Social media is an increasingly popular term to describe a broad spectrum of media tools that have played a vital role in Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. In the recent events in the Northern Africa, the role of social media is best characterized as an enabler—facilitating rallies and galvanizing participants. Social media is a set of tools that allows information providers to dispatch content to a wide audience, and for information consumers to receive the information instantaneously. The most common social media tools are Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and relatively new social media sites like Diggs and Foursquare. Social media is not a communication forum in the traditional sense because few have discussion boards. The communication comes in the form of status updates and ad hoc statements. While discussion may be limited, the dissemination of information has been the most influential component of the upheavals in the MENA (Middle East and Northern Africa) region.
Commentators generally agree that social media outlets have enabled government overthrows in Tunisia, and particularly in Egypt. Facebook has played the most practical role, with certain pages providing information to demonstrators on the status, location, time, and other practical information on rallies and gatherings. YouTube was essential for spreading eyewitness reports and providing information to a broad range of users on the status of the demonstrations. It also evidenced the often-violent responses of government forces, further galvanizing the public. Twitter has similarly provided instantaneous eyewitness accounts of violence that galvanized opposition leaders.
Some commentators disagree that social media played an important role, noting that the Internet has only been marginally influential in countries where the percent of citizens with access to the Internet is relatively small, like in Egypt with 31% and Tunisia with 21%. Other commentators have rebutted that: while the percent of citizens with access to the Internet may be small, those Internet users spread the information gathered on social media websites to family members, friends and neighbors who do not have access to the Internet. In the events in Egypt, the role of social media is undeniable. In an effort spearheaded by Wael Ghonim, a Google Marketing executive originally from Egypt, hundred of thousands of users accessed information on both the location and time for demonstrations, as well as links to YouTube videos illuminating government atrocities against the public.
The next frontier for the role of social media is two-fold. First, social media tools are essential for a knowledge-based society, and for the economic and political development of newly liberated Tunisia and Egypt. Second, social media continues to have an inflammatory effect in other parts of the Middle East. For example, in Saudi Arabia, citizens are advocating for uprising on social media networks; the government is so concerned that it is blocking access to these sites. Even though Saudi government officials do not believe that the country will be “next” in the wave of revolutions, the government is keeping a close eye and ear to social media outlets.