What an eventful start to this new year and decade! With less than a month and a half behind us, the world has already witnessed the power and determination of the people as they fought to reclaim their freedom from the injustices and tyrannical rule of Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. While the revolutions were transpiring on the streets, the social media network was buzzing with activity keeping fellow protesters and the international community abreast of what was happening on the ground.

The BBC noted that “more than 34% of Tunisia’s 10 million people are online” and “nearly two million people, or more than 18% of the population, use Facebook,” but Reporters Without Borders stated that the country has a “very effective system of censoring” the web as “the regime has become almost obsessive about control of news and information.” Despite these state-imposed restrictions, and with cell phone usage estimated at 95%, Twitter was used as a key tool by protesters primarily to communicate logistics like locations of snipers and organized protests, and to appeal for blood donations during Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, in the process saving lives. Messages like “Lyon Street (Tunis) police snipers killing citizens in Tunis,” and “UGTT confirms: General strike in Tunis, and demonstration at 11 am!” provide examples of this.

Even with the Tunisian protests now being referred to as Twitter Revolution, analysts point out that the revolution in Tunisia was not sparked by social media, rather it took the self-immolation of an unemployed street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who was prohibited from selling his produce on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, for this Arab nation to rise up and revolt against 24 years of authoritarian rule.

However, the significance of the use of Twitter and other social media in strengthening the revolution is indubitable. Tens of thousands of Tunisians transcended state-imposed censorship and restrictions, and communicated with each other through an uninhibited flow of information, which amplified their potential to engage in collective action, and acted as citizen journalists by getting messages, photos and videos to the international community and media for re-broadcast – in the process creating, living and documenting their own history as it happened!

Nasser Weddady, Director at the American Islamic Congress in Boston, noted that, for 23 years, the international media paid very little attention to Tunisia. He stated, “You might never have heard about (the revolt in Tunisia) if it wasn’t for the folks on Twitter, who were basically engaging in massive information warfare. At the time when the Tunisian dictator fled, there were six tweets on Tunisia every second.”

Dr. Noureddine Miladii, Senior Lecturer in Media and Sociology at the University of Northampton (UK) and Editor of the Journal of Arab and Muslim Media Research, said, “Mobile phones, blogs, YouTube, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds (were) instrumental in mediating the live coverage of protests and speeches, as well as police brutality in dispersing demonstrations. The internet in this case… assumed the role of a very effective uncensored news agency from which every broadcaster and news corporation (were) able to freely source news feeds, raw from the scene.”

Dr. Miladi noted, “Al Jazeera heavily relied on referencing Facebook pages and Youtube in reporting the raw events, which marked a key turning point in unveiling the bloodiness and horror of the manner with which the police had been dealing with the riots. No wonder that Tunisians flocked to the social media networks, which fed and fuelled news stations like Al Jazeera, BBC Arabic, France 24, Al-Hiwar and other channels.”

Simple, ordinary people transforming societies! The power of a networked people poses both a significant opportunity for the oppressed and a threat to, especially authoritarian, hierarchical organizations. In this case, a participatory democracy, facilitated through the use of social media within the communications landscape, carried the voices of the Tunisian people across the world, and united a people to liberate themselves from the bonds of political tyranny.