Did social media bring down Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali two weeks ago or force Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to appoint a successor? Well, no. But it clearly played some role in the unrest in both countries.
Social media, and particularly Twitter, came into public consciousness two years ago when protestors in Iran turned to the Internet to bypass government censors and tell the world what the Iranian government was doing. Many people referred to the Iranian protests as the Twitter Revolution.
But according to an article in The Atlantic, Facebook, not Twitter, was the platform of choice for many Tunisian protestors.
“I think Facebook played a bigger role in this case,” said Jillian York of the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, who has been tracking the Tunisian situation closely. “There are a lot more Facebook users than Twitter users. Facebook allows for strong ties in a way that Twitter doesn’t. You’re not just conversing.”
The article noted that the Tunisian government was so concerned about Facebook’s potential that it did not stop at merely blocking the site in Tunisia. It also took the extraordinary step of hacking into activists’ accounts and deleting them.
However, Caroline McCarthy, writing at CNET, noted that dictators, such as those fighting off protests in Egypt, still consider Twitter important enough to ban in the wake of unrest.
On Tuesday evening, Twitter finally confirmed that Egypt was blocking access to its service after initially refusing to comment on the matter directly, but there were no reports on attempts to control Facebook or any other grassroots organization tool. This sort of thing provides some insight into what a government sees as its biggest digital threats and how it attempts to control and dissuade opposition forces.
By Friday, however, Reuters reported that Facebook had recorded “a drop” in traffic from Egypt. It may not be an outright effort to control usage of the site compared to Tunisia, but since traffic should, in principle, rise on Facebook, especially with Twitter neutralized, the Egyptian government must be doing something.
What that something is trying to fight is exactly what social media adds to a large-scale protest movement. As the voice of the people, social media has clearly has a role to play in bringing down dictatorships.