In a moment of wild exuberance following the fall of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Google executive and protest leader Wael Ghonim told CNN, "If you want to liberate a government, give them the internet." If only it were that simple.
Russia, to cite just one example, has a relatively unfettered Internet and yet its authoritarian government is deeply entrenched. Yes, Facebook and Twitter helped protesters communicate more effectively in Egypt and Tunisia. But social networking can also make it easier for governments to dismantle protest movements. In Iran, security forces have used threats and sometimes torture to extract Facebook passwords and then systematically tracked down the "friends" of those detained.
This is why the role of social media as a democracy-building tool is the subject of fierce debate at the moment. What cannot be disputed is the impact it is having on the media itself and the coverage of major news stories such as Egypt. Social media, particularly Twitter, has also transformed the way human rights and press freedom organizations do their work, allowing them to document and respond to abuses almost instantaneously.
I saw this first hand at the Committee to Protect Journalists, where I serve as executive director. CPJ, founded in 1981, is celebrating its 30th anniversary of defending the rights of journalists worldwide. More than a decade ago, email transformed our ability to communicate with journalists around the world, and to disseminate information about attacks against our colleagues. But that technology is being superseded by social networking.
In the case of Egypt, our two-person Middle East program was able to document more than 150 press freedom violations, including 76 detentions and 52 assaults, in no small part thanks to Twitter. A huge number of journalists, ranging from Egyptian bloggers to international correspondents on the ground in Cairo, now maintain personal Twitter feeds that they update constantly. By following these feeds, we were able to get real time information about specific abuses, ranging from smashed cameras to detentions.
For example, on February 4, Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas tweeted live that he had been detained by the military. His 20,000 followers quickly spread the word and CPJ was one of many groups to respond immediately. He was released a few hours later. Likewise, when Al Jazeera English correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin was detained on February 5, the news spread within minutes by his concerned colleagues including Ben Wedeman from CNN and Jon Williams from the BBC. Mohyeldin was released after around eight hours. International journalists also used Twitter to spread the word when security agents and Mubarak supporters raided the Cairo Hilton, confiscating and smashing equipment. NPR's Andy Carvin was a great resource for many journalists covering this story with his "curated" Twitter feed of news from journalists and bloggers on the ground.
While CPJ continues to send out email "alerts" each day, we also disseminate more and more information using Twitter and other social media. This has allowed us to directly reach the frontline reporters more easily, many of whom have access to Twitter while they are out reporting.
Our statistics and research on press freedom violations in Egypt were widely cited, and this undoubtedly helped shape the perception that an unprecedented crackdown was under way. During the tumult in Egypt we gained about 2,000 followers. Other human rights and press freedom groups are also expanding their social media presence in similar ways.
As someone who was obsessively following developments in Egypt via Twitter, I observed one other profound change. A decade ago, as newspapers moved online, most news began breaking on websites rather than in print. Today, with so many reporters maintaining their own Twitter feeds, websites are no longer the place to go for breaking news. If you're following a story on Twitter, you're likely to learn about the developments long before they are posted to a media website. Of course, the economic implications of this change are just being processed.
So while the claims of social media as a democratizing tool may well be overstated, what the unrest in Egypt did show are the ways in which social media and Twitter in particular are transforming both media coverage and human rights documentation. For now, that's the real revolution.
Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
How will Donald Trump’s first 100 days impact YOU? Subscribe, choose the community that you most identify with or want to learn more about and we’ll send you the news that matters most once a week throughout Trump’s first 100 days in office. Learn more