Social media day: From Iran to Tunisia and Egypt and beyond,
Twitter and Facebook are the power tools of civic upheaval - but
social media is only one factor in the spread of democratic
It felt like we watched it everywhere.
Facebook pages blared protest plans. Photographs were uploaded to
Flickr, a photo-sharing website, and video clips were hoisted onto
YouTube. Protesters mapped their uprisings, and the violence that
followed, adapting their online cartography in real time to reports
gathered by text message and Facebook updates.
To say nothing of all the tweeting.
IN PICTURES: Top Twitter Moments
After only a few weeks watching the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and
Libya, it seemed conclusive: This was the global revolution that
Twitter built - that, maybe, only Twitter and other technologies
could have built.
"These technologies collectively - everything from cellphone
cameras to Twitter - are disruptive not just of other technologies
like landlines or newspapers, which the military could shut down,
but [of] the whole social construct. Social media is really a
catalytic part," says Peter Hirshberg, a senior fellow at the
Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy at the
University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
If this all sounds a bit familiar, it should. Two years ago,
Iranian pro-democracy activists protested against the re-election of
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as the world watched its
Twitter feeds. In a country with so few foreign journalists on the
ground, and where information was so tightly managed, the Green
Revolution was quickly dubbed "the Twitter revolution."
When the uprising was crushed, the "cyber-topians," as one writer
calls the digital revolution enthusiasts, were chagrined. They
seemed naive for believing that even "Tweets heard round the world"
would bring democracy with them.
But when Tunisia's and Egypt's corrupt autocrats fell earlier
this year, the cyber-topian dream was resurrected. No one knows if
the uprisings that have spread to Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain will be
as successful, but governments everywhere appear to be watching
their backs, asking themselves: Could a simple text message, sent by
enough people, depose dictators everywhere?
Social media and the Arab Spring
It depends, literally, on who's getting the message. Analysts and
observers say social media networks were used in the Arab Spring in
two distinct ways: as organizing tools and as broadcasting
"Without social media," says Omar Amer, a representative of the
Libyan Youth Movement, based in Britain, "the global reaction to
Libya would have been much softer, and very much delayed."
News of the Tunisian uprisings spread rapidly on Twitter well
before it was covered by global mainstream media. Al Jazeera
English, the first outlet to jump on the story, relied heavily on
social media to inform its reporting. "One protester in Benghazi
told me, 'It is our job to protest, and it is your job to tell the
world what is happening,' " says Mr. Amer, who administers a
Facebook page for the youth movement.
Though the broadcasting capabilities of social media helped
spread the story, the international euphoria about social networking
may be misplaced when it comes to organizing uprisings. Deeply
rooted cultures of online activism were more important than the
newest social networking brands.
"Digital activism did not spring immaculately out of Twitter and
Facebook. It's been going on ever since blogs existed," says Rebecca
MacKinnon, cofounder of Global Voices Online, a network of 300
volunteer bloggers writing, analyzing, and translating news in more
than 30 languages. She pegs the start of bloggers' networking and
activism globally to 2000 or 2001. In Tunisia, she points out, it
was not a known social media brand but a popular Tunisian blog and
online news aggregator called Nawaat that played a key role in
pushing events forward. …