Social media’s diverse capabilities for human expression and high accessibility cause it to be a dynamic extension of our lived cultural, political and social experience (McLuhan 1964). In particular, social media has revolutionised political participation globally and given rise to countless online social movements.
From the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter, social media has been influential in globalising and mobilising support for social movements, which often campaign for postmaterialist values such as gender equality and individual autonomy (Cortés 2017). Recently, it helped grant women in Saudi Arabia the legal right to drive.
The movement began with Saudi woman Manal al Sharif’s online campaign (Al Jazeera English 2011) prompting women to drive. Her subsequent arrest caused the video to go viral and receive international media attention. Since then, the affiliated Facebook page, ‘Women2Drive’, has also received international recognition and #SaudiWomenCanDrive trended globally on Twitter. In November 2016, Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed bin Talal expressed support for the movement, tweeting ‘Stop the debate. Time for women to drive.’ Earlier that year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also launched his Vision 2030 plan, a large part of which focuses on improving gender equality. Less than a year later, a Royal Order was issued declaring ‘the issuance of driving licences – to both males and females.’ (SPA 2017).
Many attribute this success to the online support garnered by the movement, however, the temporal proximity of Talal’s express support and the initiation of Vision 2030 to the issuing of the Royal Order suggests a correlation between these events. I propose that, whilst social media broadens the scope of social movements, it has not deepened its political impact. The success of social movements still heavily relies on elite support.
Putting the participation in political participation
Public opinion is formed through communication in the public sphere (ed. Seidman 1989). These conversations have moved online, with the internet facilitating the potentially immediate connection of an international community of likeminded individuals (Pariser 2012).
Part of the success of the Women2Drive movement can be attributed to the high degree of internet accessibility. According to the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX), the number of mobile cellular subscriptions in Saudi has increased dramatically since the turn of the century, with 184 subscribers per 100 inhabitants in 2013, considerably higher than the world average of 104 subscribers. There were also 61 internet users per 100 people in 2013, again higher than the global average of 43 users.
The movement’s success can also be attributed to the structural element of relative deprivation (Cortés 2017). This theory posits that social movements begin when there is a perceived ‘gap’ between value expectations and value attainment ‘relative to the situation of an individual’s neighbours’ (Lopes 2014, p.5). In this sense, online channels showed Saudi women the driving freedoms granted to women in other countries. As the last country to legally allow women to drive, this would have been a major grievance for Saudi women, motivating their desire for political change. Additionally, adults in Saudi receive on average 8.7 years of education, 0.8 years higher than the global average (HDX, 2014). This level of education also heightens the degree of grievance experienced from this inequality.
Mobilisation does not equal action
However, social media’s contribution to social movements is limited to ‘mobilisation, validation and scope enlargement’ (Gamson & Wolfsfeld 1993). Whilst mobilising social capital is important to the success of a social movement (Johar 2015), it lacks physical collective organisation. Meetings to sort out the logistics of collective action (Tufekci 2014), consensus building and the need to innovate and push past differences are lacking in the online sphere (Fingar 2017).
Instead, simply liking a post, clicking ‘attending’ on a Facebook event or signing an online petition are all forms of modern-day online political activism. In this sense, political action mediated by online platforms is transactional rather than transformative (MacLellan 2015). Thus, the reduction of participation costs precipitates a reduction in the quality of this participation, which is not offset by the broadened participant base.
Elites offer what social media cannot- the political elements to a social movement’s success. These include material, contextual and cultural factors (Cortés 2017). By virtue of being the elite, they have the power and capacity to contribute material elements such as ‘time, money, organisational skills and certain social or political opportunities’ (Lopes 2014, p. 6). Applying this to the case of Saudi, it is arguable that the elite support received by the Women2Drive movement from Princes bin Talal and bin Salman in 2016 is what eventuated in the success of this 30-year campaign (Shepp 2017).
Contextual factors include ‘the availability of applicable resources and actors’ abilities to use them effectively’ (Lopes 2014, p. 6). The Edelman (2013) ‘Diamond of Influence’ demonstrates that, even in today’s participatory political environment, authority still rests with the elites. Bottom-up influence is exerted by social activists, which reduces its impact and limits its potential for transformative action.
Talal contributes both material and contextual elements to the Women2Drive movement. By virtue of being a Saudi prince, Talal commands elite authority in Saudi. As a billionaire (Forbes 2017), Talal can also make financial contributions to the movement.
Cultural factors are analysed through interpretive frames and include discourses that resonate with the participant base (Cortés 2017). The Vision 2030 plan initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in April 2016 aims to improve the social, political and personal freedoms granted to women in Saudi Arabia and has introduced a rhetoric of equality.
Section 2.1.3 of the Vision describes the provision of equal opportunities to men and women, with one of the goals being ‘to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30%’ (Salman, 2016). The Vision also seeks to unlock ‘the talent, potential and dedication of our young men and women’ and invest into ‘education and training’ to ‘equip’ future men and women (Salman, 2016).
This rhetoric arguably develops a consensus between elites and the participants in the Women2Drive movement through a commonality of objectives- greater gender equality. In a Muslim society largely characterised by strict male guardianship laws, it is evident that elite support was necessitated to precipitate the large cultural, structural and political change that was the movement was campaigning for.
Conclusively, it is evident that social media only facilitates a broadening of the participant base of social movements and a reduction of participation costs. Success attainment still relies on elite support, specifically through contextual, cultural and material contributions. This can be seen through correlations made between the success of the Women2Drive movement in Saudi Arabia and the support it received by Princes Alwaleed bin Talal and Mohammed bin Salman.
- Al Jazeera English 2011, Saudi woman campaigns for right to drive, online video, 21 May, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gke1CYaKVOY
- Cortés, I 2017, 18981 Political actors and collective action, lecture 1, week 10: Social Movements, lecture PowerPoint slides, viewed 14 November 2017.
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- Fingar, T 2017, ‘Global Trends Affecting Political Leaders’, paper presented to students of Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, UAM, 24 November.
- Forbes 2017, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud, Profile, https://www.forbes.com/profile/prince-alwaleed-bin-talal-alsaud/
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- Humanitarian Data Exchange 2013, Internet Users, World Bank, https://data.humdata.org/dataset/internet_users.
- Humanitarian Data Exchange 2013, Mobile Cellular Subscriptions, World Bank, https://data.humdata.org/dataset/mobile_cellular_subscriptions
- Humanitarian Data Exchange 2014, Mean Years Of Schooling of Adults, World Bank, https://data.humdata.org/dataset/mean_years_of_schooling_of_adults
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- Saudi Press Agency 2017, Royal Order to Adopt Provisions of Traffic Law, Executive regulations, including Issuance of Driving Licenses for Males, Females, alike, SPA, http://www.spa.gov.sa/viewfullstory.php?lang=en&newsid=1671331
- Seidman, S (ed.) 1989, Jürgen Habermas On Society and Politics: A Reader, Beacon Press, Boston.
- Shepp, J 2017, ‘Don’t be fooled by Saudi Arabia’s plan to let women drive’, NY Mag, web log post, 30 September, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/09/dont-be-fooled-by-saudi-arabias-plan-to-let-women-drive.html
- Talal, A 2016, Stop the debate. Time for women to drive [Twitter], 20 November, Available from https://twitter.com/alwaleed_talal/status/803672332485017600?lang=en
- Talal, A 2016, Driving, 20 November, Available from http://www.alwaleed.com.sa/ar/news-and-media/news/driving/
- Tufekci, Z 2014, Online social change: easy to organise, hard to win, online video, October, https://www.ted.com/talks/zeynep_tufekci_how_the_internet_has_made_social_change_easy_to_organize_hard_to_win
- Vision of Saudi Arabia 2030, 2010 Saudi Arabia Vision, http://www.vision2030.gov.sa/