How social media changed Middle East

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As protests against the Iranian government raged in Tehran last year, in a JMU Journalism blog I posed the unlikely-sounding question: “Can Twitter prevent a nuclear war?”

Now, after the fall of governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and with other Middle East regimes looking increasingly vulnerable in the face of popular uprisings galvanized by social networking, it’s time to ask: “How can you start a revolution in 140 characters or fewer?”

It is certainly a question that Colonel Gaddafi’s discredited regime in Libya was seriously asking as the violence escalated – they took the step of jamming satellite phones and confiscating electronic devices.

In a word, the answer is: transparency. If other oppressed people can see how neighbouring countries are resisting dictators, then calls for change are inevitable. If the outside world can see the atrocities being perpetrated by a state on its own people, the pace of such change is irresistible.

It is social networking (services such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter) which have proven key here. Previous forms of mass communication – newspapers, radio, TV, and even the Web itself – are liable to suppression and blocking. But social networking sites can be used via a mobile phone, and so are immune to these kinds of measures.

In recognition of the significant role social networking was playing in Egypt, Google and Twitter teamed up to allow Egyptians to tweet via voicemail – by leaving a message on a special voicemail number, Egyptians could upload messages to Twitter, despite the fact that the country had been cut off from the wider Internet.

It is its ubiquity that makes social networking so difficult for authoritarian regimes to control. Twitter and Facebook can be accessed in many different ways and from various devices, ranging from laptops and iPads to games consoles and phones.

No longer can ruthless regimes rely on the cover of media blackouts to perpetrate atrocities – shootings, beatings and assaults can be relayed in real time to a shocked and waiting world. The legitimacy of such regimes is thus diminished in the eyes of the global community, and they will ultimately be held to account.

How different the history of modern China may have been if footage of the Tiananmen Square message had been streamed on YouTube. Who knows if Russia would have fallen under the long shadown of Putin if its social disintegration in the 1990s had been documented on Vimeo.

The power of social networking to challenge authority isn’t confined to the Middle East, of course. In this country, the courts have been thwarted over the issue of super-injunctions, when secret gagging orders were broadcast far and wide, rendering them useless.

But there is a flipside to this inexorable free flow of information. Now that Twitter is allowed inside the courtroom, it’s possible that details which are withheld for good reason may be published.

For instance, reporting restrictions are in place to ensure a fair trial, untained by gossip and rumour. It would only take one tweet disclosing details of a defendant’s previous conviction in a high-profile case to run the risk of a trial being abandoned – just imagine if an Ian Huntley had been allowed  to walk free because of an unguarded comment on a Facebook page.

Social networking has played an invaluable role in freeing entire nations from the shackles of injustice. It would only take a few irresponsible tweets to undermine the principles of justice in our own country.

About Steve Harrison, Website Director