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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"The speed with which politically sensitive information can spread on Sina Weibo is incredible; it's qualitatively different from blogs," says Xiao Qiang, a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the Chinese Internet.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures The revolution will be blogged
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Despite China's best efforts, that discourse often includes unsavory stories of government abuse. When a herder in Inner Mongolia was run over and killed last May by a coal truck, for example, and local people began protesting against Chinese-run coal mines, the censors unsuccessfully banned all mention of the demonstrations in traditional and new media, but the local authorities also moved swiftly to calm the situation using both security forces and promises of justice to the herders.
Sometimes, though, information slips through. Also in May, Qian Mingqi bombed three government offices in Jiangxi Province, killing himself and two other people. He had hinted at his intentions in one of his last postings on Weibo, the Twitter clone; his earlier posts described 10 years' worth of futile efforts to get compensation from the government for what he considered the illegal demolition of his home.
The bombing drew an enormous outpouring of sympathy and support from bloggers and Weibo users, who saw him not as a terrorist but as a victim of government injustice. After several hundred messages of condolence were posted on his Weibo account page, Sina, an Internet portal, closed it.
But cybersympathy is one thing, and real-world action is another. The Chinese approach, says Mr. Bishop, is to minimize the latter. "That's a fairly effective approach," he says.
A recent wave of arrests and disappearances of Chinese political activists suggests, not so subtly, that authorities won't tolerate online agitation moving off-line. Even if "the revolution will be blogged," as Professor Qiang maintains, he also acknowledges, "it will take time."
That's because Internet censorship isn't the only obstacle to a "Jasmine Revolution." Many Chinese feel they have too much at stake in their personal lives to risk rising up.
"I myself am angry," explains a former executive of a popular Chinese Internet portal who asked not to be identified by name. "But I have a house and a car and a job and I'd be worried that if I protested I would lose all this and not be able to protect my family. Under those circumstances, would you confront a tank?"
China is not the only iron-willed Internet censor in the region. Facebook is notoriously difficult to access in Vietnam, although the government denies it blocks the site, and in Burma (Myanmar), it's still almost impossible to send a text message, let alone a tweet.
Thailand's government closely monitors all of its media. During last year's Thai uprising, Facebook users actually amplified social divisions and stoked enmity across economic classes. As the July elections approach, though, the country's "red shirt" movement of rural and working poor is trying to dominate old and new media alike, says Supinya Klangnarong, who runs the Campaign for Popular Media Reform in Bangkok.