First in Tunisia, and now in Egypt, citizens have have taken to the streets to protest corrupt and repressive regimes. And social media is growing not only as a tool to observe and discuss these uprisings, such as the June 2009 protests in Iran, but as a way to organize them.
Starting in December, Tunisian citizens started to demonstrate against the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, culminating on Jan. 14 when he fled the country. Social media played a key role in organizing and spreading information about the demonstrations, particularly after a young man set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of fruits and vegetables he was trying to sell.
The overthrow of the government there emboldened Egyptians to protest the regime of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, with social media again playing a key role. One of the sparks there was the the death of a young businessman named Khalid Said, who reportedly was going to publicize a video showing police splitting up the spoils of a drug bust. Demonstrators used Facebook to plan a protest on Friday, and images of the clashes spread on Twitter.
And though the Egyptian government shut off Internet and cell service, the protests have grown and become more violent. Clay Shirky, who has researched and written about the power of social media to organize and communicate, tweeted about the shutdown: “the best reason to believe digital media improves public coordination is that the autocrats believe that.”
The U.S. government has also used social media to urge Mubarak to restore that access. “Very concerned about violence in Egypt – government must respect the rights of the Egyptian people & turn on social networking and internet,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tweeted.
In a Voice of America video posted on YouTube, President Barack Obama said:
“It is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances. As I said in my State of the Union speech, there are certain core values that we believe in as Americans that we believe are universal: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with each other and express their concerns.”
In a live chat, NPR’s Andy Carvin, who has followed the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, joined us to discuss what role social media is playing in these uprisings — for protesters, journalists and governments around the world.
Among the highlights from Carvin:
- In Tunisia, “the interplay between online and offline organizing was unprecedented.”
- “Social media definitely played a role in spreading the enthusiasm coming out of Tunisia to other Arab countries … I’m hesitant to say this was a social media revolution.”
- “Both regimes and citizens will use social media … The question is which one will use it more effectively to help advance their interests.”
You can revisit this link at any time to replay the chat.