Researchers at the University of Washington sifted through more than 3 million tweets, countless hours of YouTube videos and gigabytes of blogs to find out whether the Internet, and social media services like Twitter and Facebook really played the revolutionary role many claimed they did.
According to the study, online chatter about revolution often began just before actual revolutions took place. And social media also served as an outlet for citizens of the region to tell their stories of revolution, which played an inspirational role for neighboring countries, the study found.
“Our evidence suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising,” said Philip Howard, a University of Washington communications professor and the study’s leader. “People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.”
In Egypt, where the Arab Spring blossomed, Howard and his team found that the number of tweets that mentioned revolution in that country exploded from 2,300 per day to more than 230,000 per day. The number of videos, Facebook updates and blog posts about government opposition also rose dramatically.
Because Twitter users can send updates from any mobile phone, Howard says that platform offers the “clearest evidence of where individuals engaging in democratic conversations were located during the revolutions,” since many people in the region do not have standard Internet access, but most do have a cellphone.
The study also found that government efforts to cut off access to Internet and cell phone service likely caused an increase in activism, especially in Egypt where access was shut down for five days before being restored.
“Recent events show us that the public sense of shared grievance and potential for change can develop rapidly,” said Howard. “These dictators for a long time had many political enemies, but they were fragmented. So opponents used social media to identify goals, build solidarity and organize demonstrations.”
More recently, social media helped fuel days of riots in London and elsewhere in the UK. British Prime Minister David Cameron responded by saying that citizens who organize uprisings on social networks should be banned from accessing them — a suggestion that evoked ridicule from the notoriously authoritarian Iranian government. That idea was later discarded following a meeting between the British government, Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry.