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Facebook + Twitter = Revolution?

Social media sites have been credited with helping protesters in Egypt organize and spread news before the government blackout. But is the importance of communications technology to modern revolutions overblown?

As the protests in Egypt enter their second week, many are again debating the relative influence that social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have had (and can have) in stoking the fires of digital age popular uprisings. Twitter and Facebook both reportedly played essential roles in helping organize protests and spread news in Egypt before the government shut down Internet access last Friday, January 29th.

Clearly online media can have a major political impact. Big Think bloggers Parag and Ayesha Khanna noted in November that a conflict between Nicaragua and Costa Rica may have been sparked by a border discrepancy first noticed on Google Maps. And the Egyptian government, like the Iranian government in 2009, perceived the Internet to be enough of a threat that it had to be banned. But both the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum and Wired’s David Kravetz caution against overstating the influence of technology on the uprising.

In the wake of the Iran revolt in 2009, Tim McCarthy, the director of Harvard University’s Human Rights and Social Movements Program, told Big Think that while it’s clear that media can drive politics, there’s a more complicated and symbiotic relationship between these technologies and popular revolts—and that such uprisings need some element of face-to-face interaction among protesters: 

More Resources

— MediaPost’s SearchBlog gives an overview of how the Internet blackout is affecting Egyptians, and how some may be getting around the the digital ban.

— Egyptian citizens may not be able to get online, but Nieman Journalism Lab notes that New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has been updating his Facebook page from Cairo via satellite phone.

— Fearing unrest of its own, a number of Internet services in China yesterday also banned the search term “Egypt” to try and block online discussions about the popular revolt.

— New Yorker writer (and Big Think expert) Malcolm Gladwell was fairly skeptical of the power of social media to affect social change in an article late last year, writing that “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties.”

Image courtesy of Flickr user Rosaura Ochoa.


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