Social media: Did Twitter and Facebook really build a global revolution?
Social media: 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.Skip to next paragraph
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.
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.