about what was happening within Libyan borders. The high risk of persecution at the hands of the Gaddafi regime meant that only trusted family members and friends abroad provided a bridge to passing information to the outside world about what was happening within Libya’s borders.

This was facilitated by many within the Libyan diaspora who were able to move information relatively safely between Libya and the international community [25]. A large collaborative effort by many diaspora members across the world facilitated a social media campaign that helped to enable continual reporting on the evolving situation in Libya before and following the Internet and mobile phone shutdown. The Libyan Youth Movement (LYM) was one of the larger, more far reaching, efforts, whose organisers were U.K. and Canadian based Libyans. Co-founded by Ayat Mneina and Omar Amer, the LYM was responsible for publishing reports via social media that were directly obtained first-hand from contacts within Libya:

Daily, sometimes hourly, we would keep contact with informants on the ground either via Skype, mobile, landline, satellite phone or email. If we couldn’t reach our contacts we would reach other friends/colleagues abroad to check on their contacts; almost everyone had their own network through which they would keep on top of news from the ground. (Interview with Ayat co-founder of the Libyan Youth Movement, Spring 2013)

These reports were acquired by or sometimes offered up directly to international media outlets and broadcast and published for a global audience. Additionally, international journalist used Twitter handles and hashtags and Facebook sites to get in contact with these diaspora activists to gather, otherwise unavailable information on the evolving situation in Libya (Aday, et al., 2012). They provided detailed information about events and activities, casualties and the movements of state-led forces:

We were able to confirm protests as they happened, the events unfolding. We were able to speak to doctors on the scene receiving injured protesters. We were able to confirm deaths and injuries people sustained. We were able to determine the location of Gaddafi forces from eye-witnesses. Contacting people in Libya proved immensely useful as everyone had the same motives, to expose what was happening to Libyans at the hands of the regime. (From my interview with Ayat co-founder of the Libyan Youth Movement, Spring 2013)


Taken from the Libyan Youth Movement Twitter Feed
Figure 1: Taken from the Libyan Youth Movement Twitter Feed.



Taken from the Facebook page of the Libyan Youth Movement
Figure 2: Taken from the Facebook page of the Libyan Youth Movement.


Reports were transmitted between Libyans and the diaspora campaigns via satellite communications and by more conventional methods such as landline and mobile [26] using secret code words. The Libyan Youth Movement also used Tor to protect their online security. Their preferred method of communication was Skype as it was viewed as safer:

We conducted numerous interviews via Skype. People on the ground felt like this line of communication was more secure and spoke freely here. Another means of communication was Thuraya satellite phones. This was used for very highly sensitive information and usually in areas where things were unstable; shelling, humanitarian crisis, lots of injuries. (From my interview with Ayat co-founder of the Libyan Youth Movement, Spring 2013)

It is also important to highlight that some of those Libyans who did have access to the Internet were actively engaged in using social media to gather and generate news about the crisis, before the Internet was cut. According to Aday, et al. (2012) around 110,000 links were ‘clicked’ via Twitter between the beginning of February and the beginning of April within Libya itself, a substantial number considering that by early March the Internet was being entirely censored [27]. Also, ordinary citizens who did not necessarily have diaspora connections abroad took it upon themselves to ‘bear witness’ to the atrocities happening using mobile phones and uploading the images and videos to YouTube, possibly having learned the importance of engaging the international community from what had happened in Tunisia and Egypt [28]:

I take my phone, I’m filming [the protests] ... I think this will be a great moment. I see my brother here and he told me to go back to the house and upload it quickly, the Internet will be cut soon ... I was uploading the sections one after another, maybe five different videos, the Internet signal was very weak. I was praying for it to upload before they cut the Internet. The section with the Green Books [29] took me about 30 minutes to upload onto YouTube ... Only two hours after I uploaded the video my younger sister called me to say that the fall of the Green Book statue was being broadcast by Al Jazeera. (BBC, Benghazi birthplace of the Feb17 revolution, 12 December 2011)

When the Internet and mobile services were shut-down some Libyan activists with few options resorted to making dangerous border runs to pass SIM cards to Egyptian counterparts waiting to take the information and upload it to the Internet [30].

Additionally, Rana Jawad (2011), an established BBC correspondent in Libya, was also providing the BBC with an undercover account of life through the revolution, which she did using satellite Internet [31]. Her reports were largely anecdotal memoirs of her experience in hiding.

It is impossible to know the exact reason why every individual who rose up in protest did so, but it is not impossible to conclude that a large number of people may have been influenced or inspired by what they saw on pan-Arab satellite television. Further, whilst individuals were not connected to the Internet they became consumers of social media via traditional media sources. Therefore the relationship that the Libyan people developed with social and alternative media campaigns, whether or not they had ever used social media or the Internet, may have been enough to create an empathy with the online campaigns. Campaigners were, therefore, able to reach ordinary Libyans and may have been able to make them question and consider the possibility of activism.

Communicating action

As the protests advanced into armed conflict, in the East of Libya where the protests had begun and successfully ended in the capture of Benghazi and the overtaking of Katiba Military Compound [32], Gaddafi’s forces were advancing to quash the uprisings in the rebel stronghold and reclaim Benghazi. International media reports were reporting attacks from air and land which indicated that Gaddafi had strong intentions to reclaim Benghazi with brutal force [33].

On 19 March 2011 the U.N. Security Council gathered to establish decisive action on Libya because of the perceived threat of genocide. During this meeting resolution 1973 was adopted asserting a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) [34] effectively authorising international action in Libya. Alain Juppé, Foreign Minister of France, declared:

“the situation on the ground is more alarming than ever, marked by the violent re-conquest of cities that have been released”. The Security Council could not stand by and “let the warmongers flout international legality”. The world was experiencing “a wave of great revolutions that would change the course of history” but the will of the Libyan people had been “trampled under the feet of the Qadhafi regime” [35]. (U.N. Security Council, 2011b)

This oratory reflects the type of rhetoric found in international media reports at the time and is an indication that the media reports fed by ordinary citizen journalist media coming out of the MENA region, the only available information about the situation on the ground, were strongly informing the U.N. Security Council members via conventional broadcast and print media in their decisive action on Libya. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron referred to having been “watching” the events “with grave concern” [36]. Additionally, when U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the nation on action in Libya he quoted an article from the Los Angeles Times stating one Libyan as having said “for the first time we finally have hope that our nightmare of 40 years will soon be over” [37].

It has been suggested that historically it was important to ensure protection from another mass human atrocity like the genocide in Rwanda, in which the lack of international action has been retrospectively identified as a major factor in the genocide [38]. And unlike Rwanda where a mass “exodus” of international journalists meant that little was known about the scale of the atrocity being committed (Kuperman, 2000), in Libya there was substantial verifiable evidence in the form of video’s uploaded from mobile phones, social media reports and clandestine alternative news broadcasts [39].

But it may be somewhat unrealistic to consider empathy with the Libyan people as the only conceivable catalyst for action in Libya. Certainly many member states had vested economic interests in Libya; and Gaddafi’s history with many international leaders had been hostile and strained. In the U.S., domestic tension was mounting at the time over the relatively recent release of Al-Megrahi [40], the only man accused of the PanAm flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland [41]. Also to consider are the influence of national campaigns lobbying governments to take action in Libya [42] as well as the defection of Libyan deputy permanent representative to the U.N., Ibrahim Dabbashi, who very early on, at an emergency U.N. meeting, publicly denounced the regime for massacring its own people [43]. Nevertheless, what the media was providing was an ethically justifiable excuse to assert R2P in Libya.

The enforced no-fly zone, that resulted from the Security Council meetings, followed by NATO intervention meant that the East of the country, became liberated quite early on in the crisis as Eastern military troops defected to join the rebel armies. In Benghazi, as in many regions in Libya as they experienced liberation, many new media outlets formed gathering information from liberated and non-liberated Libyans and reporting locally, regionally and worldwide on the goings-on from inside Libya:

In the Nafusa Mountains. After decades of repression (not being allowed to use their native alphabet or even name their children indigenous names, etc.) within hours of freedom, printed papers emerged using their traditional “Berber” (the appropriate term is actually “amazigh”) language, alphabet, etc. [44] (Interview with ‘Charlie’ from Libya Alhurra, 2011).

The liberation of the East opened its borders to international press and traditional reporting began to take precedence over reports coming from citizens. Although social media continued to feature as a news source on which traditional media was depending [45].

Interestingly whilst international broadcast media did have a very important role in amplifying dissident voices within Libya its role in disaster mitigation and preparedness was felt to be inadequate:

I think the satellite channels failed. They had a huge opportunity to foment and prepare the people of Tripoli and the remainder of the hold-outs for the revolution yet they remained silent. They failed to coordinate with NATO and failed to grant NATO access to their airwaves. (Charlie, Libya Alhurra 2011)

Additionally, rebel forces managed to purchase an Aeryon Scout Micro UAV for the purpose of gathering intelligence on the location of Gaddafi forces [46]. The use of UAVs has been growing in popularity recently for the purposes of espionage and missile deployment. They were used also by NATO, somewhat controversially, for the purpose of targeting Gaddafi strongholds.

We have seen, as in the case of many other countries in the region involved in fighting for liberation, that evidence coming from citizen journalists of state inflicted violence does not necessarily lead to international support in the form of military intervention. The unprecedented use of R2P in the case of Libya may more closely reflect the international communities sentiments towards the Gaddafi regime itself than any direct empathy with the Libyan people. It is novel nonetheless that the international community found justification for action within the citizen journalist reports coming from Libya; new media reporting of the crisis therefore may have been the final invitation to act.

Communicating response


The Libya Crisis Map on the Ushahidi mapping platform
Figure 3: The Libya Crisis Map on the Ushahidi mapping platform.


The role of new media in strategic relief efforts in Libya, which were hampered by a lack of situational awareness and on the ground reporting, is also significant; the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) used citizen journalist and social media reports to help direct their relief efforts in Libya.

Following some success with a programme used during the Haiti earthquake response in 2010, OCHA again deployed a group of globally dispersed and crowd-sourced volunteers called the Standby Task Force (SBTF) [47] who gathered media reports and translated and mapped them onto the Ushahidi [48] interactive mapping platform; within two weeks from the first protests a secure Libya Crisis Map was fully operating for OCHA’s use. Because access to information from within Libya was scarce and insecure reports were gathered from reliable news sources and dependable and verifiable social media accounts:

The list of information sources that volunteers could monitor was dynamic and evolving. We initially had a set of mainstream media, Facebook pages or Twitter hashtags that were reporting on Libya. Gradually, as we found additional sources providing actionable information we added them to the list. (Interview with Marta SBTF Coordinator, 2011)

OCHA used the information consolidated and categorised on the map to make decisions about where and how to direct aid for Libya crisis response efforts. Whilst it may not have served as OCHA’s only source of information it became an extremely useful tool in accessing information about the conflict in what was an extremely vulnerable and impenetrable environment, in which OCHA had little baseline information having had no presence inside the country for many years and no IMO (Information Management Officers) on the ground [49].

Additionally, what the Libya Crisis Map highlights are some of the challenges in using social media in humanitarian crisis communication. Rather than the characteristic information deprivation that was prolific before the advent of Web 2.0 in crisis situations involving despotic regimes and civil conflict, now we are faced instead with an overload of information, the quantity of which, in its state of being constantly recycled is not only challenging to manage, but equally challenging to verify:

The SBTF set a workflow where all incoming reports needed to be properly geolocated, categorized, and then verified. In such conflict circumstances — Internet blackout, absence of other sources to triangulate the information, etc. — validating some pieces of information was extremely difficult or almost impossible, so in that case reports could also be mapped, but categorized as ‘unverified.’ (Interview with Marta, SBTF Coordinator, 2011)

An additional challenge for this project was protecting the livelihoods of Libya based information providers. The SBTF were in contact with on the ground informants within Libya in the initial days of the collaboration with OCHA. However, it is unknown how the security of these informants, aside from anonymity, was being protected, if at all and what happened to these informants following the collaboration [50]. Scott-Railton (2013) highlights in his paper the lack of awareness amongst activist and the scale of the Libyan state programme to intercept communications between Libyan activists and the outside world.

Verifiable citizen journalist’s accounts of the happenings in Libya were an important part of the response efforts that were guided by OCHA’s humanitarian information centre. However, it is unclear of the direct impact this project had on bringing relief to ordinary Libyans.



Authentication & amplification: The symbiotic relationship between new technology and old

The advent of the Internet has brought about an increasing change in the way people in the West consume their news; broadsheet papers are giving way to the consumption of free online news from conventional media outlets as well as non-conventional sources such as Internet-only news outlets and news generating social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. This online experience of news also enables a ‘talk-back’ option which engages the public in a two-way conversation about items of interest [51]:

Network empowered citizens espouse the model of the Internet as a channel for interactive information-sharing and conversation, as opposed to the broadcast model in which the Web site is conceived as a centre of transmission to a receiving audience (Coleman, 2004).

The implications of this change on communication through the Libya crisis could be seen as two-fold: Firstly, that the importance placed on new media sources by the public had changed the attitudes of conventional media outlets about reporting from those sources. Not only did they not have a choice, in that information about what was happening in Libya was not otherwise available, where as previously inaccessible stories were just not reported on, conventional media chose to go to social media to reinvigorate interest and engage in the new and increasingly popular mode of conversational reporting.

Secondly, Libyans, overseas and at home, who were connected to the Internet could use it to discuss and protest against grievances brought against Libyans living under the authoritarian regime of Gaddafi, to report on injustices, to make connections, to generate interest in their causes from civil society and other sympathetic supporters. Further, they could do this knowing that they would widen the reach of the discussion to the international community and that they could be taken seriously. What was unexpected was how these connections would feedback directly to those within Libya, that the activist reports coming from within Libya but censored in Libya could be reported outside of Libya and beamed back in to generate more activism. A complete circle.

As Cottle (2011) states: “the new tools of sociability and conviviality can thus prove to be ‘democratizing’ in both the sense of facilitating pluralized interaction and intercourse in everyday life as well as providing the means for organizing for system change and the political establishment of ‘democracy’”. New media seemed to create a space where those for whom citizenship is loosely termed, where human rights within a nation do not necessarily exist, can come together to express a mutual identity based upon a set of commonalities or grievances, albeit for many a dangerous space. This is understood as netizenship and in Libya it extended beyond the direct use of social media and the Internet.

This idea that Internet can foster conviviality in the Illichian sense [52] is beginning to be researched and understood in greater detail (Illich, 1973; Ameripour, et al., 2009). Where Ameripour, et al. (2009) claim that Internet derived conviviality can be hindered by the “power and influence of the mediator”, the entity controlling the free movement of information on the Internet, whether that be local, national or international, in the Libyan case, the ‘mediator’ was bypassed through resourcefulness and real world connections.

An additional point is that what this communication system created was an observable community of networked individuals. Like Lave and Wenger’s (1991) idea of ‘community of practice’, in which a network of people evolves from a common interest (Murillo, 2008; Wenger, 2009), what arose was a community of purpose in which a network was formed from the need to communicate a specific cause. Each node in the network had its own agenda, but each unique agenda helped to progress the movement.




In Libya, ill-conceived domestic and international policy decisions by the Gaddafi regime had lead to rampant corruption, scarcity, economic insecurity and the suppression of human rights, which lead to unanimous displeasure amongst Libyans towards the state and the will and desire to communicate that displeasure to the wider world in hopes that they might gain international support.

Generating that international support depended on a triangular relationship between international media, governments and the public. Media, as well as spreading news, helps to inform public opinion and in so doing has the ability to influence policy decision of governments keen to maintain public support. However, the extent to which the media influenced policy decisions in Libya is unclear, and the power of media to do so has been widely debated [53], but it may have provided a justification for intervention that would have wider policy benefits for U.N. Security Council member states than simply philanthropic ones.

Traditional media was in dire need of a gateway into a closed world and new media campaigns required legitimacy and amplification to reach a wider audience and draw local and international public attention and support; this is what traditional media provided for them. What Aday, et al. (2012) refer to as the “megaphone” effect. But behind the social media platform was a team of dedicated diaspora members and citizen journalists alike without whom social media was powerless to bring about change in Libya. And their role in communicating through this crisis cannot be overstated.

Unlike Gladwell’s (2011) conception of a hapless social media campaign lacking in structure and hierarchical strength, diaspora families and virtual communities worked tirelessly to construct a rigid and persistent campaign engaging the general public, other diaspora members, international media outlets and local and international governments and worked to continually gather information about the goings-on within Libya. It is also important to understand the ubiquity of mobile telephony as an enabler within this system. With the exception of alternative media organisations, the visual presentations of protest coming from within Libya were largely captured using camera phones.

It becomes important then to reframe social media as tools being used by interested actors and onlookers through crisis; tools which have potency because of the public interest in the information that is transmitted. As one activist stated: “If nothing happens, Facebook and media have no utility” (Pollock, 2011). It is the information itself which is the agent for transformation but the Internet and social media have the potential to radicalise that transformation by moving information at a rate not previously comprehended, thereby getting greater and wider impact from that information.

Further, in reality the Libya case demonstrates that Internet conviviality creates unity and has a democratising power that can be shared beyond what in the real world would be the traditional barriers of social and economic standing, cultural similarities and national and regional boundaries. But the Libya example has highlighted an even greater observation: that Internet conviviality can be experienced beyond Internet connectedness.

Even the limited amount of information coming out of Libya initially, circulated through social media and amplified by mainstream media outlets, was enough to make a substantial human rights case for intervention in Libya. However, whilst substantially informing international decisions regarding action in Libya, active international pressure against a sovereign state, such as Libya, requires its own set of appropriate socio-political circumstances beyond the rhetoric of human rights; the protection of FDI, the prospect of economic gain, the relationship of one state with other geo-political actors and the potential to improve domestic public opinion are all factors implicit in international governments’ decision to act. In Libya all these factors aligned.

With this ripe political landscape, social media within the context of the wider communication system has been a transformative platform in Libya. It is, therefore, important to expand our knowledge of how the use of social media and other networked technologies might facilitate more effective and timely international response when used in conjunction with other more widespread media in situations that are otherwise hindered by communication failures. Moreover, further research should be done into how people use social media for collaborative action, including activism and crisis response and to gain a wider understanding for how its use can facilitate democracy and peacebuilding and to further understand the risk involved in doing so. End of article


About the author

Laura Morris is an independent scholar, researcher and writer whose research focuses on the use of information and communication technologies in crisis management. She is currently working on a research project with the University of Washington’s Geography Department & the Commons Lab of the Wilson Centre to develop an impact evaluation framework for collaboration between volunteer & technical communities (V&TCs) and formal disaster management agencies. She received her Master’s in the Social Anthropology of Development with Modern Standard Arabic from SOAS, University of London.
E–mail: lcmorris [at] live [dot] co [dot] uk



I would like to thank Nick Pearce, Durham University, for his continuous support of the research and comments and critique of this article, which was presented in brief at the University of Utah’s Frontiers of New Media Symposium, September 2013. I also thank Gregg Swanson, Humaninet, for the inspiration to engage in the research and the initial support needed to make it happen.



1. ‘Twitter Revolution’ was first coined by Evgeny Morozov in 2009 following protests in Moldova, ‘Facebook Revolution’ was first used in reference to the 2009 protest in Iran, also known as the Green Revolution. Both expressions have been popularised by various media outlets.

2. Howard and Hussein, 2011, p. 48.

3. Whilst three different sources stated this figure to be between 5.5–6 percent including the ITU at the beginning of my research, according to the ITU, because of new information being available on Libyan communications, this figure has now been adjusted to around 14 percent by the end of 2010: Further, connectivity was hindered by a lack of high speed Internet and regular power cuts.

4. Clicktivism is the use of social media and the Internet to further a cause, simplified by clicking ones support.


6. Via Daniel Bennett’s blog Mediating Conflict:

7. It is also worth noting that the author has discovered during the final stages of producing this article that John Scott-Railton (2013), working with the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, was simultaneously running a similar project to the author’s but with a focus on the Gaddafi Regime’s ability to intercept and censor communication and target activist through this interception. Scott-Railton discusses similar findings to the author’s, but offers a comprehensive picture of the communications used by opposition forces at the time.

8. The research initially grew from a conversation I had with the executive director, Gregg Swanson, of Humaninet, an organisation which sets up satellite communications for other organisations working in crisis response situation. This connection, which I was able to make explicit on the blog site, I feel gave substantial credibility to the research project.

9. Whilst it may have been perceived that there was no security threat, I was aware of the potential for such a threat and potential consequences of communicating with people under threat. In order to eliminate risk I used published e-mail addresses to contact people and asked that people refrain from offering their names if they believed a threat to be evident. However, at the time I did not have any great theoretical understanding of how security is actually compromised and the methods used to compromise it. Scott-Railton (2013) established in great detail not only who was communicating through the Libya Crisis and how but also uncovered tactics used by the regime itself to infiltrate communication lines.

10. This was done through a formal e-mail request for contact and information about communication problems within Libya at the time. The first response I received was: “Thanks a lot for your interest in this important topic. Because of the ongoing conflict in Libya, there are some security issues related to your inquiry. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to participate.” I followed up this message with an e-mail preempting contact at a later date should security issues improve. I was able to contact them again successfully in August 2011 gaining answers to my questions in December of 2011.

11. In the Committee to Protect Journalist’s 2006 report on the 10 most censored countries Libya was awarded fifth place. Libya was awarded 19th place in 2010 from Reporters Without Borders.

12. Other pan-Arab news channels included: Libya Al Hurra TV, Libya Al Hrrar and Libya Alyoum, according to my interview with Charlie of Libya Al Hurra.

13. Allied Media Corp. Al Jazeera report:

14. The extent to which this liberalisation of the media impacted on public opinion and the aspirations of journalists within Libya could certainly be considered a variable in shifting ideologies and fostering democratic pursuits.

15. This has been referred to as the ‘boomerang effect’ by Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink (1998) reference from Blogs and Bullets (2012).

16. BBC, “As it happened: Egypt unrest day 18,” at

17. Some of the main Libyan Twitter campaigns at the beginning of the uprisings were @ChangeinLibya, @EnoughGaddafi, @ShababLibya, @Libyan4life and @FreeLibya. Gaddafi was also responsible for some the the very early mobile video uploads to YouTube ( Similarly, Facebook was used by these groups to expand their reach and to generate interest in their campaigns:

18. Cousins, 2011, at

19. Al Jazeera, 2011,

20. It is worth noting that pro-Gaddafi demonstrations took place simultaneously, mainly within the capital of Tripoli, but many international news reports at the time were denouncing them as shows orchestrated by the regime itself: Sky News, 2011,


22. From my interview with ‘Charlie’ from Libya Alhurra, 2011.

23. From my interview with ‘Charlie’ from Libya Alhurra, 2011.

24. Gaddafi’s history of repression and censorship was well known and documented. However, in an apparent attempt at transparency Gaddafi opened Libya’s borders for a short period to allow international journalists to report from within Tripoli. The journalists were invited to stay at the hotel Rixos in central Tripoli and limited access was given to the reporting within the city and later the journalists were kept inside the building by armed gunmen.

25. According to Scott-Railton (2013) information was regularly compromised and intercepted by the Gaddafi regime with little knowledge amongst activists of how or when. In some cases little was known about the identities or the outcome of the security of on the ground informants as acknowledged by the Standby Task Force (SBTF) in their report on their collaboration with UNOCHA in Libya:

26. Mobile was used sporadically when communication lines were available. This largely depended on the whether or not the area had been liberated or not; according to my interview with Ayat Mneina, 2012.

27. It is impossible to know who ‘clicked’ and certainly the regime itself would have been monitoring social media at the time, but this does not detract from the importance being placed on it. According to Ayat Mneina Twitter did not enjoy any level of popularity until after the fall of Gaddafi: “no one was on Twitter in Libya until August 2011 and even then there were very few, if didn’t really take off until June 2012”. This may indicate that it was the regime itself who were interested in Twitter based information.

28. BBC, 2011b. Benghazi birthplace of the Feb17 revolution:

29. Gaddafi’s Green Book was a document outlining the socio-political doctrine of the leader and was considered to be an archetype for Libya’s new socialist movement, in this quote the reference refers to a statue of the green books which was destroyed during this protest.

30. BBC, 2011b. Benghazi birthplace of the Feb17 revolution:

31. Rana Jawad’s husband in a BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour interview, refers to neighbours spotting their satellite equipment whilst Rana Jawad was in hiding: BBC Radio 4, n.d., See also Rana Jawad’s blog Tripoli Witness:

32. Benghazi residents had a history of protest and there was much local anger surrounding the Abu Saleem masacre of 1996: Al-Arabi, 2012, at

33. McGreal, 2011,

34. R2P is a United Nations protocol established in 2005. It is based on the idea that sovereignty is not a right, but a responsibility. R2P focuses on preventing ‘mass atrocity crimes’ including genocide and crimes against humanity;

35. U.N. Security Council, 2011b,

36. BBC, 2011a,

37. Los Angeles Times, “Some find their voice in Libya capital” (22 March 2011): For specific mention of the U.N. Security Council discussing media and citizen journalist reports in the crisis in Libya see: U.N. Security Council, 2011a,


39. Alternatively, Syria represents a protracted humanitarian crisis in which unanimity to act was not achieved by the U.N. Security Council regardless of having successfully asserted a responsibility to protect in Libya.

40. Al-Megrahi was the only man ever charged with the Lockerbie bombing.

41. U.S. Department of State, 2010,

42. According to Ayat Mneina many within the diaspora “worked fervently to rally their local governments to condemn the regime’s attacks on civilians, to recognise the National Transitional Council as the official representative of the Libyan people [and] to support the United Nations Security Council resolutions.”

43. Moynihan, 2011,

44. From my interview with ‘Charlie’ from Libya Alhurra.

45. According to my interview with Ayat, social media continued to play a role in reporting from within areas yet to be liberated.


47. Part of the Digital Humanitarian Network.


49. Standby Task Force (SBTF) report on Libya Crisis Map: See also OCHA’s post-collaboration report for additional information:

50. SBTF report on Libya Crisis Map:

51. For an interesting discussion on this topic see “David Carr in Conversation with Richard Gizbert: The Media Machine” at the Frontline Club, London 19 September 2011:

52. Ivan Illich published Tools for conviviality in 1973 in which he discusses the idea that tools which are by their nature “enabling” support “self-reliance”.

53. See Steven Livingston, 1997, Clarifying the CNN Effect: An examination of media effects according to type of military intervention for an interesting discussion on the topic.



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Editorial history

Received 21 November 2013; accepted 12 October 2014.

Creative Commons License
“Contextualizing the power of social media: Technology, communication and the Libya Crisis” by Laura C Morris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Contextualizing the power of social media: Technology, communication and the Libya Crisis
by Laura C. Morris.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 12 - 1 December 2014