Like Iran’s Green Movement demanding the removal of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad two years earlier, Twitter and Facebook were often cited for their impact in the massive protests unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011 demanding the ouster of authoritarian, military-backed regimes.
Despite many media outlets hailing the impact of social media on the Arab spring, analysts and observers say it was never only the “revolution Twitter built.” Instead, Twitter emerged as a key broadcasting tool, allowing reports of atrocities against protesters and demonstrations in Tunisia to spread to media outlets around the globe despite efforts by governments to block or censor local sites that covered them.
In Syria, traditional activist movements also freed up local blogs and news sites to talk directly about the government of Bashar al-Assad. “The street led the bloggers,” said Marcell Shewaro, who left Syria for Cairo in June 2011, after veiled threats from the government over her three-year-old Arabic blog. She spoke with the Monitor in 2011.
“Three months ago, I can't speak about Bashar, even in a restaurant. Now we are saying, 'OK, they [the protesters] are dying. What we can do is write. If we don't talk, it's now or never.' And stories are coming out, all over, even from the 1980s, because people are feeling they are not alone,” she adds, noting that she has about 50,000 readers a month.
In Egypt, the decision by then-President Hosni Mubarak to block Facebook and Twitter in anticipation of a growing protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square proved to a be a "grave mistake" that would lead to the toppling of the authoritarian regime, activist Wael Ghonim wrote in a 2012 book.
For Mr. Ghonim, Facebook proved to be a key organizing tool, as he set up a page raising awareness about the death of Khaled Said, a 28-year-man allegedly murdered by police in Alexandria in 2010 after he posted a video of their corruption online. After setting up a page titled “We Are All Khaled Said," he proposed a large protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square set for Jan. 25, later to be known as the "Day of Rage."
Using social media, he argued, set off the Mubarak government’s largest fear, of a public opposition movement not connected to a single individual. "The Egyptian regime lived in fear of opposition. It sought to project a façade of democracy, giving the impression that Egypt was advancing toward political rights and civil liberties while it vanquished any dissidents who threatened to mobilize enough support to force real change," he wrote.