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February 28, 2011

Social Media a Critical Tool for Middle East Protesters

by Alex Villarreal

Social networking websites have played a critical role in the anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. But media experts say the people, not the technology, are driving the demonstrations.

Organizers of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt used Facebook and Twitter to mobilize supporters.

In Egypt, the Facebook page "We Are All Khaled Said" quickly amassed thousands of fans and is now up to nearly 1 million followers. The page, honoring a young Egyptian businessman allegedly beaten to death by police last year, was instrumental in organizing Egypt's uprising.

Protesters' online efforts have shown the power of social media as a tool for political change. But Egyptian journalist and blogger Mona Eltahawy says those calling the Middle East movements Facebook or Twitter revolutions are not giving the credit where it is due.

"Facebook and Twitter did not invent courage. And I think we owe it to these incredibly courageous people. I mean look how many people are being slaughtered in Libya, to recognize that this courage has been there for decades, whether people outside of those countries saw it or not. Facebook allowed you to see it. Facebook allowed them to connect. But at the end of the day, it's their courage to go out on the street and topple those regimes that must be saluted, before we salute anybody else," she said.

Eltahawy shared her views Tuesday at a panel discussion in Washington hosted by the Center for International Media Assistance and the National Endowment for Democracy.

Abderrahim Foukara, chief of television network Al Jazeera's Washington bureau, also spoke at the event. He said social media were incredibly important in publicizing the protests. But he said he doubts the websites could have spread that spirit of democracy alone, adding that other media also played an important role.

"There were a lot of young people using Tweets and Facebook, and they still are, to convey a sense, in the case of Libya, of the atrocities being committed against civilians.  But in the case of Egypt for example, you needed a television medium, whereby Egyptians can have a conversation with each other in real time in a way that put what was going on in Egypt in context, not just for people in Egypt but also for other people around the region," he said.

Social networking websites also can be fragile. U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff said Facebook and Twitter have become "vital platforms" for mobilizing dissidents, but he pointed out that the tools are not immune to government influence.

"In Egypt, the government successfully shut down the Internet for five days during peak demonstrations, cutting off protesters' access to online resources. Similarly, in Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain, governments have worked to censor online content and slow down Internet connections. And in Iran, authorities have used Facebook user accounts to shadow and capture members of the opposition. These protests make it clear that digital media can be used to accelerate political and social change, but they also highlight the ability of authoritarian regimes to use the same tools to stifle it," he said.

U.S. officials have spoken out strongly against governments' efforts to block Internet services. Schiff said the U.S. government also is discussing how it can use social networking technologies to support democratic growth.

Michael Nelson, who teaches Internet studies at Georgetown University, says those seeking change have not let online crackdowns stop them. He said Internet users in the Middle East and elsewhere have found ways around the restrictions - using proxy servers, online gaming worlds and even dating sites to keep up communication.

"In many of these countries, the most technologically sophisticated 10 percent of Internet users will find a way to get what they want. The other 90 percent are often held back, they are often blocked. But as long as there's that 10 percent and they have relatives and they know other people, you can spread the word," he said.

Even after the revolutions, the panelists say social media will continue to play an important role, with citizens using the tools to discuss what kinds of countries they now want to build.