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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.

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Social media and the Arab Spring

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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.

In Syria, in fact, one blogger says it was old-fashioned activism that pushed the digital world into the fight against President Bashar al-Assad.

"The street led the bloggers," says Marcell Shewaro, who left Syria for Cairo on June 19, after veiled threats from the government over her three-year-old Arabic blog, marcellita.com, which she says has about 50,000 readers a month. "Three months ago, I can't speak about Bashar, even in a restaurant. Now we are saying, 'OK, they [the protesters] are dying. What we can do is write. If we don't talk, it's now or never.' And stories are coming out, all over, even from the 1980s, because people are feeling they are not alone."

That feeling brought people together in a way that literally saved lives in Tahrir Square, says Yasser Alwan, a photographer in Cairo who spent more than two weeks in the square with protesters. "People built 20 sinks and 20 toilets, spontaneously," he says. "People brought blankets, donated tents – the third or fourth night it rained, and tarps appeared. A whole community was built in three or four days ... which is what allowed them to stay." Those same bonds, Mr. Alwan says, allowed them to surwvive the government's first siege of the square, on Feb. 2.

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