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The Emerging Role of Social Media in Political and Regime Change

(Released March 2012)

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  by Rita Safranek  


Key Citations






For all that it does, social media is no “silver bullet” when it comes to political change. “The use of social media tools – text messaging, e-mail, photo-sharing, social network, and the like – does not have a single preordained outcome. Therefore attempts to outline their effects on political action are too often reduced to dueling anecdotes” (Shirky). Factors that seem to impact its successful use include the size, ethnic diversity, and education levels of the population, the existence of a modern telecommunications infrastructure, and the amount of censorship used by the existing regime. Social media has limited impact at best on an important factor affecting nascent revolutions – a regime’s willingness to use force to squelch protests. Egyptian protests grew because the Army would not turn against citizens engaged in peaceful protest. Iranian protests petered out when leaders used force to crack down on those speaking out, both in public and in the cybersphere.

Arab Spring logo
A commemorative logo for the Arab Spring which began on the 18th of December 2010

Moving forward, “the activities of social movements will gain influence only to the extent that they are able to avoid the scrutiny and controls of the state. A challenge for improving the prospects of digitally-assisted political reform in closed societies that must rely on decentralized networks is to adapt, emulate and transfer the benefits of highly organized civil society groups, as bottom-up decentralized organizing is more likely to survive in repressive regimes.” (Etling).

Research suggests that protests, when effective, are the end of a process, rather than a replacement for it. Political freedom has to be accompanied by a society literate enough and densely connected enough to discuss the issues presented to the public (Shirky). “The real lesson is that the cyber-verse gives no side a decisive, unassailable advantage” (Carfano). For groups that have felt powerless against repressive regimes, social media’s technological leveling of the political playing field provides one of the most important components of any successful revolution – hope.

© 2012, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

List of Visuals

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  20. Rash, John. "Rash Report: Social Media as a Tool for Social Unrest; Facebook Helps, but Old-fashioned Courage Ends Repressive Regimes." Star Tribune: A.11. ProQuest. Jan 29 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2012.

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  22. Riley, Sheila. "Social Media One Key to the Arab Spring IT-Savvy Population it Played Bigger Role in Tunisia, Egypt than in Libya, Yemen, some Say." Investor’s Business Daily: A06. ProQuest. Oct 31 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2012.

  23. Rosenberg, Tina. "Friends in Revolution." International Herald Tribune: 6. ProQuest. Jul 15 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2012 .

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  25. Shirky, Clay. "The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change." Foreign Affairs 90.1 (2011): 28-I. ProQuest. Web. 16 Feb. 2012.

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