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January 25, 2011

Social Media Playing a Role in Arab World Protests

by William Ide

From the recent uprising in Tunisia to this week's street protests in Egypt, social media has been playing a role in helping protesters organize and draw international attention.  But whether we are seeing the ripple effect of what some analysts are calling a Facebook or Twitter revolution rolling through the Arab world is a matter of debate.  

A posting Tuesday on the video-sharing Web site YouTube, shot from the balcony of a high-rise apartment in Cairo, shows scores of Egyptian protesters rallying in the streets and fleeing authorities.

At one point in the video, a man stands in front of a water cannon daring it to move as a high-pressured stream is sprayed over his head.

The dramatic posting is but one example of how social media networks are being used to document and detail the real life struggle that is being played out online and spreading across the region.

The protests, which have spread from Tunisia to Yemen, Algeria and Egypt are attracting the attention of the U.S. government.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke Wednesday, urging authorities in Egypt to allow  for peaceful expression and to not block social media sites.  Egypt has blocked Twitter and Facebook in the wake of the protests.

Omid Memarian is an Iranian journalist and blogger:

"I think it is becoming more and more difficult for the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East to dominate their narrative of events," said Memarian. "They cannot be any more the only source of news and legitimacy."

Plans for the protests in Egypt, which began Tuesday and saw record numbers pour out into the streets, calling on President Hosni Mubarak to step down, were widely broadcast on the social networking site Facebook.

Activist organizers told ralliers where to meet and they were largely successful, despite a massive police presence.

Jillian York of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society says that although social media was not used as widely for protest organizing in Tunisia, it played a bigger role in Egypt.

"For the past few days, I have been watching people on Twitter plan to use the hashtag #Jan25 for January 25th," said York. "And I have also seen things such as Google Docs  literally laying out plans for protests.  And so in this case, I have seen a lot more public organization on the Internet."

In Tunisia, a country where there has long been heavy censorship of the Internet, York says social media played a different role.

"[In Tunisia] It was a bit less clear as to whether or not social media was being used to physically organize protests," she said. "As far as my Tunisian contacts told me, the majority of organizing happened on the ground, offline and that social media was more of a tool to get information out of the country."

Tunisia's previous administration heavily censored the Internet, blocking opposition and dissident Web sites.  In a report this week in the The Atlantic  magazine,  documents how authorities in Tunisia hacked into Internet users accounts prior to the recent uprising and used a malicious code to record their information when they went to sites like Facebook.

That information was then used to shut down accounts.

Omid Memarian says that although social media has played a role in the recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt, those who are out in the streets are not necessarily there because of the Internet.

"There are many dynamics in place in these countries that contribute to the current turmoils and unrest," he said. "And mainly we have decades of repression in these countries."

Memarian says that the key engine of the protests has not been access to social media sites, but inequality, poverty and political desperation.