Social Media Day: Did Twitter and Facebook Really Build a Global Revolution?

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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 revolution.

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 platforms.

"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. …

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