The Revolutions Will Be Hashtagged: Twitter Turns 5 as the Middle East Demands Democracy

Twitter, the microblog people love to hate, turned 5 this week. Twitter is probably most famous for the celebrities and politicians that use it to communicate with their fan bases, but in the Middle East Twitter is better known as a tool of political dissent and social mobilization. Deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak blocked Twitter before cutting off access to the internet entirely for five days.

Although Twitter has been around since 2006, it really did not start gaining popularity in the Middle East until 2008, when tech savvy youth and cyber activists started using the service for political activism. These early adopters tweeted mainly in English, not Arabic, were largely male (twice as many men as women tweeted in mid-2009), and interacted primarily with bloggers, with more than 80% using Twitter to find news and stay updated, according to March 2009 estimates. The same survey indicated there were only about 3,000 Twitter users in the Middle East, with that number growing to more than 40,000 by mid-2010.

In 2008 an activist in Egypt in 2008 "tweeted" himself out of jail following his arrest in Mahalla during the strike that marked the birth of the April 6 movement. In June 2009, Iranian youth protesting flawed elections used Twitter to communicate with foreign journalists and bypass censorship of the internet and SMS messages. Twitter is harder to block than other Internet sites because it can be accessed via clients as well as directly through the site. In January of that year Twitter had a mere 130 employees, yet by June it was recognized as such a powerful communication and organization tool that the US government intervened to ask Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance that would have taken the site offline temporarily. Twitter agreed to postpone what it called a "critical network upgrade" because of "the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran."

From the beginning, Twitter has been one of the most important tools in Egypt's cyber activists' repertoire, useful for amplifying their messages, framing their grievances and demands, and organizing social protest. Twitter was a critical platform for Tunisian activists in the youth movement that helped oust president Ben Ali after 23 years in power. In the months leading up to the January protests, activists sent warnings via Twitter about government phishing attempts to obtain passwords for email and Facebook accounts. When bloggers Slim Amamou and Azyz Amamy were arrested their friends found out nearly simultaneously via Twitter, and because Amamou used his mobile phone to text Google Latitude with his location - an interior ministry building in Tunis - they immediately knew where he was being held. The Tunisian government was one of the most sophisticated internet censors in the world, and it had shut down several popular social networking sites.

Last year estimates put the number of Twitter users in the Arab world in the 40,000 range, which makes it all the more interesting that the microblog played such an influential role in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings (calling them revolutions is premature until new governments are in place). Because many of the region's politically active youth are among them, their impact and voices are amplified through the logic of power laws.

Twitter said Monday that an average of one billion tweets are sent each week, with an average of 140 million tweets sent each day over the past month since the Egyptian uprising forced President Mubarak out of power after 30 years. The fact that Tunisian and Egyptian (and in 2009 Iranian) activists managed to get their hashtags to become trending topics on a service with more than 200 billion subscribers clearly demonstrates the substantial impact a few voices can have when amplified. During Egypt's digital blackout, activists used Twitter to bypass blackouts of internet and mobile phone service while 'speak2tweet' enabled posting via voicemail. Libyan activists under siege by Ghaddafi's armed forces are currently using Twitter to communicate with the outside world and activate transnational networks.

And indeed becoming a trending topic is a key goal for social movements, since it can result in news coverage, favorable framing and greater attention by Western governments, key strategic goals for activists. Activists in the region have explicitly stated this goal, and the accounts of elite media and journalists who follow them on Twitter bear this out. Since the beginning, Twitter has been used in the Middle East to communicate with journalists, perhaps explaining the fact that most users tweeted in English; a 2009 SpotOn survey found that nearly 60% of respondents said they interact most often with media and journalists, coming in just after friends at 70%. Nine percent of MENA internet users said in a 2010 survey said they used Twitter. Today there are more than 88 million internet users in the Arab world.

On March 12, 572,000 new Twitter accounts were created. As the number of people on Twitter continues to grow exponentially, it facilitates many-to-many communication for a negligible price, making organizing and mobilizing social protest easier and quicker. By enabling the spread of information through diffuse but resilient networks Twittering is an inherently subversive act in countries like Libya, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen that lack free media and the protection for freedom of expression. To quote an Arab rapper on the Egyptian revolution: Twitter has 'em paralyzed. Indeed it appears the revolutions will be hashtagged as more and more people in the Middle East choose to express themselves in 140 characters or less.