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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Most famously, the murder of Khaled Said, in 2010, prompted online outrage – and organizing. The young man was allegedly murdered by police in Alexandria, Egypt, after he posted a video of their corruption online. His death caused an outburst of online activism. Google executive and Internet activist Wael Ghonim started a popular Facebook page called "We are all Khaled Said," and the viral distribution of a morgue photograph of Mr. Said's disfigured face seemed to refute police attempts to deny the murder.Skip to next paragraph
A quarter of all Facebook users in the Middle East are Egyptian, according to the second annual Arab Social Media Report by the Dubai School of Government. From January to April this year – the height of the Tahrir uprising – membership on the social site increased by 2 million, the report says.
Libya, on the other hand, has nothing like Egypt's Facebook numbers. "The average person in Libya doesn't use Facebook," says Libyan activist Taher Mohammed, who lives in Cairo. The numbers bear him out: Fewer than 5 percent of people in Libya even use the Internet, according to the United Nations' Human Development Report.
"Even for those who do," adds Mr. Mohammed, "how many young people in Libya really had the guts to use social media for activism before the revolution?"
Revolution before Twitter
Twitter and other social networking tools may be new, but the importance of an era's dominant media to the impulse to overthrow regimes has a much longer history.
"The media of the day has always been transcendent in revolutions. Printed pamphlets were powerful in the American and French revolutions. When [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini came back to power in Iran [in 1979], his revolution ... was spread by cassette tapes," says Mr. Hirshberg. "Today we have something new."
Fernando Espuelas, a United States-based media mogul who pioneered chat rooms in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Americas, remembers serendipitously witnessing the role of early social media in dissent a decade ago, in a country not often associated with digital activism. His visit to Argentina coincided with antigovernment riots that were spurred by the country's peso crisis.
On streets deadened by economic depression, "suddenly a group of protesters would appear out of nowhere," he remembers. "There was mass organization of neighborhood groups through the Internet.... There was no way to control popular opinion or behavior because it was being organized essentially invisibly in online communication – in the chat rooms and on the e-mail lists of early social media."
That experience stood out, he says, because, like much of the rest of the world, Latin America had long been gripped by brutal dictators whose rule relied on intimidation. As social networks have gotten more sophisticated, network specialists say, it's been harder for governments to maintain the kind of mass silence that corruption and abuse require.
"It's very hard to keep a secret, to keep people from communicating whatever they see," says Mr. Espuelas. "Therefore, the very simple tools of repression" – silence and secrecy – "are no longer operative, unless you're willing to use the ultimate tool, the Tiananmen Square approach of putting up tanks and killing ... people."