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The Debate on Social Media and Revolutions: Reality Steps In

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Just like the Internet lowers transaction costs in the economy leading to networked models of innovation and wealth creation, one effect of the digital revolution on society is to lower the transaction costs of dissent and insurrection.

Over the last year, many have questioned just how important social media are in helping activists achieve social change. Writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote a famous essay in the New Yorker entitled "Small Change: Why the Revolution Won't be Tweeted." He argued that social networks only create weak ties between people, but that it's strong ties and close relationships that bring about real social change.

The topic has been widely debated, and then reality stepped in: If Twitter, Facebook and YouTube didn't exist, Hosni Mubarak would still be president of Egypt. The social media tools gave Mubarak's opponents unprecedented ability to share information and organize their activities, including the massive protests which riveted the world's attention.

Facebook even gave voice to the dead. Last June, Khaled Said, a 28-year-old businessman, was beaten to death by two police officers. Said had posted a video on the Internet of the policemen dealing in illegal drugs. Within days of his death, an anonymous human-rights activist, now known to be a Google executive, created a Facebook page called "We Are All Khaled Said."

Posted on the page were photos of Said's battered and bruised body in the morgue. Also posted was Said's original video of the corrupt police. Within weeks, the Facebook entry had more than 100,000 friends, which eventually grew to more than half a million. Facebook has more than 5 million users in Egypt, and Said's page served as a rallying point for protesters.

It was a similar story in Tunisia. On Dec. 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after police confiscated the cart he used to sell his vegetables on the street. The suicide sparked outrage and riots throughout the country. Angry Tunisians used Twitter to organize their protests and inform the outside world of their activities.

"Social networks, Twitter and texting were critical to the revolution," says Yassine Brahim, Tunisia's new minister of infrastructure and transport. "We are going to leverage social media to build a horizontal democracy rather than a vertical democracy."

Dictators keep a firm grip on a country's media to suppress criticism. This used to be relatively simple. Take control of the television station and newspapers and you control the public's knowledge and thus behavior.

But the Internet is interactive and decentralized. Its model is to share information from many people to many people. As such, it has an awesome neutrality. It will be what we want it to be, and in Egypt young people wanted it to be a tool to bring down a tyrant. The citizens of Egypt felt oppressed and were angry at high food prices and high unemployment. Young Egyptians, in particular, were frustrated.

"The movement (in Egypt) was very dependent on Facebook," Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah told the Washington Post. "It started with anger then turned into a legitimate uprising."

Egypt and Tunisia show that weak ties between people initiated on the web can become strong ties and forge close relationships that are effective in organizing for social change.

Welcome to the age of wiki revolutions.

Alarmed at the growing confidence and numbers of Egyptians protesting in the streets, the government tried to thwart the dissidents by shutting down the Internet on Jan. 25, cutting off access to sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Text messaging on cellular phones was also turned off.

It was too late, and in fact counterproductive. Shutting down the Internet fueled the fire of dissent and rage.

Network theory tells us that when you have activity on a network, there are remote nodes that are not really involved. At the heart of the network there is a core of activists. When the government shut down the Internet, the remote nodes were triggered into action. The government's action was seen as an integrity violation. E-commerce shut down. Mothers couldn't diagnose their sick children. People everywhere were negatively affected and anger was focused on the government.

Moreover, when people have their tools of communication taken away, such as Twitter and Facebook, they have no choice but to come into the street and communicate. So this had the effect of stimulating the mass action in the street.

Soon dictatorial regimes won't even have the option of turning off the Internet. In past revolutions, old regimes collapsed when the masses shut down the economy with a general strike. Today, the Internet is becoming the foundation for wealth creation, education, health care, supply chains, commerce and all other facets of society. Shutting down the Internet will be akin to creating a digital general strike against yourself.

The final word goes to the memory of Khaled Said. Within minutes of Mubarak being toppled, Said's Facebook page posted the following: "Thank God. Thanks to all those who died for us to live in freedom. Thanks to all Egyptians who slept rough in Tahrir, Alexandria and everywhere. Thank you all on this page for your support & your amazing greatness & help. . . Thank you Tunisia."