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Lessons Learned From the 140-Character Rebellion

The domino-like succession of civil unrest that has rocked repressive regimes in the Middle East has been called "the Jasmine Revolution." It might better be known as "the 140-character Rebellion," after the character limits of Twitter, which gave it voice.

In 2009, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube nearly caused the overthrow of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when amateur videos were uploaded showing the shooting death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old female student who was killed while watching non-violent protests of the disputed Iranian elections.

The incident was never reported by the official Iranian state media, but by the end of the next day, the Twitter "hashtag" #Neda was among Twitter's "trending topics" worldwide, attracting the attention of global media including CNN.

Within days, one of the losing candidates used his Facebook page to urge citizens to attend a Tehran commemoration of Neda's death; riot police used live ammunition and tear gas to break up the crowd, and the seeds of insurrection were sown.

The fuse that set off the current wave of Arab nations' unrest was, likewise, uploaded video of the death of a young person, in this case the self-immolation of a 26-year-old Tunisian who sold produce from a cart.

Like so many living under the despots of the Middle East, Mohamed Bouazizi had often been shaken down by crooked officials, and on December 17, police again confiscated his produce and scales because he didn't have a permit -- or enough money to bribe the cops to go away.

Spurned when he tried to complain, he drenched himself with gasoline and lit a match. His suicide provided a powerful symbol of people's frustrations with corrupt, arrogant and autocratic governments, high food prices and abject poverty.

As with Neda, had it not been for social networking, it's doubtful anyone outside his own community would ever have known about Bouazizi's suicide. Yet within 60 days, news of his action spread virally over the Web and set in motion a chain reaction that has already ended entrenched dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, and appears poised to do so (as of this writing) in Libya. Several other young men have emulated his suicide, triggering acts of civil disobedience, strikes and violent clashes that would have been unthinkable just two months ago in Iran, Morocco, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

The global impacts will be profound. In several of the affected nations, such as Yemen, Al Qaeda is a significant presence; in a newly-democratic Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has disturbing goals and leadership that may fill the void.

Libya, meanwhile, is among Europe's biggest suppliers of oil. A long-term supply interruption portends massive implications for the already fragile European economy, and ultimately for our own tenuous recovery.

Yet as Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi learned, a social network chain reaction is like a stubborn virus, mutating constantly when threatened and very difficult to kill.

Mubarak went so far as to shut down the Internet, only for Twitter and Google to develop a "voice-to-Twitter" service that allowed users to post their Tweets simply by calling a dedicated phone line and reading their message for transcription. The "Google Translate" function even allowed the voice-to-Twitter messages to be instantly communicated into other languages, giving them even wider reach.

Qaddafi, in turn, not only shut down the Internet, but land-lines, wireless and even satellite phones as well. Ultimately, though, no modern society can function without communications, and once the lines were reopened, however briefly, the result was an onslaught of Tweets, Facebook posts and uploaded video from ground level.

The Internet and social networking sites are forcing us to re-think our entire approach to foreign policy, putting unprecedented new emphasis on public diplomacy.

Despite the obvious budgetary constraints and American voters' traditional resistance to "foreign aid," this is a time to prioritize our assistance to the areas that need it most and to continue to incorporate Internet efforts through the Voice of America.

The U.S. government must finally fix its strategic communication systems with experienced and knowledgeable communications heads, with staffs to support them and funding to accomplish our goals.

Modern democracy is especially complex in the Internet Age, and if it is to survive in the Middle East, the technical expertise and infrastructure-building assistance of non-partisan, non-profit organizations -- such as the National Democratic Institute, National Endowment for Democracy and International Republican Institute -- will be essential.

We are witnessing a phenomenon in social media. In 2009, I suggested that Twitter and other social media platform should be considered for a Nobel Prize. Today it remains clear that technology has provided a megaphone that is giving voice to the aspirations of millions.

Mark Pfeifle was deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and global outreach at the National Security Council from 2007 to 2009. He is vice president at S4 Inc. in Arlington, VA.