Social media has become a tool for revolution across the Middle East as a seditious community of online advocates rallies to thwart injustices and uproot dictatorships with unprecedented mobilization.
Mediums such as Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere are providing global forums for activists who have snowballed into a network of international rallying cries, tipping the scales in revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
Recent events in the Arab world have been labeled a “Twitter revolution” as the undeniable role of such massive, publicly controlled media entities has been inflamed into a driving force for Middle Eastern revolt.
“Social media have given the most marginalized groups in the region a voice,” Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian native who writes on Middle Eastern political affairs, said. “Marginalized people finally have the chance to say quite loudly and publicly, ‘Enough’ and ‘This is how I feel.’”
In no country is the sway of online activism more evident than in Egypt. Late last month, blog posts and tweets amassed in an awesome display of the power of online activism, giving the movement the scope and cohesion to successfully execute an internationally viewed revolution in the Middle East.
“The Internet has had a coming of age in this uprising in Egypt,” Harvard professor and Internet expert John Palfrey said.
What were once platforms to enhance socializing among college students and discussions of celebrity gossip have evolved into a far more serious social utility. The dynamic offerings of these internet services, such as real-time posting and mass networking among ordinary citizens, have allowed for the manifestation of a digital revolution that buttresses the movement with a global community of supporters. It is not that social media is causing the revolution, but that it is the most effective forum for revolutionary correspondence.
“(Social media) is affecting not only how Egyptians are behaving toward each other but how the world is processing this entire event,” media editor of Business Insider, Glynnis MacNicol, told CBSNews.com. “We’re getting on-the-ground, live information 24 hours a day.”
During the protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the digital revolt taking place in the blogosphere and on Twitter posed such a threat to former president Hosni Mubarak and his decades-old dictatorship that the country’s Internet access was shut down for more than a week.
Bloggers and journalists alike were hunted down and imprisoned for acts of mutiny and distortion. Top marketing executive for Google, Wael Ghonim, was detained by Egyptian authorities for more than a week after criticizing Mubarak about various Internet forums and forming a Facebook page thought to have spearheaded protests on Jan. 25.
Even an Internet kill-switch was not enough for Mubarak to stem the flow of information via mediums such as Google and Twitter, which worked together to keep real-time news feeds and tweets generating throughout the region. In days following the Internet shutdown, the two companies designed a service of three international phone numbers for people to call and leave voicemails about what they were seeing that would be translated into tweets.
“There is a real awareness on the part of Google and Twitter of how important a role they are playing (in the Middle East),” MacNicol said. “They’re merging together so they can cooperate and provide people on the ground in Egypt a way to maneuver around a government decision.”
The successful revolution in Egypt has triggered the expanse of online activism across the Middle East. Facebook now has more subscribers in Middle Eastern and North African countries than the number of newspapers circulated in the region, with more than 15 million users in the Arab world and 5 million in Egypt alone. The voice of the public is no longer filtered by the press before it reaches the masses; it is disseminated directly from the mouths (or fingers) of the dissidents.
“This network has become an electronic mouthpiece for cyberactivists to speak out in defense of the freedom of expression online and in the media in Morocco,” Sami Ben Gharbia said, manager of the international blogging network Global Voices Online.
Video postings have been another influential social media tool of fomenting dissent, and YouTube has helped fortify protests with visual documentation of the social injustice taking place. In Bahrain, protesters recorded the funeral of a murdered demonstrator, uploading it to YouTube within moments of the event. The footage personalizes the call for democracy and allows for millions to witness the largest political demonstration in the recent history of Bahrain.
For the second time in three years, Iranian protests are arising with the support of social media, and optimism for the effectiveness of forums such as Twitter and Facebook has been replenished since the onslaught citizens experienced following the 2009 elections.
“I think this time the (Iranian) government really underestimated the power of social media,” Internet activist Omid Memarian said. “They thought because of the severe crackdown that we witnessed after the election that people would not dare to go to the streets.”
Despite past persecution of online activists in Iran, the most popular Facebook page for reform in Iran has received upward of 12 million hits to date. The page calls for “solidarity demonstrations,” encouraging reform advocates to “join the thousands on the street right now.”
The same freedom and immediacy derived from social media that allow for the massive organization of protest movements also serves to hinder mobilization efforts. Though the potential of the Internet to bring about democracy exists, it can also be used by oppressors to hunt activists, track political movements and head off rallying attempts with force.
Social media is now an innate part of the political landscape — a powerful mechanism that can be used to disseminate or persecute. The double-edged sword works to the advantage of both suppressors and revolutionaries, but alongside the ever-growing demand for democracy and the exposure of inequitable social ills exists an imminent sense the people of the region will finally overcome.