Social networking websites now play a critical role in anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. But media experts say the people, not the technology, are driving the demonstrations.
Social media is also saving lives in the Middle East.
"From China to Yemen to Tunisia to Egypt, social media has given ordinary citizens extraordinary ways to organize themselves and be heard. This has destabilized 'politics as usual' bringing volatility to an already unstable world," said Philip Seib, director for the Center on Public Diplomacy.
In recent weeks, rapidly organized protests via social media sparked in Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon and other middle east countries have forced countries in the region to re-strategize domestic and foreign policy.
Social media also helped drive protests across the Arab world as public gatherings are illegal in Saudi Arabia.
Social media, including Twitter, Facebook, Diggit, live video, texting, bloggers, websites, My Space, and other outlets, now focus on the power of mass protests to rally together to topple governments and spread messages to fellow countrymen, and ultimately tell their story to the rest of the world.
Political analysts say this is phenomenon is being used more than traditional media methods, according to a new study by media experts.
“Using social networking and its importance in recent uprisings shouldn’t be underplayed,” said Susannah Vila, the director of content and outreach at Movements.org.
“But these same events have also shown that one of social media’s strengths, being leaderless, can also prove one of its weaknesses.”
The study on social media in the Middle East shows that among the Arab countries, the top seven countries in active Facebook user usage are Egypt with 1,820,000 users, Saudi Arabia with 920,000 users, Morocco with 860,000, the UAE with 840,000, Tunisia has 690,000, Lebanon with 680,000, and Jordan 490,000.
Now that Facebook is freely accessible, Syrians are regularly using it to express their political views. Discussing politics used to be a major taboo in Syria. But since political unrest began in mid-March, many young Syrians are openly discussing politics online as well as in the street for the first time.
Only recently has the government lifted (a widely ignored) ban on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as part of an attempt to create a "new era" in the Middle East.
Whether or not either of these strategies will work for the regimes in charge remains to be seen, but it's yet another reminder that technology today does not favor any particular party, but can be put to use for very different purposes by different groups, according to a statement in the media study.
Media experts will explore whether or not these new keyboard activists can govern a country at the Strategic Communications Conference scheduled for June 23 in Los Angeles. The conference will be hosted by the University of Southern California.
Academic professors will join government panelists from the Middle East to discuss how social media is affecting policy in the region.
Although the Middle East has traditionally lagged behind other parts of the world in its online usage, it is fast catching up. Facebook continues to be the number one social networking site – now viewable in 70 languages with millions using the site via mobile phone.
Facebook, alone, registers more than 600 million active users and 100 billion hits per day. Such networks have unlocked a new atmosphere for unchecked interaction, thanks in a large part to their relative independence from the public sector.
However, media experts show in the study that revolutions would have happened if social media existed or not, but the speed of the message is the real difference.
“Many people cannot understand why all these uprisings happened so they turn to the aspect they can understand, social media,” said Philip Seib, a professor of journalism and public diplomacy and professor of international relations at the University of Southern California.
“However, there is a very important piece to remember, for those people that call this the Twitter revolution or the Facebook revolution, I think that is a misnomer that is unfair to the people who went out into the streets and risked, and sometimes lost their lives in the cause of these revolutions."
Social media is a connective technology and is empowering citizens to find and express their voices.
As more people share in the shaping of the present and the storytelling of the future, the needs and wants of more people are being reflected, according to political analysts.