The goal of this research is to explore the opportunities brought about by the use of new media in urban protests. Specifically, it investigates the use of the Internet in modern protest movements that failed to bring about the changes they sought, using Bahrain as a case study. The focus is put on urban movements that continue revolutionary activism off- and online in the sixth year after the failure of the Bahraini uprising. This research assesses the need to maintain an online presence for these cities and explains the goals of their online presence. The paper also aims to understand what type of variations exist within these urban movements; and analyzes the interplay between such online manifestations and online censorship. This research is based on the critical discourse analysis of web content and graphic representations produced by Bahraini activists on particular online sites pertaining to each city in question.

INTRODUCTION

This research focuses on the subversive strategies of the opposition groups deployed through the use of social media in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Specifically, it looks at how urban movements use social media discourses to negotiate and subvert the understanding of what has become, over time, a clear failure to bring about the political changes they seek. Consequently, it follows urban social movements in circumstances where the political opportunity structure (POS) is closed; yet, these movements continue to operate despite repression and use social media to encourage ongoing activism in spite of the casualties they suffer. The research questions are thus multifold:

  • Why continue activism in conditions of no opportunity for political change that are particularly hopeless and when the cost of activism is high?

  • How does the urban environment impact activism?

  • What is the role of social media in such circumstances?

First, it is imperative to ask if there is a similarity between Western urban movements studied previously and those in the Arabian Gulf. Based on his analysis of case studies in Europe and the Americas, Castells (1983, 287) theorized that an urban social movement stems from densely populated environments that produced inequalities among residents of the city and defined it as “a conscious collective practice originating in urban issues, able to produce qualitative changes in the urban system, local culture, and political institutions in contradiction to the dominant social interests institutionalized as such at the societal level.” He analyzed, among others, urban movements in Madrid during General Franco’s era and concluded that authoritarianism was an intrinsic element of the mobilization as the existence of such social movements directly challenged the system. Nicholls (2008) highlighted the fact that the density of population and the urban layout encourage activism. In the context of Bahrain, urban movements take on a slightly different character. Bahrain is, from many points of view, a unique case for analysis. It has a small land size of 770 km2 and a tiny population of 1.4 million and is characterized by multiple social cleavages. The cities where activism continues are, in the most part, former rural villages that over time became urbanized zones; yet, their small sizes stand out. Rather than representing purely urban issues, the movements are ethnic and denominational (Shia Arab) in nature and formed by tight-knit communities. These populations became urban as part of the process of urbanization, but their primary characteristics and concerns are of a different nature. The urban layout provides, however, the ground for activism and the authoritarian context is intrinsic to the mobilization. It is important to analyze why such small communities, characterized by face-to-face contact, resort to the use of social media to support their activism, and what type of discourses they produce and disseminate in order to continue their struggle. This research is thus novel in nature. The researcher followed the development of discursive strategies online over a five-year period in order to understand the roles social media play and the types of discursive strategies used to negotiate the construction of reality and community. Indeed, “at the center of all resistance movements lie rhetorical resources that express opposition, agitate for change, inspire and signal cohesion, and project visions of a transformed social order” (Hauser and McClellan 2009, 24). The discussion will address key issues related to social movement theory.

In order to answer the above research questions, this study assesses the need to maintain an online presence for these cities and the discursive strategies used in their online manifestations. Second, the paper studies what types of variations exist within these urban movements. Third, it analyzes the interplay between such online manifestations and online censorship. This study is based on the analysis of web content and graphic representations produced by Bahraini activists on particular online sites pertaining to each city in question. For the purpose of analysis, qualitative content and critical discourse analysis (CDA) are applied.

LITERATURE REVIEW: SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND THE MEDIA

According to Tarrow (1998, 19–20), POSs are “consistent—but not necessarily formal, permanent or national—dimensions of the political environment that provide incentives for people to undertake collective action by affecting their expectations for success or failure.” They can be temporary when a “window of opportunity” presents itself, opening up the opportunities for activism. In the context of Bahrain, anti-government sentiment has been fermenting for the past three decades leading occasionally to violent upheavals, and it has continued despite some political liberalization reforms conducted in the early 2000s. The successes of the Tunisian and the Egyptian popular uprisings at the beginning of the Arab Spring mobilized Bahraini activists with a renewed driving force to bring international sympathy and attention to the kingdom by inscribing their activism into the broader regional Arab movement. Thus, POS seemed to be opening. Following the strategies applied in other countries, Bahraini activists, who issued mostly from the Shia sect, occupied a central landmark: Pearl Roundabout, in February 2011. Yet, the 2011 upheaval failed to succeed as Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops entered Bahrain to support the Sunni monarchy. The movement was quickly suppressed and central areas were cleared of protesters; further negotiations with the government failed to produce any results. Nonetheless, the activism has been continuing since 2011 in the form of clandestine urban movements centered in various cities inhabited by communities that share the anti-government sentiment. Recent years have witnessed an increased crackdown on the opposition activism that marks the final closure of the POS, at least for now. Yet, despite many casualties, the movement did not stop.

POS theories rely on rational choices, as stated by Tarrow (1998, 77): “Rational people do not often attack well-fortified opponents.” The continuation of protests in the circumstances of acute persecution and complete lack of opportunity to bring about change is irrational. However, critics argued against the rational choice behind activists’ decisions. First, Goodwin and Jasper (2004, 14) stated that “mobilization is often a defensive response to contracting political opportunities.” Furthermore, contrary to rational choice strategies, Jasper (2004, 4) stressed that “All strategic action is filtered through cultural understandings, but at the same time cultural meanings are used strategically to persuade audience. [. . .] Strategic choices are one component of the microfoundations of political action. We need to understand what happens at the microlevel of individuals and their interactions in order to evaluate and improve our theories at the macro level of movements [. . .].” Finally, researchers highlight the fact that acquiring an activist habitus through continued activism is crucial for understanding why some individuals become activists in the first place (Crossley 2002). One develops an identity as an activist in the process of political socialization that involves the transmission of values, ideologies, and activist practices. Such cultural understandings are part of collective action frames that encourage the formation and activism of social movements (Benford and Snow 2000, 614). Tarrow (1998, 122) refers to the link between collective action frames and language: “Out of a toolkit of possible symbols, movement entrepreneurs choose those that they hope will mediate among the cultural underpinnings of the groups they appeal to, the sources of official culture and the militants of their movement—and still reflect their own beliefs and aspirations. To relate text to context, grammar to semantics, we need a concept more suited to the interactive nature of social movements and their societies.” This concept is precisely collective action frames composed of injustice, identity, and agency frames (Gamson 1992). While CDA (explained below) can help uncover the frames, it is important to understand the role of the media in shaping such processes.

In the past, traditional mass media had a “practical monopoly” on “mediated representations” (Friedman 2002, 25), supporting the monopoly of communication confined to traditional elites, such as governments, churches, or political parties. In this context, Baudrillard (1981, 176) criticized mass media in the aftermath of the May 1968 protests in France for reducing the movement to a single meaning despite playing a role in popularizing the strikes France wide. He stressed the importance of “real revolutionary media” characterized by immediacy of communication “given and returned, spoken and answered, mobile in the same space and time, reciprocal and antagonistic.” These included street walls, posters, notices, and speech exchanged on the street. With the advent of information and communication technology (ICT), this immediacy can be replicated online. Webpages serve as walls on which to post slogans, pictures, and graphics. On the other hand, communication using Twitter, Facebook, and mobile phones has allowed instant messaging that promotes online discussions and the exchange of ideas. Online media have become the “real revolutionary media” in the Arab Spring movements and prevent the change of meanings (or simply lack of information) in the mass media, which is especially important in countries where the latter are fully under government control. Within the context of Bahrain, the introduction of the Internet in the mid-1990s slowly tilted the power to disseminate information from the state to the citizen. In the past, for instance, during the uprising of the 1990s, the state had a monopoly on the flow of information in the country. The growing access to the Internet and the liberalization of the telecommunications market in the 2000s provided Bahraini activists with a new information tool and produced a generation of online activists who began to express their opinions in public forums. Soon, the Internet became a platform through which to exchange critical views, organize popular mobilization, and spread news of events that would have been otherwise omitted from the local media channels (Desmukh 2010). The extensive use of ICT in the Arab Spring uprisings is a widely acknowledged phenomenon (Howard and Hussain 2011, Khamis and Vaughn 2011). Indeed, ICT enabled the creation of alternative media that serve as channels for the dissemination of uprising-related content. The importance of the use of social media in relation to the Arab Spring events in Bahrain is reflected in the Facebook statistics in the category of most popular media. According to data from Socialbakers (2013), a company providing social media network statistics, among the top ten most popular Facebook sites in Bahrain in the media category in 2013, five included spontaneous anti-governmental social media and one was the opposition newspaper Al Wasat. The remaining four were Alalam News (a transnational Shia channel), the Bahraini e-government portal, a general knowledge site and a webpage devoted to health. It is noteworthy that on the eve of the uprising, Bahrain’s Internet connectivity was estimated at 88% of Bahrain’s inhabitants (Internet World Stats 2010). In addition, mobile phone penetration rates reached 158% (Gulf Daily News 2012).

Social media offer activists the possibility of broadcasting their own cultural understanding and meanings of reality. These interpretations created and diffused through social media play a central role in the creation of collective action frames necessary for social movement formation. The analysis of the social media is crucial in order to understand the continued activism in Bahrain.

METHODOLOGY AND DATA COLLECTION

With regards to methodology applied to the website contents, researchers often choose an unobtrusive method: content analysis (D’Enbeau 2011, el-Nawawy and Khamis 2010, Russel 2005). Content analysis is well suited for retrieving frames from any written, verbal, or visual form of communication (Cole 1988). Given its wide scope of application, it is an appropriate method to begin this study. In the process of inductive content analysis that has been applied in this study, categories or concepts were obtained to describe the studied phenomenon. Nonetheless, some scholars argue that a more eclectic approach to framing should be applied, since multiple cues exist that make up the frames in a text such as “images, language, labels and definitions, offered explanations, assigned responsibility, proposed solutions, contextualization and links, historical associations metaphors, [and] emotional appeals” (Kitzinger 2007, 141–42). Following this lead, the researcher chose to apply CDA, a complementary method used for content analysis. Content analysis concentrates on the text itself, without taking into account the context in which it was produced, that is, the social reality, the producer, and the audience. CDA, on the contrary, concentrates on understanding “the meaning of social reality for actors” (Hardy, Harley and Phillips 2004, 19). It stresses that social reality is constructed through meaningful interaction and strives to examine how that reality was produced. In addition, these discourses or “interrelated bodies of texts” (Hardy et al. 2004, 20) bring new ideas, objects, and practices to life. It is important to note that CDA is subjective in its approach: “[d]iscourse analysis does not look for truth but rather at who claims to have truth, and at how these claims are justified in terms of expressed and implicit narratives of authority” (Carver 2002, 52). It is clear that a text must be located in historical and social reality in order to be interpreted. As a result, CDA complements content analysis and allows the researcher to interpret meanings. Beginning with content analysis, the author applied CDA following its principles, namely, a constructionist, inductive, and subjective approach to data. Specifically, Fairclough’s (1995) three-dimensional discourse analysis model that includes the object of analysis (the text), the processes through which the object is produced and received (discursive practice), and the social and cultural structures that conduct these processes (social practice) was applied to the data. Graphical content was analyzed following Barthes’ (1961) principles of semiotic theory in order to decode their connotations. Data from the selected accounts were downloaded and analyzed using the timeframe February 1, 2011–January 31, 2016.

The choice behind the type of social media analyzed in this study follows the developments of the 2011 uprising. Although the Bahraini opposition movement sought to construct an overarching Bahraini identity and even a pan-Arab one that would surpass the sectarian cleavages (Karolak 2017, 95), it is the Shia population that has formed the core of the anti-government movements in the past, opposing the Sunni-led monarchy. Given the past history of settlement of the Bahraini islands (Louër 2008, 20), the Shia settlements are geographically distributed in former rural villages. Those are the same areas that have experienced the most intense urban protests since 2011 (Figure 1).

FIGURE 1.

Distribution of Major Opposition Urban Zones. Note: Major areas: 1, Hamala; 2, Buri; 3, Hamad Town* (mixed population of Sunni and Shia); 4, Dumistan; 5, Karzakhan; 6, Malkiya; 7, Zallaq*; 8, Aali; 9, Salmabad; 10, Isa Town* (mixed population); 11, Tubli**; 12, Sanad; 13, Nuwaidrat; 14, Al Eker; 15, Sitra; 16, Nabi Saleh; 17, Juffair; 18, Dair; 19, Samaheej; 20, Diraz; 21, Barbar*; 22, Jannusan; 23, Karranah; 24, Karbabad; 25, Jidhafs; 26, Sanabis; 27, Bani Jamrah; 28, Bilad Al Qadim; Al Manamah—capital district. For the definitions of “*” and “**,” see the text.

FIGURE 1.

Distribution of Major Opposition Urban Zones. Note: Major areas: 1, Hamala; 2, Buri; 3, Hamad Town* (mixed population of Sunni and Shia); 4, Dumistan; 5, Karzakhan; 6, Malkiya; 7, Zallaq*; 8, Aali; 9, Salmabad; 10, Isa Town* (mixed population); 11, Tubli**; 12, Sanad; 13, Nuwaidrat; 14, Al Eker; 15, Sitra; 16, Nabi Saleh; 17, Juffair; 18, Dair; 19, Samaheej; 20, Diraz; 21, Barbar*; 22, Jannusan; 23, Karranah; 24, Karbabad; 25, Jidhafs; 26, Sanabis; 27, Bani Jamrah; 28, Bilad Al Qadim; Al Manamah—capital district. For the definitions of “*” and “**,” see the text.

For the purpose of analysis, the search of social media included the names of these cities in Bahrain as well as the words “Facebook,” “Twitter,” “revolution,” “uprising,” and “Arab Spring” in both English and Arabic. The online search revealed, unsurprisingly, that areas that have a longstanding tradition of protest have a marked online presence reflecting the existence of an urban movement. Based on the search conducted online and depending on the webpages’ popularity and the levels of activism, the following webpages were shortlisted. They include websites not blocked by the authorities, that is, they can be freely accessed in Bahrain. The preference was given to Twitter over Facebook since the former includes information about the followers and numbers of tweets that helps one understand the intensity of online activism. The areas marked with an asterisk (*) were found to be irrelevant (no webpage found); those marked with a double asterisk (**) show that a website existed but was no longer active at the time of research. As a result of the search, the pages shown in Table 1 were found. Based on the search, the researcher shortlisted the ten most popular and most active webpages, which were subsequently included in the data analysis. These webpages are shown in Table 2.

TABLE 1.

Online Presence of Particular Cities

Location (with map number)WebpageFollowers and numbers of posts
1. Hamala https://twitter.com/ahrarhamala?lang=ar 34,000 (followers)
30,800 (Tweets) 
2. Buri https://twitter.com/boorinews?lang=ar 7470 (followers)
9366 (Tweets) 
4. Dumistan https://twitter.com/freedumistan?lang=ar 29,700 (followers)
77,700 (Tweets) 
5. Karzakkan https://twitter.com/karzakkannews?lang=ar 39,400 followers
79,500 (Tweets) 
6. Malkiya https://twitter.com/malkiya_youth?lang=ar 37,100 (followers)
56,900 (Tweets) 
8. Aali https://twitter.com/aalinews?lang=ar 48,400 (followers)
91,700 (Tweets) 
9. Salmabad https://twitter.com/askansalmabad?lang=ar 6000 (followers)
1381 (Tweets) 
12. Sanad https://twitter.com/sanadnews 19,600 (followers)
23,800 (Tweets) 
13. Nuwaidrat https://twitter.com/nuwaidratfeb?lang=ar 41,700 (followers)
38,700 (Tweets) 
14. Al Eker https://twitter.com/AlekerNews 62,500 (followers)
85,500 (Tweets) 
15. Sitra https://twitter.com/sitra_media 147,000 (followers)
171,000 (Tweets) 
16. Nabi Saleh https://twitter.com/nabihsalehnews?lang=ar 17,000 (followers)
20,500 (Tweets) 
17. Juffair https://twitter.com/juffair14media?lang=ar 36,700 (followers)
49,300 (Tweets) 
18. Dair https://twitter.com/aldair14media?lang=ar 46,100 (followers)
85,000 (Tweets) 
19. Samaheej https://twitter.com/samaheejvoice?lang=ar 26,000 (followers)
47,700 (Tweets) 
20. Diraz https://twitter.com/durazyouth?lang=ar 48,900 (followers)
83,000 (Tweets) 
22. Janussan https://twitter.com/harkatjannousan 8,300 (followers)
9,100 (Tweets) 
23. Karranah https://twitter.com/KarranahNews 71,800 (followers)
89,500 (Tweets) 
24. Karbabad https://twitter.com/media_karbabad?lang=ar 31,400 (followers)
54,600 (Tweets) 
25. Jidhafs https://twitter.com/JidhafsNews 48,700 (followers)
30,900 (Tweets) 
26. Sanabis https://twitter.com/SanabisNews 72,300 (followers)
76,400 (Tweets) 
27. Bani Jamrah https://twitter.com/BaniJamrah_News 69,600 (followers)
30,000 (Tweets) 
28. Bilad Al Qadim https://twitter.com/biladqadeem?lang=ar 54,700 (followers)
82,600 (Tweets) 
Manama capital city https://twitter.com/manama_news?lang=ar 32,100 (followers)
29,800 (Tweets) 
Location (with map number)WebpageFollowers and numbers of posts
1. Hamala https://twitter.com/ahrarhamala?lang=ar 34,000 (followers)
30,800 (Tweets) 
2. Buri https://twitter.com/boorinews?lang=ar 7470 (followers)
9366 (Tweets) 
4. Dumistan https://twitter.com/freedumistan?lang=ar 29,700 (followers)
77,700 (Tweets) 
5. Karzakkan https://twitter.com/karzakkannews?lang=ar 39,400 followers
79,500 (Tweets) 
6. Malkiya https://twitter.com/malkiya_youth?lang=ar 37,100 (followers)
56,900 (Tweets) 
8. Aali https://twitter.com/aalinews?lang=ar 48,400 (followers)
91,700 (Tweets) 
9. Salmabad https://twitter.com/askansalmabad?lang=ar 6000 (followers)
1381 (Tweets) 
12. Sanad https://twitter.com/sanadnews 19,600 (followers)
23,800 (Tweets) 
13. Nuwaidrat https://twitter.com/nuwaidratfeb?lang=ar 41,700 (followers)
38,700 (Tweets) 
14. Al Eker https://twitter.com/AlekerNews 62,500 (followers)
85,500 (Tweets) 
15. Sitra https://twitter.com/sitra_media 147,000 (followers)
171,000 (Tweets) 
16. Nabi Saleh https://twitter.com/nabihsalehnews?lang=ar 17,000 (followers)
20,500 (Tweets) 
17. Juffair https://twitter.com/juffair14media?lang=ar 36,700 (followers)
49,300 (Tweets) 
18. Dair https://twitter.com/aldair14media?lang=ar 46,100 (followers)
85,000 (Tweets) 
19. Samaheej https://twitter.com/samaheejvoice?lang=ar 26,000 (followers)
47,700 (Tweets) 
20. Diraz https://twitter.com/durazyouth?lang=ar 48,900 (followers)
83,000 (Tweets) 
22. Janussan https://twitter.com/harkatjannousan 8,300 (followers)
9,100 (Tweets) 
23. Karranah https://twitter.com/KarranahNews 71,800 (followers)
89,500 (Tweets) 
24. Karbabad https://twitter.com/media_karbabad?lang=ar 31,400 (followers)
54,600 (Tweets) 
25. Jidhafs https://twitter.com/JidhafsNews 48,700 (followers)
30,900 (Tweets) 
26. Sanabis https://twitter.com/SanabisNews 72,300 (followers)
76,400 (Tweets) 
27. Bani Jamrah https://twitter.com/BaniJamrah_News 69,600 (followers)
30,000 (Tweets) 
28. Bilad Al Qadim https://twitter.com/biladqadeem?lang=ar 54,700 (followers)
82,600 (Tweets) 
Manama capital city https://twitter.com/manama_news?lang=ar 32,100 (followers)
29,800 (Tweets) 
TABLE 2.

Webpages Chosen for Analysis According to Popularity Numbers

LocationWebpageFollowers and numbers of posts
15. Sitra https://twitter.com/sitra_media 147,000 (followers)
171,000 (Tweets) 
26. Sanabis https://twitter.com/SanabisNews 72,300 (followers)
76,400 (Tweets) 
23. Karranah https://twitter.com/KarranahNews 71,800 (followers)
89,500 (Tweets) 
22. Bani Jamrah https://twitter.com/BaniJamrah_News 69,600 (followers)
30,000 (Tweets) 
14. Al Eker https://twitter.com/AlekerNews 62,500 (followers)
85,500 (Tweets) 
28. Bilad Al Qadim https://twitter.com/biladqadeem?lang=ar 54,700 (followers)
82,600 (Tweets) 
20. Diraz https://twitter.com/durazyouth?lang=ar 48,900 (followers)
83,000 (Tweets) 
25. Jidhafs https://twitter.com/JidhafsNews 48,700 (followers)
30,900 (Tweets) 
8. Aali https://twitter.com/aalinews?lang=ar 48,400 (followers)
91,700 (Tweets) 
18. Dair https://twitter.com/aldair14media?lang=ar 46,100 (followers)
85,000 (Tweets) 
LocationWebpageFollowers and numbers of posts
15. Sitra https://twitter.com/sitra_media 147,000 (followers)
171,000 (Tweets) 
26. Sanabis https://twitter.com/SanabisNews 72,300 (followers)
76,400 (Tweets) 
23. Karranah https://twitter.com/KarranahNews 71,800 (followers)
89,500 (Tweets) 
22. Bani Jamrah https://twitter.com/BaniJamrah_News 69,600 (followers)
30,000 (Tweets) 
14. Al Eker https://twitter.com/AlekerNews 62,500 (followers)
85,500 (Tweets) 
28. Bilad Al Qadim https://twitter.com/biladqadeem?lang=ar 54,700 (followers)
82,600 (Tweets) 
20. Diraz https://twitter.com/durazyouth?lang=ar 48,900 (followers)
83,000 (Tweets) 
25. Jidhafs https://twitter.com/JidhafsNews 48,700 (followers)
30,900 (Tweets) 
8. Aali https://twitter.com/aalinews?lang=ar 48,400 (followers)
91,700 (Tweets) 
18. Dair https://twitter.com/aldair14media?lang=ar 46,100 (followers)
85,000 (Tweets) 

In addition to Twitter, it was also observed that these cities simultaneously maintain Facebook accounts that create a visual repository of their activism. While Twitter provides a platform for the fast spread of information, tweets often include links to the Facebook pages that offer further testimony to the events occurring in the area. As a result, whenever necessary, the researcher also considered such links in order to understand the interplay of the use of both Facebook and Twitter as revolutionary media. Data were collected between February 2011 and January 2016.

ANALYSIS OF WEB CONTENT

Van Dijk (1998, 138) stressed that dominant groups have ideologies that are used to legitimate their power or to manufacture consent or a consensus, while dominated groups may also create ideologies that may be used to channel resistance to the dominant powers. Such ideologies offer different social representations that “positively serve to empower dominated groups, to create solidarity, to organize struggle and to sustain opposition.” In the case of Bahrain, the urban movements fall within the case of dominated groups. Their production on social media offers an example of ideologies subversive to the dominant groups.

Sociocultural Practice and Discourse Practice

To begin, it is necessary to analyze the sociocultural practice that comprises the situational, institutional, and societal aspects of media production (Fairclough 1995). The Bahraini urban movements clearly identify their function of serving as alternative media channels. Some call themselves directly “revolutionary media” (Bani Jamrah, Jidhafs), while all others use the terms “network” or “news.” This is a common pattern for webpages created in relation to the 2011 uprising (Figure 2).

FIGURE 2.

Example of the Use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as Alternative Media

FIGURE 2.

Example of the Use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as Alternative Media

The context in which such a need arises requires closer examination. Within Bahrain’s legal framework, freedom of speech is guaranteed “provided that the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine are not infringed, the unity of the people is not prejudiced, and discord or sectarianism is not aroused” (Article 23 of the 2001 Constitution). The Press Law (Decree Law No. 47 of 2002) provides additional limitations to the contents allowed for public circulation. Article 19 specifies that “it is possible to prohibit circulation of publications instigating hatred of the political regime, encroaching on the state’s official religion, breaching ethics, encroaching on religions and jeopardizing public peace or raising issues whose publication is prohibited by the provisions of this law.” Article 133 of the Bahraini Penal Code foresees a punishment of up to ten years in jail upon any person “who deliberately announces in wartime false or malicious news, statements or rumors or mounts adverse publicity campaigns, so as to cause damage to military preparations for defending the State of Bahrain or military operations of the Armed Forces, to cause people to panic or to weaken the nation’s perseverance.” These provisions also apply to defaming the country’s image abroad. The Internet in Bahrain is filtered in order to block webpages that breach these legal provisions (Figure 3).

FIGURE 3.

Internet Filtering in Bahrain

FIGURE 3.

Internet Filtering in Bahrain

The Arab Spring affected the context of online activism in Bahrain in two ways. First, it exacerbated the crackdown of on- and offline activists. Reporters Without Borders (2011), an independent nongovernmental organization (NGO), reported that several Bahraini activists were arrested and prosecuted in the aftermath of the uprising. The detained activists included bloggers, citizen journalists, and professional journalists of the opposition newspaper Al Wasat. In addition, it was reported that some activists died in custody or in other circumstances that were unaccounted for. Bahraini activists put on trial were involved in both on- and offline activism and were tried for the alleged attempt to overthrow the regime. Their trials resulted in lengthy sentences, ranging from fifteen years to life imprisonment, which in some cases were changed to house arrest. Moreover, after the violent clampdown on Pearl Roundabout, foreign correspondents and human rights activists were gradually expelled from the country and Bahrain disappeared from the headlines of international newspapers.

Second, the Arab Spring exacerbated the censorship of the media. The independent Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) (2011, 411) found that the media coverage of the 2011 events was biased in favor of the regime. Yet, new legislative changes limiting free expression were approved in 2013. A new law stipulates that anyone who in any way defames the king, Bahrain’s or the GCC’s flag or coat of arms, could be jailed for up to five years and handed a fine of 10,000 Bahraini dinars (US$26,500). Despite the BICI’s recommendations that censorship be relaxed and the opposition allowed greater access to television broadcasts, radio broadcasts, and print media, the situation has recently deteriorated further with the indefinite suspension of the only opposition newspaper Al Wasat in June 2017. Developments in the aftermath of the uprising affected Bahrain’s press freedom rankings are shown in Table 3.

TABLE 3.

Press Freedom Ranking of Bahrain

Year200220062011–1220132017
Reporters Without Borders ranking 67/138 countries 111/168 countries 173/179 countries 165/179 countries 164/180 countries 
Freedom House (0–100 ranking, where 0 = most free) 75 (not free) 72 (not free) 84 (not free) 86 (not free) 87 (not free) 
Year200220062011–1220132017
Reporters Without Borders ranking 67/138 countries 111/168 countries 173/179 countries 165/179 countries 164/180 countries 
Freedom House (0–100 ranking, where 0 = most free) 75 (not free) 72 (not free) 84 (not free) 86 (not free) 87 (not free) 

Within this context, the revolutionary social media fulfill the need to provide updates of the developments in specific cities they represent, and as some accounts (Karana, Bilad Al Qadeem) directly mention in Bahrain overall, thus bypassing the official channels of information that follow censorship guidelines. With the closing down of Al Wasat newspaper, social media remain the only channel through which to express the opinions of opposition circles. By doing so, however, they break the legal provisions of the country and run the risk of heavy penalties, despite their webpages not being blocked in Bahrain. The social media analyzed provide updates on political developments and practical information for the inhabitants, warning them about the deployment of security forces. They also inform their followers about the upcoming demonstrations and sit-ins as well as the fate of political prisoners from the area. As a result, they constitute the parallel media for the inhabitants of these communities providing them with easy access to information that otherwise does not circulate in the official media. That is one reason why the revolutionary media play an important role in the lives of some Bahraini communities, despite their members having face-to-face contact. The processes of production and interpretation of those media therefore reveal the informal—anonymous at least in theory, and what could be understood as illegal and punishable by law—activities.

Textual and Visual Analysis

The webpages analyzed support revolutionary activism and often directly refer to the urban movement propagating the revolution. The Bani Jamrah account refers to its location as “rebel town,” while Sanabis’ account mentions representing a “revolutionary movement,” and Diraz, Al Aali and Al Dair a “youth movement.” Al Eker’s account states the “overthrow of the regime” as one of the goals. It is clear that the online presence of the cities in uprising keeps the revolutionary cause alive, hence it falls within the assisting action and mobilization function, which is consistent with the agency frame discussed previously. Indeed, the arrival of GCC forces in Bahrain and the final pacification of Pearl Roundabout revealed the weakness of the Arab Spring movements in Bahrain. Unable to fulfill their goals, the movement was contained and reduced mostly to clandestine activities in multiple cities that continue to be heavily patrolled. As a result, keeping the uprising spirit alive in the sixth year after its containment is a vital goal of the online webpages. The ongoing activities documented meticulously online center on acts of civil disobedience carried out in the cities on a daily basis as well as coordinated joint actions of various cities. The activities include demonstrations (despite a ban on public gatherings), setting roadblocks by burning tires and placing debris, clashes with police patrols and traffic disruptions, etc. The activism resembles at times urban guerrilla tactics with occasional use of homemade explosives and weapons such as iron rods, and activists wearing black masks. Every activity is illustrated with pictures and the content is updated often on a real-time basis. The carrying out of such operations, which are branded terrorist acts by the authorities, is an act of defiance that can have severe consequences for perpetrators. Nonetheless, it assures the social movement actors of the continuity of their fight. It is thus an act of not giving up the causes that they initially stood for, and it provides them with a belief that they should not admit defeat, yet even in light of the government keeping the upper hand. Every action carried out by the urban movements is pictured and posted online as soon as possible to motivate their followers further.

This attitude is revealed through the symbolism of the movements that refers to the central point of convergence of the uprising: Pearl Roundabout. The occupation of this landmark marked the initial success of the uprising. Yet, it was met with the uncompromising attitude of the security forces. On February 17, 2011, the security forces pacified Pearl Roundabout. The families who camped there were removed and the area was cleared of makeshift tents. Protesters who attempted to return to the occupation of the roundabout were shot at close range. Pacification led to several casualties and the use of force against civilians was ultimately judged as “both unnecessary and disproportionate” (BICI 2011, 166). The events of February 17 were symbolically named by the opposition movement as “Bloody Thursday.” On February 19, protesters were allowed to return to Pearl Roundabout and remained camped there till March 16. After the final clearing of the roundabout by the security forces on March 16, the authorities decided to demolish the monument. The decision to revamp the area was motivated by the need to “cleanse” the monument which had been “violated” and “desecrated” by the “vile” anti-government protests (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor 2011). Coins bearing the image of the monument were removed from circulation. Given its symbolism for the movement and the attempts at obliteration of its image from collective consciousness, Pearl Roundabout became the official logo of the Bahraini opposition movements (Figures 46). Social media serve as an outlet for creative expression emphasizing the revolutionary rhetoric through symbols of Pearl Roundabout, a raised fist, and often stress martyrdom for the cause. It is also important to note that despite the sectarian factor, the opposition presents itself as the embodiment of Bahrain; hence, a Bahraini flag is part of the revolutionary aesthetics.

FIGURE 4–6.

Pearl Roundabout used as a Symbol in the Movement’s Logos. Note: (from left to right) Al Eker and Jidhafs, and (below) Bilad Al Qadeem

FIGURE 4–6.

Pearl Roundabout used as a Symbol in the Movement’s Logos. Note: (from left to right) Al Eker and Jidhafs, and (below) Bilad Al Qadeem

Textual analysis of written documents should focus on vocabulary, grammar, semantics, the sound system, and cohesion-organization above the sentence level (Fairclough 1995). Fairclough (1995) mentions a number of tools for the analysis of texts, among others, vocabulary, transitivity (passive versus active modes), mood and modality, etc. The textual analysis of the vocabulary reveals a clear cut division between “us” and “them,” which is consistent with the identity frame (Gamson 1992). In order to keep the revolutionary spirit alive, webpages include revolutionary rhetoric highlighting the injustice of the current situation, which corresponds to the injustice frame. Activists denounce the “oppressive” and “usurper” regime. They contrast their firm and defiant attitude with that of the security forces, which are referred to as regime “mercenaries” and “terrorists” and portrayed as “brutal” villains who break into houses, carry out “arbitrary arrests,” and “suffocate” cities with “toxic gases.” In revolutionary rhetoric, it is a fight between right and wrong, one in which the activists will ultimately “crush the aggressors.” Rural Arab Shias (Baharna), who form the majority of the urban activists, often highlight the fact that they are the indigenous inhabitants of Bahrain and perpetuate a memory of the conquest of Bahrain by the ruling family of Al Khalifa and their subsequent subservience to the new masters of the land (Louër 2008, 20). The forces of the monarchy are referred to as “mercenaries” and “criminals,” which emphasizes their detachment from what they believe to be the real Bahraini nation. This identity frame opposes, from their perspective, the “righteous” from the “wicked.” The slogan “Ready to die for Bahrain” adopted to represent the revolutionary spirit is a clear message of the activists’ devotion to Bahrain as their land that needs to be freed from the “oppressors.” The revolutionary rhetoric portrays the movement members as active agents who can grasp the future with their hands. In this black-and-white representation of reality, references to the occasional casualties of clashes on the government side are nonexistent.

On the other hand, the passive voice is used when depicting the “suffering” of the city inhabitants. Drastic pictures of wounds suffered in clashes, fractures, as well as bodies on autopsy tables are posted to create what Jasper (1998, 409) calls a “moral shock” that would rise “such a sense of outrage in a person that she becomes inclined towards political action, whether or not she has acquaintances in the movement.” The peculiar trait of this sentiment is centered on the religiously motivated martyrdom for the revolutionary cause, as will be discussed below. Consequently, webpages depict the strengthening of the city community around a common sentiment and the further strengthening of the revolutionary community overall in which online activism plays an important role. The revolutionary activities are portrayed as including all inhabitants, no matter their age or gender. Children, the elderly, and women participate on an equal footing with young men. Some activities are separated by gender; however, the mixing of genders often occurs as women participate and address mixed-gender gatherings.

Apart from focusing on the city community, the aim is to connect with other revolutionary areas in Bahrain; hence, they occasionally include postings of events organized elsewhere or jointly coordinated actions, for instance, to support prominent Shia clerics. At times they reach out to the international community to gain support or to support their activism, among others, the movements in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. This is the function of forming lateral linkages.

All in all, the Internet promotes the interaction and dialogue of revolutionary communities in Bahrain. It should be noted, however, that in the online environment strong and weak ties alike are strengthened within the in-group and not within the out-groups. As a result, the created social capital, defined as “networks of mutual obligations for outstanding favors, flows of information and enforceable shared norms, residing in relationships between individuals or families in communities” (Purdue 2007, 10), remains within the communities in uprising. This view is supported by the analysis of the webpages that prove to cement cognitive and relational dimensions within these communities of resistance, and echoes the findings of Al-Shaikh and Campbell (2013, 157).

Apart from rallying for continuous activism, social media in Bahrain also play an additional role of creating a repository for the collective memory of these communities. This need for the preservation of their version of history was visible through the creation of the Museum of the Revolution, which depicts the protests and their casualties. The museum was, however, closed by the authorities within two days of its opening. As a result, social media began to serve as an archive of events, which is marked, among others, by casualties among the community members. Social media provide the only outlet for preservation of the collective memory for the communities involved in the anti-government movements. Rather than relying on verbal transmission, the Internet serves as an outlet to inscribe the versions of history for those who are not in a position of power, and thus do not get to set the official versions of history and, as a result, do not get acknowledged in the official accounts.

City Variations

It is important to stress that there is a proliferation of opposition movements’ webpages in Bahrain. They operate at different levels, representing specific groups, associations, organizations, or, as in the case of this study, urban communities. The webpages of the urban movements operate in parallel to the webpages organized by various Bahraini opposition groups which aim to represent Bahraini opposition movements overall, for instance, the February 14 Youth Coalition. As a result, the content produced on such a small geographic scale tends to focus on the microcosm of activism in the area: specific streets, inhabitants of this particular neighborhood, casualties, and repression. Additionally, the webpages respond to the current needs in informing inhabitants of the developments happening in their neighborhoods. Overall, the discourses deployed on this small scale are a mirror and an extension of a broader movement and its discourses deployed on the overall opposition movements websites (Karolak 2017). They play, however, vital functions for these communities, as explained above.

While the overall discourses of the opposition movements in Bahrain are similar in nature, that is, they center on continued resistance, particular cities focus their online manifestations primarily around the revolutionary activism and the activists from their area. There is an indirect competition between these urban zones to highlight their activism and the repercussions they face and to boast about their revolutionary zeal. Most Twitter accounts analyzed display in their banners the faces of the prominent activists from their own city. Webpages provide updates on the detained “sons of the town” and celebrate the martyrdom of those killed. Tweets feature photographs and profiles of the activists, providing updates on their status if jailed or in treatment, or documenting their release and return home from detention. There are continuous updates on such cases, month by month or day by day, if needed, so the community keeps the activists in its collective consciousness. Furthermore, if activists died in action, tweets document their funerals and the shared mourning of the community. Individual posts, as described above, can be very graphic showing close-ups of wounds, bodies on autopsy tables, and grieving families. Such drastic photographs are often juxtaposed with earlier ones of the same activists full of life, hence they remain alive in the collective memory of the community. Indeed, the cities aim to become the “capital of the revolution” or “heart of the revolution,” a status that is linked to the numbers of casualties suffered by the city inhabitants. The higher their number, the more committed to the revolution the area becomes. A death in action is referred to as a martyrdom for the cause, revealing a strong underlying religious sentiment. The martyrdom is celebrated through mourning marches that often include carrying symbolic coffins of the casualties who died in that area. Tweets remind followers of the date of the passing away of a local activist from their area, and that leads to organizing remembrance ceremonies within the community. At times, local movements celebrate the martyrdom of prominent activists from other cities as well. For instance, the memory of one of the early fatalities, Ahmed Farhan, from Sitra is widely shared among various cities (Figure 7).

FIGURE 7.

Announcement of Bani Jamrah City to Commemorate the Fourth Anniversary of the Death of Ahmed Farhan

FIGURE 7.

Announcement of Bani Jamrah City to Commemorate the Fourth Anniversary of the Death of Ahmed Farhan

The importance of martyrdom for the community is highlighted by the celebrations of martyrs’ birthdays and the anniversaries of their deaths by visiting the families of the deceased. Such actions documented meticulously online create a sense of solidarity around the prominent local activists and serve as a preservation of their memory. As a result, the commitment of one’s life to the cause is not a vain effort but becomes part of the collective memory of a shared trauma. The names of the martyrs become permanently engraved in the collective consciousness of the city as the inhabitants unofficially rename the streets and roundabouts with martyrs’ names (Figure 8).

FIGURE 8.

Re-naming the Street with a Martyr’s Name

FIGURE 8.

Re-naming the Street with a Martyr’s Name

Martyrdom has been engraved in Shia history since its inception, and the vast majority of the opposition movement actors come from the Shia sect. The martyrdom of Hussein and his followers in the Battle of Karbala (680 AD) is the central event in the Shia history. Hussein, the last descendant from the line of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed by the Sunni Umayyad caliph Yazid. Consequently, Shias “had always seen themselves as the righteous few struggling against the unjust many” (Brumberg 1997, 21) and they perpetuate the memory of their unjust treatment at the hands of Sunni rulers. History finds itself transposed into modern times and death for the revolutionary cause is understood as following in the footsteps of Hussein. The celebration of city martyrs is directly tied to the martyrdom of Hussein during the festival of Ashura when current and historical events become one. Such religiously inspired interpretations of history and of the current state of affairs are transmitted from one generation to another and form part of the political socialization in Bahrain, contributing to the instilling of activist habitus among the population (Figure 9).

FIGURE 9.

Example of an Ashura Poster with a Local Martyr’s Photograph. Note: The subtitle reads: “Ashura—martyrs’ school (training)”

FIGURE 9.

Example of an Ashura Poster with a Local Martyr’s Photograph. Note: The subtitle reads: “Ashura—martyrs’ school (training)”

The spilled blood of the martyrs is an often-present element in the visuals and takes on an almost prophetic meaning, such as in the inscription “Blood of the Shuhada [martyrs] will hasten your [i.e., the government forces’] end.” The religious messages underlying the interpretation of events contribute ultimately to the collective action frame, highlighting the perceived injustice experienced over centuries, separating the movement’s activists from their opponents, and providing hope that, thanks to an unconditional commitment, the change of their condition is possible in future, even if it is a remote one.

Social network analysis could reveal further insights into the types of connection that exist between the accounts and the level of activism. It is important to note, however, that social media are by nature ephemeral and webpages and accounts are set up quickly and may disappear just as quickly. While some of the accounts analyzed here have ceased to post updates in the period 2016–18, many other accounts are still active, representing the same urban zone. It is also interesting to note that many activists from the same area post updates about their community and aim to represent their city online. If one of them ceases to do so, the community has access to similar information posted on another account. This study only included those accounts that were the most popular at the time of the research. Such arrangements testify to the resilience of the movement and to the dedication of the activists who spend considerable time updating the information online.

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS

The meaning of urban social movement activism in the context of Bahrain is that of reclaiming an urban space by those who believe themselves to be the righteous owners of that space following their own interpretations of history infused with religious messages. The concentration of a specific sect and ethnicity in well-defined urban areas encourages continued activism. The areas of activism stand out graphically since anti-government graffiti is placed on their outskirts, making them clear to both outsiders and inhabitants, to try to anchor their version of history in the city by renaming streets and landmarks. Geographic separation of these areas is also imposed as the cities are often cordoned off by the security forces. Nonetheless, their inhabitants also seek to protect what they consider free land from government forces by setting up roadblocks and engaging in skirmishes with police patrols. The urban zones become scenes of political theater, which is facilitated by the fact that Bahrain is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with an average of 1848 people/km2. The cities analyzed in this paper represent the average or often a higher than average density in the country. The type of settlements with a network of narrow streets allows the creation of makeshift blockades to prevent the entry of government forces and makes it easier to engage in skirmishes with patrols.

This phenomenon is reflected online as activists set up Facebook and Twitter accounts for each city where the urban movement continues. The existence of such online profiles highlights the importance of ICT in modern-day protest movements and their aftermath. The use of social media nowadays is in stark contrast to the situation of urban movements described by Castells (1983, 329) in the 1980s: “To maintain and develop cultural identity and autonomous forms of communication, communities and people must deal with the technology of mass media, as well as with the empires of image-producers that monopolise the codes, flows, and receivers, reinforcing the increasing impoverishment of inter-personal communication. [. . .] How could local communities match this satellite-related network, so well-supported by economic resources and so directly enforced by the state?” The second decade of the 2000s shows a very different situation, where local communities are able to diffuse their own contents over social media and use these networks to promote activism. As such, social media have provided a tool for urban social movements to broadcast and document their activism over long periods of time and make their activism known all over the world. Using platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, information on the developments in their community can be accessed by anyone, anywhere. In the past, gatekeepers would have prevented the spread of such information in the mainstream, governmentally controlled, media.

The example of the urban opposition movements in Bahrain shows that social media strengthen the collective identities of the communities of resistance, mobilizing them to continue activism further. Despite face-to-face contact, communities in uprising use the Internet as revolutionary media; it is a valuable resource used to fulfill the need for sharing information, mobilization, creating lateral linkages, serving as an outlet for creative expression, and creating an online repository for the collective memory of the community and for parallel versions of history. Through the promotion of defiant attitudes even in the face of death and the celebration of martyrdom, these communities cope with the disappointment of the outcomes of the Arab Spring in Bahrain, while keeping their hopes alive for the future. All in all, social media cement the community together around common values and sentiments, and by promoting the virtues of martyrdom, they ensure the strong commitment of its members. Furthermore, the communities in uprising use the Internet to cooperate across various cities, and their efforts and commitment are subsequently celebrated throughout the rebel communities in Bahrain. By fulfilling the functions described in this research, the Internet has become a manifestation of Baudrillard’s concept of “new revolutionary media.”

It is clear that social media has been proved to be a valuable resource for urban social movements. Despite the use of such social media breaching the laws of Bahrain, the accounts remain active within the country. Censorship of particular Facebook or Twitter accounts may prove difficult or impossible, while blocking Twitter or Facebook completely may be counter-productive in the long term. Unverified reports (Bahrain Watch 2017) suggest that there may be disruptions to the Internet and mobile services overall in particular locations and at particular times in order to limit the efficiency of the media. Such blockages would render the use of networks in real time impossible, hence reducing the mobilization efforts of the urban movements. It is also noteworthy that social media that aggregate videos and photographs of events in the city may expose the identities of participants, making them more vulnerable to reprisals. Various researchers stressed that social media are used by governments to strengthen their grip on society and lead to the increased invigilation and punishment of activists (Morozov 2011, Nye 2006).

The example of Bahrain illustrates the fact that marginalized communities faced with contracting political opportunities resort to more and more violent actions in the form of urban guerrilla tactics in order to continue their activism given the continued crackdown of the security forces and failure of the civil dialogue. In such contexts, social media lead to a strengthening of the in-group boundaries that foster the rise of uncompromising attitudes. Even though the participants of the protests in Bahrain claimed to represent all segments of society, the upheaval was widely branded in sectarian terms as a “Shia revolt.” Furthermore, the events in recent years reverberated around the Middle East, intensifying sectarian loyalties in the region overall. The analysis of the webpages in this paper confirms that opposition groups center their activism on their own communities, which may lead to their isolation and exclusion from the broader segments of Bahraini society. Sectarian affiliations in Bahrain were an existing social cleavage before the uprising; however, the sectarian interpretation of the protests, widespread in both traditional and new media, may have further exacerbated the polarization of society by making these identities more salient. In light of the increased crackdown, the opposition communities rely strongly on their religious sentiment in order to continue their activism, in turn unconsciously strengthening such sectarian readings, which discredits their message within broader society. It comes as no surprise that many resistance leaders in Bahrain are religious figures. Jasper (2004) highlighted the fact that activists are presented with various dilemmas, among others, shifting goals, as follows: “Do you stick with your original goals, trying to find the right means, or do you adjust your goals to your abilities and opportunities?” Furthermore, he assessed that activists expand their goals if they are victorious but downgrade them when they meet unexpected resistance. In the case of Bahrain, the religious sentiment encourages continued activism, despite resistance and repression, and social media help diffuse the collective action frames among the opposition communities. Lack of other plausible political solutions is an underlying factor.

Given the fact that qualitative analysis was applied to webpages, the research is limited to the content presented by the people organizing the page for and on behalf of the community. The content is by nature selective and serves the purposes defined by the organizers. It does not, however, allow one to establish the level of engagement of the urban community as a whole or the interconnection of the communities between each other. Social network analysis could further unveil such phenomena as well as the levels of activism intensity over the years since February 2011.

All in all, the case study of Bahrain is illustrative of social movements whose members share a common ethnic and/or religious identity, operating in an urban environment and under authoritarian rule. It is indicative that despite the small land size of Bahrain, the containment of such opposition activism in an urban environment poses difficulties and the zeal of the members means their clandestine activism continues. The main site of the protests, Pearl Roundabout, was reopened as Al Farooq junction six years after being permanently being cordoned off by the security forces. The on- and offline activism, however, continues in the urban zones. Consequently, it is plausible to assert that urban social movement activists are awaiting another opening of POS in the future. Once a “window of opportunity” presents itself, they will engage in large-scale protest activism.

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