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The Globe and Mail

After One Man's Protest, a Global Torrent of Message Saw Dictators Fall

Sonia Verma

Google Inc executive Wael Ghonim addresses a mass crowd inside Tahrir Square in Cairo February 8, 2011. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

Social media played a significant role in many of the major news events in 2011. This week, The Globe examines the impact social media had on five of the year's biggest stories: Arab Spring, B.C. riot, Charlie Sheen, Occupy Wall Street and the "It gets better" campaign.

It began with a singular act of defiance. A 26-year-old fruit-seller in a Tunisian town set himself on fire to protest corruption.

Without social media, Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide would have likely been a lone rebellion. Instead, it set off protests in previously silent capitals that morphed into million-man marches that ultimately led to the toppling of four dictators, dramatically reconfiguring the world in the space of a single year.

Among Twitter hashtags (the expressions, preceded by the # symbol, that are used to categorize posts on the message sharing service), the most-used worldwide in 2011 was #Egypt. The tenth most popular was #Jan25 – the hashtag used by those involved in or commenting on the key demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Cairo and Egypt topped the list of most popular topics in the category of places.

Some of the biggest newsmakers of the year – Mr. Bouazizi and Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who moonlighted as a pro-democracy activist – would have been unheard of without social media. Instead they became global heroes.

Arguably, without social media the Arab Spring wouldn’t have happened as quickly and as decisively as it did. “Social media quickened the pace of everything,” reflects Jillian York, director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. “Looking back now, I don’t think things would have kicked off in Syria and elsewhere had it not been for social media. It was fuel on the fire,” she said.

How the Arab Spring used social media

Dec. 18

People witnessing the fiery act of defiance and the street demonstrations that followed capture the scenes and post them on YouTube. In the Tunisia of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, public protest was strictly banned, yet now there is proof: videos of the protest in Sidi Bouzid that show hundreds of people on the streets, chanting Mr. Bouazizi's name in open defiance of President Ben Ali. The videos also show how violent the security force's response was.

Dec. 19

Slim Amamou, an influential Tunisian blogger, sees the video and posts it on Facebook. A middle-class university graduate living in Tunis, Mr. Amamou has little in common with a poor, rural fruit-seller other than hatred for the corrupt Ben Ali regime. After Mr. Amamou posts the video, it goes viral in the Arab World. Al-Jazeera broadcasts it, fuelling copycat demonstrations around the country.

Dec. 27

Protests reach the capital city of Tunis, with about 1,000 demonstrators taking to the streets. Once again, Tunisian activists rely on social media to spread their message. They publicize the protest by hacking into Tunisia's main labour union website, sending a message to its members to join them in the city's central Mohammad Ali square. The protesters use Twitter to route demonstrations, avoiding security forces in the streets. Mr. Amamou uses his cell phone to live-stream video of the massive turnout. Others capture and post video of protesters being shot dead on the streets.

Jan. 4, 2011

Mr. Bouazizi succumbs to his injuries, dying in a Tunisian hospital. By now, protests inspired by those in Sidi Bouzid have spread across the country.

Jan. 14

Ben Ali flees Tunisia for Saudi Arabia via Malta, ending his 24-year-long rule. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi takes over as interim president.

Jan. 24

Inspired by the revolution in Tunisia, online activists in Egypt begin discussions about a march on Tahrir Square the next day. For years, they had been organizing underground and on two popular Facebook pages: “We are all Khaled Said,” dedicated to the 28-year-old computer programmer who was beaten to death by police after exposing their corruption online, and “The April 6th Movement,” which pressed for workers' rights. To date, “We are all Khlaed Said” has been “liked” by more than 160,000 people. The activists select as their day of protest Jan. 25: National Police Day.


Jan. 25

Activists use Facebook and Twitter to spread false information tricking the security forces into believing they would converge elsewhere. Instead, tens of thousands of Egyptians turn up in Tahrir Square, demanding an end to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's rule. Recognizing the crucial role social media is playing in the protests, Mr. Mubarak's government begins to crack down on communication. Mobile phone lines, Twitter and Facebook are all blocked.

Jan. 28

Demonstrators occupy Tahrir Square. Activists reach out online to their counterparts in Tunisia for advice on strategies to combat security forces and deal with tear gas. The Egyptian government further tightens its clampdown on communications, severing land lines and satellite Internet connections. Over the next few days all Internet service providers in Egypt are shut down. In the end, the regime's attempts to cut off communication further angers Egyptians who are anxious for information, sending them onto the streets and into Tahrir Square.

Feb. 1

Mr. Mubarak vows on state television to stand down after his term (his sixth) ends. “I have exhausted my life in serving Egypt and my people. I will die on the soil of Egypt and be judged by history,” he says. “Illegitimate!” roars the crowd in Tahrir Square.

Feb. 4

Hundreds of thousands stage a ‘day of departure' demonstration in Tahrir Square.

Feb. 8

Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who helped organize the protests, is released from 10 days in detention. In a tearful television interview, he speaks of the role social media played in the revolution. “I am not a hero. I only use the keyboard. The real heroes are the ones on the ground, those I can't name,” he said. He acknowledges he set up the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said.” Mr. Ghonim's interview, posted on YouTube, goes viral.

Feb. 11

Mr. Mubarak steps down, handing power to the military. Eventually he is jailed, and made to stand trial for crimes against his people. The end of the Mubarak regime in the Arab world's largest and most influential country spurs protest elsewhere.

By the end of the year there were revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, a civil war in Libya resulting in the fall of its government, and civil uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen – where President Ali Abdullah Saleh resigned. There have also been major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and even Saudi Arabia.

By the Numbers

Tunisia – Two million people use Facebook (roughly 25 per cent of the population); a quarter of all homes have broadband and 90 per cent of people have mobile phones.

Egypt – An estimated 3.4-million Egyptians use Facebook, the vast majority under the age of 25. Egypt is the No. 1 user of Facebook in the Arab world, and No. 23 globally. Facebook is the third most visited website in the country, after Google and Yahoo, and is one of the only forums for dissent.

8 million – Number of tweets using the hashtag #egypt, according to, a website that tracks social media usage. It was the most-used hashtag of 2011

Other popular hashtags during the Arab protests:












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