Is Social Media Really Sparking Revolution?

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Facebook and Twitter have made communicating and organizing much easier, and WikiLeaks has unearthed various diplomatic secrets, some more pertinent than others. There is no doubt that these social media tools have made an impact, but can they be credited with sparking recent "revolutions" such as the current popular uprising in Tunisia? Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash is skeptical of the quickness with which the recent unrest in Tunisia has been labeled a "Twitter" or  "WikiLeaks Revolution."

Ash turns to a Belarussian activist-analyst who argues that social media played a much smaller role in the earlier Iranian post-election protests than people claim. "These new technologies can also be used by dictators to watch, entrap and persecute their opponents," he points out. But what about Tunisia, where Ash notes the Internet was used to quickly spread the news of the initial suicide, the catalyst for the subsequent protests? WikiLeaks, too, made public what Tunisians already knew about the presidential family's deep-seeded corruption. It may not have been news to the Tunisians, "but having detailed chapter and verse, with the authority of the US state department, and seeing how much the publicly regime-friendly American superpower privately disliked it, and knowing that other Tunisians must know that too, since the American reports were there online for all to see--this surely had an impact."

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Still, Ash warns:

If the struggle for Internet freedom is too closely identified with US foreign policy, and in turn US companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter--which in personnel terms are beginning to have something of a "revolving door" relationship with the US government--this can end up damaging the purpose it is meant to serve.

 This could push oppressive regimes to increase censorship and only allow the use of their own off-brand, restrictive alternatives to the American sites.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.