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Azawad’s Facebook Warriors

The MNLA, Social Media, and the Malian Civil War

Series:

Michael Keen

In January 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a group dominated by members of the Tuareg ethnic group, launched a military uprising seeking the independence of Mali’s vast but sparsely populated north as the democratic, secular nation-state of Azawad.  Azawad’s Facebook Warriors tells the extraordinary story of a small group of social media activists who sought to broadcast the MNLA’s cause to the world. Azawad’s Facebook Warriors offers a groundbreaking new study of the MNLA’s use of social media through the original analysis of more than 8,000 pro-MNLA Facebook posts published over a four-year period and interviews with key architects of the MNLA’s media strategy. The book further places the MNLA’s social media activism in context through a nuanced treatment of northern Mali’s history and an unparalleled blow-by-blow account of the MNLA’s role in the Malian civil war from 2012 through 2015. More broadly, through the case study of the MNLA, the book argues that studying rebel social media communications, a field that has until now unfortunately received scant scholarly attention, will prove an increasingly important tool in understanding rebel groups in coming years and decades.
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Chapter 4: A Comparative Look at the MNLA’s Use of Social Media

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[S]‌ocial media have become coordinating tools for nearly all of the world’s political movements …

—Clay Shirky, January 20111

WHILE THE MNLA was the first armed northern Malian political movement to make broad use of social media, it is far from the only political movement to use social media to challenge the local, national, or international status quo. This chapter outlines similarities and differences between the MNLA’s use of social media, especially Facebook, and the use of social media by two near-contemporary movements that have attracted far more scholarly attention: the 2011 Egyptian Arab Spring protesters and the Islamic State.

What happened in Egypt in January and February 2011 is, in general terms, well known. January 25, 2011, was National Police Day in Egypt, a public holiday intended to honor security forces. That day, though, Egyptian activists planned a protest in the streets of Cairo against police brutality. Tens of thousands of people turned out to protest, far in excess of the organizers’ expectations. The Egyptian ←79 | 80→government responded with its usual method of dealing with protesters: crackdowns and mass arrests. Over the next few days, though, the protests grew even larger, overwhelming the security forces. On January 27, the government attempted to shut down Internet in the country, and the next day, the military was deployed to the streets. On February 1, as protests swelled still further, President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in office since 1981, announced he would not seek...

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