Did social media like Facebook and Twitter cause the revolution? Not completely. But these tools did speed up the process by helping to organize the revolutionaries, transmit their message to the world and encourage international support.
“In the same way that pamphlets didn’t cause the American Revolution, social media didn’t cause the Egyptian revolution,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative. “Social media have become the pamphlets of the 21st century, a way that people who are frustrated with the status quo can organize themselves and coordinate protest, and in the case of Egypt, revolution.”
It is a saying in political science that successful revolutions are born in the streets — from the Boston Massacre of March 1770 and the storming of the Bastille in Paris in July 1789, to the streets of Cairo in January and February 2011. What has shocked most observers of the current Egyptian scene is the sheer speed with which the regime fell — 18 days.
And that’s where modern communications technology has had the most impact.
Rafat Ali, a social media expert and founder of PaidContent, said Facebook and Twitter played different roles in the uprising. Facebook helped to organize the activists inside the country, he said, while Twitter functioned to help get the message out to the broader world.
“Facebook definitely had a role in organizing this revolution,” Ali told Wired.com. “It acts like an accelerant to conditions which already exist in the country. Twitter and YouTube serve as amplification for what’s happening on the ground. And they directly affect Western media coverage.”
“One of the things that social media does is transmission of hope across these countries,” Ali added, referring to Tunisia, Egypt and other repressed countries in the Middle East.
Ali said the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt had underestimated the power of technology to organize activists and drive the movement.
“These despots are five generations older than the youth,” Ali said. “None of these people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s have ever used Facebook or Twitter.”
Lawrence Pintak, author of The New Arab Journalist, pointed out on CNN that despite the speed with which the Mubarak regime fell, bloggers and digital activists have been working toward reform under violent repression in the Middle East for years. “This is a digital revolution that has been happening for quite a while,” Pintak said.
CNN host Anderson Cooper earlier asked former CIA director James Woolsey whether the U.S. intelligence community has fully grasped the power of social media in catalyzing pro-democracy movements worldwide.
“I think they’re starting to,” Woolsey replied. “I know people who for years now have been trying to get them to help get the right types of equipment and software into places like Iran in order to take advantage of people’s desire for freedom.”
“We should have been doing exactly what has happened in Egypt,” Woolsey added. “We should have been trying to help foster that in Iran, helping them set up servers to protect their Facebooks, protect their Twitters, and we really have not.”
Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive who has became a symbol of Egypt’s pro-democracy uprising after he launched the original Facebook page credited with sparking the initial protest, called the Egyptian upheaval, “Revolution 2.0.”
“If you want to liberate a country, give them the internet,” Ghonim said.
He credited Facebook and its young founder Mark Zuckerberg as an inspiration.
“This revolution started on Facebook,” Ghonim told CNN. “I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg some day and thank him personally.”
Asked by CNN host Wolf Blitzer what repressive Middle Eastern state would be the next to fall, the young activist replied: “Ask Facebook.”