Social media can be an instigator of change, but cannot alone bring about real reform.
Virtual revolutions always begin with the people
With terms such as "Twitter revolution" and "Facebook revolution" floating around the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, it's easy to overlook one thing. While social media can be an instigator of, catalyst for and witness to social change, it does not bring about social change - not singlehandedly anyway. People do.
It's not surprising that social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have played such an important part in mobilising the masses in Tunisia and Egypt. According to the upcoming Arab Social Media Report, produced by the governance and innovation program at the Dubai School of Government, Egypt has over 5 million Facebook users and counting as of the end of January, the largest number of Facebook users in the Arab world. Half of the internet users in Tunisia meanwhile have Facebook accounts. These tools were and still are ubiquitous, despite attempts (some successful) to shut them down, and they are at the ready to support an uprising that has long been simmering beneath the surface.
While, for many, social media is primarily about connecting with friends and community, updating people with personal news and marketing products and events, it is also ideal for disseminating information quickly and broadly, organizing the masses, and bypassing, supplementing, or sometimes completely replacing traditional media channels. However, the driving force behind these protests is ultimately the tech-savvy young people at their computer screens and on their mobile phones who have made the choice to stand up for their rights and let their voices be heard.
Facebook may have rallied the people, YouTube broadcast the gritty reality of the protests and Twitter reverberated the message across the globe via tweets, but a single act of desperation from one man in Tunisia ultimately ignited the events of the past two months. These tools may form the new public sphere, but just having a Facebook or Twitter account doesn't make you part of the debate. This is a typical case of access versus usage; these social networks are only as effective as the people who use them. For example, Twitter has added 100 million users worldwide in 2010, but active users are a fraction of that. Like the proverbial tree cut down in the forest, if you tweet with no followers to echo your message, does it still make a sound in cyberspace? A faint one perhaps. It's the difference between a ripple and a wave, and in Tunisia and Egypt, people have started making waves.
Moreover, these same social media tools can and have been infiltrated: people's online accounts have been hacked into in Tunisia, and a complete internet blackout was imposed by government authorities in Egypt. These tools can hinder an uprising as much as kickstart it; it all depends on who's at the reins. The media has historically been a tool used both by angry protestors to shed light on social injustices and by ruling parties to quell these uprisings. That the latter feel threatened by these tools is a testament to their perceived power (and I say perceived because this power is not inherent to the tools themselves but instilled by their users); it just so happens in this case thatthe tools are social networking sites.
It is also a testament to protestors' creativity that they have found ways to circumvent these social media lockdowns. After the internet was blocked in Egypt, people resorted to old-school communication through landlines, faxes and dial-up modems, which goes to show that it is not so much the tools that make the difference but the tenacity of the users.
No one is denying the pivotal role of social media in these events. It has raised a megaphone to the voices of the underrepresented. But one cannot give these tools all the credit either. Ultimately, one has to give credit where credit is due. If there were no one to speak up in the first place, and no other voices to join in unison, there would have been no message to relay. People standing up for their rights requires real backbone, and not just a virtual kind.
Racha Mourtada works in E-governance at the Dubai School of Government