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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Jillian York, who has been following old and new media in the Arab world for several years, says the symbiosis between off-line activity and online activism is critical to how protests move forward.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's not just what the political climate is, but also what traditional activist networks look like," says Ms. York, director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online digital civil liberties advocacy group. "Egypt had longstanding digital activists, who for a long time were using these platforms for their own causes.... They already [knew] what they were doing and how to use these platforms for activism, so when the time came, they knew exactly where to turn."
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.
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."