When Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook in 2004, no one could have envisioned the influence it would have on modern culture. Even less would anyone have predicted its role in the uprisings that have rocked the Middle East since late 2010.
Social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, have had an undeniable impact on recent citizen uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and most recently Syria. The networks have allowed protestors in political and social realms to connect and unite in a way that is unique compared to any anti-government movements ever seen before.
Assistant Professor of Mass Media, Tamara Zellers Buck, said the media has been used consistently throughout history, from telegraphs to text messaging."There's a lot of hype about the use of social media to help organizations remain intact," she said. "Media technology is consistently being used, this is just the newest way."
Dr. Debra Holzhauer, assistant professor of Political Science at Southeast Missouri State University, said Internet-based social media has steadily been developing behind the scenes as a force to be reckoned with. "Social media has been used prior to that in Egypt," she said. "Starting around the early 2000s, you did start to see social media opening up."
At that time, social media took the form of blogs written by independent citizen journalists. It was a new media that totalitarian governments did not immediately recognize as a threat to their regimes. Bloggers in many countries, such as Iran, were simply arrested and sometimes killed for their words. China was among the first nations to begin censoring the Internet, and it remains tightly restricted there to this day.
In late January of 2011, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak made global headlines when he attempted to shut down all Internet and phone access in Egypt. This was in response to the gathering of hundreds of Egyptians in Tahrir Square in Cairo on their self-proclaimed "day of rage" – all a result of communication via Internet forums.
"It's reflective of the predominance of social media in day-to-day life," said Holzhauer. She said that, much like in the United States, the governments in the Middle East are struggling to keep up with rapidly advancing technology and laws to govern it. However, the dictatorships of the Middle East have found ways to use social media to their advantage by creating seemingly innocent user accounts to track and catch members of revolutionary groups.
Still, countless organizers continue to utilize social media, even under threats from their government. The April 6 Movement, Islam Online, the April 6 Student Movement and "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page are just a few of the groups of protestors who operate online.
"Protestors are increasing their sophistication in utilizing social media," Holzhauer said. "I think we will increasingly see a lot of social media being used to continue discussion of how they want their country to be run."
"This is just another cog in their machine," said Buck about the use of social media as a tool of the revolutionaries. "We're used to traditional means of protests… I think they're getting more savvy."
Protestors are not only becoming more sophisticated, they are also becoming bolder. Bloggers and other social media users have even resorted to using online gaming and dating sites and other outlets to work around government controls. "It goes to show that for some people the limit has been reached," Holzhauer said. "I think the social media has helped make everyone aware of their abuses."
As in any situation, there are passive watchers and cynics of the social media revolution. Some believe that the media has only temporarily popularized interest in the plight of Middle Easterners or is taking all of the credit for their courage. According to Holzhauer, the Internet has actually acted to "galvanize" disgruntled citizens toward action. "You can take a group of jaded people and form a movement. International news inspires action," she said. "Egypt is a sustained movement. This is not going to go away."
Buck said the Internet shutdowns and other censorship are likely inspiring more action and support for the Middle East insurgents. "The surest way to get Westerners and other countries involved is to start censoring. We want the ability to protest," she said.
Commenting on the censorship of social media, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said access to the Internet is a human right while announcing a $25 million plan to fund online dissenters in repressed countries. Holzhauer said this proposition would be a "tough sell" in light of recent budget concerns and the inability for Republicans and Democrats to agree on foreign policy. She outlined two questions that would cause discomfort for any lawmaker: How do we decide whom to give monetary support to, and if we give this support how can we guarantee that it does not go to a terrorist group?
This proposition comes at the same time that WikiLeaks, a website that catalogues private government documents for public use, is being investigated and condemned worldwide, including by the U.S. Justice Department. There have been many questions and concerns about the fact that the U.S. government is seemingly willing to censor our Internet services while funding uprisings against the same censorship overseas. "There is a fine line between criticizing the government and violent speech, which is unprotected everywhere," said Buck. She agreed that it is hard to distinguish between the two in the use of WikiLeaks.
Social media itself has undergone a revolution as it has taken a leading role in political and social change in multiple Middle Eastern countries. It remains to be seen how the Internet and subsequent laws will develop in the coming months as governments race to keep up.