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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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Twitter has said it will hand over user data when "legally required," but that it will warn users before doing so. Facebook insists it does not share user data with governments, but analysts like York doubt that claim.

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Companies' own internal policies, meanwhile, pose other problems for would-be digital activists. Facebook, for example, requires users to identify themselves with their real names, and any user can report another for an allegedly fake name, making very difficult the pseudonymity that much activism in autocrat regimes requires. YouTube prohibits users from uploading violent images, and in the early days of Libya's uprising, many videos were removed (the Google-owned site now has a more lenient policy for images coming from Libya).

Where revolution is just a tweet

However useful technology is at linking individuals and getting the word out, observers say Twitter alone won't generate successful uprisings. "Successful online activism has to have an off-line component," says York.

If the success of Egypt's uprising doesn't thoroughly demonstrate that belief, the failure of Uganda's might. This spring, hundreds of people took to the streets of Kampala for more than five weeks. Protesting rising food and fuel costs, and led by Kizza Besigye, a physician who lost a presidential bid to Yoweri Museveni in February, protesters thronged to Facebook and Twitter, where incremental news spread under the hashtag #walk2work. But if the movement seemed strong on Twitter, it failed to catch on in the streets.

Grace Natabaalo, a media trainer in Kampala, was glued to her computer, simultaneously following and sharing news on social networks. "I made a lot of noise about it, shared my ideas with people, posted whatever I could get on Facebook," Ms. Natabaalo says. "It was more about spreading information and pushing the debate forward, even if for the practical bit nobody went down onto the streets."

Mohles Kalule, project manager at the media monitoring organization Memonet, agrees. "The elite, the journalists on the social media, are just talking to themselves and not to the people," he says. Those people, he adds, have deep social divisions, and changing them will require a more powerful catalyst than instant communication.

And that suggests something that may be true in other countries, or even in parts of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Even in countries with great Internet access for your average Joe, all that tweeting isn't always relevant.

"It is something there on the Internet, isn't it?" asks Ismail Mutongole. "For me, I don't use those things, as I don't have anyone to connect with on the Internet."

Peter Ford in Beijing, Sarah Lynch in Cairo, Max Delaney in Kampala, Uganda, Simon Montlake in Bangkok, Thailand, and a correspondent in Hanoi, Vietnam, contributed to this report.

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