Feature

Social media: Are Facebook and Twitter tools of revolution?

Social networking played a key role in the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Iran over the past year.

“Did Twitter make them do it?” asked Jesse Lichtenstein in Slate.com. With hundreds of thousands of Egyptians still massing this week in Tahrir Square in defiance of a severely weakened regime, fans of social media are pointing to the role of Facebook and Twitter in sparking yet another revolution. In similar popular uprisings in Yemen, Tunisia, and Iran over the past year, social media played a key role, helping dissidents form connections and organize protests. That was even more true in Egypt, said Jennifer Preston in The New York Times. The uprising there was sparked by the death of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old businessman who was beaten to death by police last year after he obtained proof of police corruption. Human-rights activists created a Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Said,” featuring a photo of his grotesquely disfigured face, and within weeks, the page had 130,000 followers—growing to nearly 500,000 as the street protests began several weeks ago, organized partly by tweets and text-messages. In authoritarian regimes around the world, Facebook and Twitter are allowing “the discontented to organize and mobilize” in ways they never could before.

Tell that to Lenin, said Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. I could have sworn that both the Russian and French revolutions took place “before the Internet came along.” The East Germans who overthrew their government and tore down the Berlin Wall in the 1980s didn’t even own phones, let alone smartphones or computers. Under despotic regimes, brave souls willing to fight for freedom “will always find ways to communicate,” whether by iPhone, furtively passed handbills and pamphlets, or urgent whispers in the street. Our fixation on the social-media angle of these revolutions betrays a “simplistic Western chauvinism,” said Frank Rich in The New York Times. We love the thought that these “downtrodden, unwashed masses” are only able to free themselves thanks to the tools we gave them.

Besides, said Lee Siegel in The New York Observer, the power of social media “cuts both ways.” In Iran, the regime actually spied on dissidents involved in the Green Revolution through Facebook and sent out misleading tweets. Nineteen months later, the regime is still in office, carefully monitoring the opposition through the Internet. In the short term, said Clay Shirky in Foreign Affairs, the advent of new communication technologies “is just as likely to strengthen authoritarian regimes as it is to weaken them.” The Chinese government, for example, has evolved beyond some early, crude attempts to block the Internet altogether, and now has developed sophisticated systems “for controlling political threats from social media,” and for using them as a tool of manipulation and surveillance.

In the long run, though, said Walter Isaacson in Foreign Policy, social media can only be bad news for authoritarian regimes. “The free flow of information is the oxygen of democracy,” and there’s no disputing that the Internet, smartphones, and social media have radically increased and accelerated that flow. “It’s not the tools” themselves, said Jose Antonio Vargas in HuffingtonPost.com. It’s the new sense of community and togetherness that those tools have made possible. Protesters on the streets of Cairo, Tunis, and Tehran are united not only by a thirst for freedom and self-rule, but by a new awareness—brought about by new technology—of their “common humanity.” Online, “the individual can be heard.” And in a matter of a few keystrokes, “‘I’ easily grows to ‘we.’”

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