How social media mobilized the Arab revolution

By Binu Paul, SiliconIndia   |   Saturday, 12 March 2011, 01:29 Hrs   |    4 Comments
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How social media mobilized the Arab revolution
Bangalore: The Arab revolution, that marked the downfall of the mighty dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, which is spreading to the neighboring states and even to the southern Africa, has been largely enabled by the social media. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have been the key mediums through which the protesters organized themselves to take to the streets and overcome the military forces. Thus, it's no wonder that an Egyptian couple named their newly born daughter 'Facebook' to honor the role the social networking site played in the revolution that resulted in the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

It all started in Tunisia where the news of the protests started spreading through social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter with people posting their own video footage. At the beginning of the pretests, only these social media were the sources that the outside world had to look for the developments. The Tunisian government tried to block these sites and had put in malicious code that collects private user names and passwords of the users. The accounts of bloggers and journalists have severely censored and stole their credentials. However, protesters continued to post images and videos of the rallies and of people who were killed in the unrest. They mocked the government's efforts to deny the access to the web with slogans such as "Free From 404", the Internet language for 'file not found' online and in the streets. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali did not have any other choice but to flee the country putting an end to his 24 years of regime marked by high prices, unemployment and oppression of individual freedom.

Smelling the danger, Hosni Mubarak quickly shut down the internet in Egypt at the onset of the uprising there. Protesters were able to organize huge rallies in different cities overnight with the help of Facebook and Twitter. Watching the protesters on the web, people who chose to sit the fence were encouraged to come out and the numbers kept growing. The mobilization process was so fast with the internet that the government often had no clue about where the next rally could be.

Google contributed largely to the success of the revolutions by satellite photography with Google Earth and photographing city streets and neighborhoods. Google with its many web assets like Feedburner and Blogger helped the uprising by assembling information from the subscriber lists to blog newsfeeds and emails, providing identity of blog owners, which blogs link to other blogs having common political or ideological interests, etc. Google was accused of collecting information about home wireless networks during the times of unrest. When the internet access was cuff off, the search engine developed a workaround that allowed users to send Twitter messages over phone lines. YouTube also created a hub to promote videos from protestors in Tahrir Square.

Google executive Wael Ghonim was one of the organizers leading the prestest. He managed a Facebook fanpage about Mohamed ElBaradei and used social media to mobilize demonstrators with his 'We Are Khaled Said' Facebook page. Appearing on "60 Minutes" with Harry Smith, he said, "Our revolution is like Wikipedia, okay? Everyone is contributing content,but you don't know the names of the people contributing the content. This is exactly what happened. Revolution 2.0 in Egypt was exactly the same. Everyone contributing small pieces, bits and pieces. We drew this whole picture of a revolution. And no one is the hero in that picture." Google's then CEO, Eric Schmidt said, "We are very very proud of what Wael Ghonim was able to do in Egypt."

The Libyan revolution is heating up and the bloodshed is likely to continue. It is to be seen how long Muammar Gaddafi's machine guns and air strikes can suppress the power of democratic uprising. The communication during the moments of historic crisis in the Arab region has been credited to the social media that broadcasted ideas and unlimited publication of the stories of protests. Thus the success of these revolts has also been the gift of social media. It's a call to the dictators and ruthless rulers to watch out that in this heavily networked world, a Twitter Revolution is not far away from them.

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