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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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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.

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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."

The "Great Firewall" of China

In today's China, more than a decade after the Tiananmen Square protests, the government would like to control the digital space as tightly as it controls physical space, making Arab Spring-style uprisings unlikely, even with the most sophisticated technology. The Chinese authorities do their best to censor politically sensitive news and information from social networking services, or SNS, and they are a lot better at it than any other government in the world.

"Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, where the regimes were technological Luddites, the Chinese are most sophisticated in understanding, monitoring, and manipulating social media," says Bill Bishop, an independent Internet analyst in Beijing.

They're also savvy enough to be afraid. A report last year from the official China Academy of Social Sciences think tank warned that social networking sites are "a challenge to national security." Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are all inaccessible in China without sophisticated software that allow users to jump the censors' "Great Firewall."

Still, more than half of the 460 million-plus Chinese citizens with Internet access use copies of those networks, such as Sina Weibo, an enhanced Twitter clone, or RenRen, a Facebook look-alike.

With so many users sending so many messages, the tight control of Chinese cyberspace doesn't always keep information from getting out, especially on the Chinese version of Twitter.

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