As recent events in Tunisia and Egypt have unfolded, there has been much discussion regarding the role that social media such as Twitter and Facebook have played in the uprisings. Some have even gone so far as to refer to the Tunisian uprising as a "Twitter Revolution." But the role of social media in these protests and revolutions is far more complex than that. An examination of this role goes some distance towards dispelling the widespread view that the Internet is inherently conducive to democracy and the spreading thereof.
The role of social media in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings is actually hard to pin down. We don't yet know how much it was used to coordinate protests and spread information. Twitter and especially Facebook were certainly popular, but in our haste to credit new technology and new cultural trends we tend to forget that just as important were other forms of communication like email and text messaging, not to mention good old-fashioned social networking: talking to people face-to-face.
The role of social media and other forms of communication are best seen as facilitators of the uprisings, not their essential ingredient as the moniker "Twitter revolution" suggests. Social media is a useful tool for people who already knew of their leaders' corruption, wanted change and had the will to act. Facebook and Twitter give people new ways to organize -- they are just the latest way for people to communicate with each other and plan events (albeit a unique way).
We cannot overlook the fact that in Egypt, protestors circulated a 26-page pamphlet containing vital information by email and photocopy because they knew authorities would be monitoring social networking sites. And when the government shut down the internet in an attempt to quell the unrest, there was no concomitant reduction in the size or strength of protests.
One cannot deny that social media does have features which make it rather well-suited to its use in uprisings or revolutions. As mentioned, it opens up a new and unique kind of communicative space, allowing communities and the public to coordinate without central leadership and which become woven into the daily life of citizens. But is this new space, as useful as it is, an inherently democratic tool? This stance is the thought underlying the claims of social media's revolutionary power.
The answer to the question is no, because the aspects of social media which make it so conducive to democratic and revolutionary activity also make it an excellent tool for authoritarian regimes to repress, censor and propagandise. In his book The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov details the use of the Internet and social media by authoritarian regimes to maintain their iron grip on power and stifle democratic change. After the failed revolution in Iran, security services there used social media to track down and punish protestors who had taken part in protests. The Chinese government is becoming very skilled at using social media to spread pro-government propaganda. Even in Tunisia, many Internet sites, including video sites such as Dailymotion, were censored to prevent anti-government materials from being accessed. As Morozov put it in a recent article for the Globe and Mail, "the Internet is an excellent platform for inciting revolutionary sentiment -- and tracking down wannabe revolutionaries; it is a handy vehicle for spreading propaganda -- and revealing government lies; it provides a platform that facilitates government surveillance -- and helps people evade it." The Internet and social media are not inherently in the service of Good or Evil -- they are subject to the whims of those who employ them.
Before and during the uprising in Tunisia, Facebook was not censored or blocked and so was used to share videos and stories as well as to coordinate action. Had access to Facebook been blocked, I find it highly unlikely that the uprisings would have failed to materialize and dethrone a dictator. Public anger and the desire for change was too great to be chained to one method of communication and organization.
Online social networks will not spawn democracy of themselves. The Internet has great potential for revolutionary and democratic uses, but to live up to that potential it requires either an already democratic environment or the will of human beings to create such an environment. With the means, and the desire to act, people can use social media to further democracy, if the circumstances are right. But a revolution will not be made of "tweets" or "likes" alone.