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Twitter Images of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution: New Journal Article

September 13, 2016

twitter-flagImages have a semiotic density quite different from that of words,

So if “a picture is worth a thousand words” how many tweets is it worth? And is the value different when you are trying to incite collective action?

Tamara Kharroub and Ozen Bas of the University of Indiana ask these questions about the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Claiming that “the role of social media in political activism has received much attention in recent years [but] the role of social media images remains largely understudied” they seek to fill this lacunae by looking at images circulated via Twitter.

To be precise, they ask three questions:

  1. What are the most dominant visual themes (in terms of emotionally arousing and efficacy-eliciting content) in the Twitter images posted during Egypt’s 2011 revolution?
  2. Does the content of images (emotionally arousing vs efficacy-eliciting) vary
    across the different phases of the Egyptian revolution?
  3. Does user information (user role, gender, and location) predict the number of
    retweets an image receives?

The authors use retweets to seek answers to these questions, arguing that:

In Twitter, retweets are commonly accepted as measures of the attention a message
receives and the popularity of a tweet… Retweets are also useful indicators of the influence of an image because they are a simple, common way of demonstrating people’s interest in content and its reach… We seek to investigate the relationship between the content of an image and the total number of times the image is retweeted. We, therefore, hypothesize the following: Emotionally arousing images (containing violence) will be retweeted more than efficacy-eliciting images (containing crowds, protest activities, and uniting symbols).

They discovered:

  1. Almost half of the images contained protest activities (41.00%), 35.00% of images contained crowds, and about a third of the images (31.50%) contained national and religious symbols. In contrast to these efficacy-eliciting themes, only 16.70% of all images contained violence. In sum, images showed overwhelmingly more efficacy-related content (crowds, protest activities, and uniting symbols) than emotionally arousing content (violence).
  2. images posted by users in Egypt contained significantly less violence than images posted by users in other Arab countries and images posted by users in non-Arab countries. Images posted by users in Egypt, and in other Arab countries contained significantly more crowds than those posted by users in non-Arab countries. These patterns show that overall images posted by users located in Egypt (which make up 55.4% of users) contained more efficacy-eliciting and less emotionally arousing content than image posted elsewhere
  3. images posted during the height of the protests contained more violent content

    than the period after Mubarak’s resignation, contained more images of crowds compared to the period after the revolution and more images displaying protest activities than the period after Mubarak’s resignation. On the other hand, images containing national and religious symbols were posted significantly more after Mubarak’s resignation than during the times of protests

Here’s the abstract:

Whereas the role of social media in political activism has received much attention in recent years, the role of social media images remains largely understudied. Given the potential of emotional and efficacy-related visual content for motivating activism, this exploratory content analysis examined the content of Twitter images of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. The analysis of 581 images revealed more efficacy-eliciting (crowds, protest activities, national and religious symbols) than emotionally arousing (violent) content, especially posted by Egyptian users. However, emotionally arousing content decreased, whereas efficacy-eliciting content increased at times of instability. Furthermore, popularity of images was more associated with user information than the content itself. Images posted by activists and users outside Egypt received the most attention. The findings are discussed in terms of possible explanations for the content patterns and their potential impact on Twitter audience, as well as their contributions toward establishing a theory of user-generated content during political movements.


Kharroub, Tamara and Ozen Bas. 2016. Social media and protests: An examination of Twitter images of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.  New Media & Society 18(9):1973-1992

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