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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 5: Dominant Pro-MNLA Discourse Frames and Identity on Facebook

Extract

Of course, political discourse online is not always tame. The goal of such activism is often to create intellectually and emotionally compelling digital artifacts that tell stories of injustice, interpret history, and advocate for particular political outcomes.

—Philip N. Howard, The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, 20111

THIS CHAPTER APPLIES elements of discourse analysis to the content of Facebook postings in the survey’s dataset. Robert Entman’s conception of framing, supported by several concepts articulated by Teun van Dijk and other scholars of discourse analysis, forms the main theoretical basis of this chapter and provides the main lens for the following qualitative analysis of pro-MNLA Facebook postings. Finally, this chapter relies on Charles Tilly’s work to draw broader conclusions about the place of the discussed frames in characterizing the broader identity of the pro-MNLA Facebook community, its members, and the MNLA as a whole.

Qualitative analysis of media content has, of course, a scholarly history far too substantial to list fully here. However, because similar methods have been applied ←97 | 98→to the communications of political dissident groups operating in the Middle East and Africa, several examples are worthy of mention. Aaron Zelin’s 2015 study of the Twitter output of the Islamic State (mentioned previously) includes a section in which Zelin discusses the “eleven key types of messages disseminated in the Islamic State’s releases” and analyzes what Zelin identifies as the top six messages.2 Chiluwa and Adegoke’s 2013 article (also previously mentioned) discusses pragmatic...

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