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Coup d’Tweet: Can social media overthrow a government?

As the anti-government protests continue to grip Egypt and the call for an end to President Hosni Mubarak‘s 30 year regime gets louder, the rest of the world watched in amazement as the government’s security forces systematically began taking down all forms of telecommunication and online social media, bringing the country’s internet to a complete standstill.

After blocking Twitter on Tuesday and Facebook and Google on Wednesday, the government then further enforced a complete shutdown of all internet sites and services providers including SMS and the ever popular Blackberry messenger services.

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Reports from news network Al Jazeera show that their live feed channel has been disconnected.

Still, some information is trickling through: @jonjensen tweets: “I am in Cairo, Egypt. Update: most internet currently down, mobile phones down, 3G network down. #Jan25” and @AhmedShalaby: “Google, twitter, Facebook, blackberry service All Blocked Now in #Egypt! #Jan25” with Doctor Mohamed ElBaradei, the main leader of the opposition currently trending on Twitter (Update from Twitter: ElBaradei is currently under siege in a Mosque in Cairo after being forced to remain there following his Friday prayers).

Solidarity protests are pouring in from countries and cities around the world including Turkey, Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere with the majority of the population calling for change.

But amid all the confusion, protests, violence and enormity of the situation, one important, undeniable and inevitably game-changing fact has reshaped the way we view social media‘s influence on Governments. Clearly, in conjunction with the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia earlier this month – which has been somewhat boldly hailed as the world’s first real Twitter revolution, China’s Social Sciences Academy suggesting that social media big-wigs Facebook and Twitter were used to destabilize the government and subsequently called for a censorship and ban of social media in July last year.

Seen in conjunction with the protests in Iran as well as the ANC Youth League’s calls for Twitter’s closure and the ever controversial Protection of Information Bill, undoubtedly one discernible question needs to be raised: Can social media overthrow governments?

Now, while the image of a pro-democratic protester, armed with naught but his Blackberry Torch and retweeting insults back-and-forth while armed security services stand by with a dazed and confused expression may not be the image I hoped to bring to mind, governments around the world are undeniably under considerable pressure from social media.

Yet, is it enough to be called a revolution?

Intrepid blogger and founder of Global Voices Online, Ethan Zuckerman, says that while social media can take some credit, it can’t quite bask in the glory of it just yet. Zuckerman continues, saying that while it may have played a significant role in the events that unfolded in Tunisia earlier this month, it is unlikely that a reaction to a WikiLeaks cable, Tweet, Facebook status update or denial-of-service attack could be directly responsible for a complete revolution when decades of the public’s frustration with the government was the more likely answer.

The same can be said with the current situation in Egypt. Social media activism, which may have received negative criticism in the past as being nothing more than false consciousness and having little to do with real activism, may just have found its way into the political limelight. Could it be that we may yet someday soon see a social media activist’s Twitter or Facebook account contending for a Nobel Peace Laureate position?

While the idea may seem absurdly pretentious, the fact of the matter is simply this: Deep within the human subconscious is a pervasive need to discern the truth.

As to whether social media caould directly be held responsible for overthrowing governments, the answer is both no and yes. No, because people, not computers stage revolutionary rallies and protests and people, not computers get shot with rubber bullets and teargas canisters. Inevitably, if the seed for a revolution has been sown, it will occur independent of Facebook or Twitter.

And yes, as an information-distribution medium, as a pressure point for governments under fire by the populace and as source for driving opinions-based reporting on a very real level, social media, can influence (although not overthrow) governments.

This is one undeniable, irrefutable aspect of our humanity. Social media, which encompasses the lives of millions of individuals – from the eagerly followed celebrities, to the business folk who have adapted to a new era of a digital cyber sphere, to the everyday user – all of us, are either directly influencing or being influenced by the glorious cacophony of tweets, updates, pokes and shouts. And this, in itself, is indeed revolutionary.

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