Internet, social media make their mark in Egypt’s crisis

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The political unrest exploding across the Middle East is just the latest illustration that social media is no longer just for teenagers to tweet about their lives, play Farmville, and post pictures from last weekend’s party. Today, it has the potential to shake regimes and drive leaders from power.

Access to and control of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have been critical battlegrounds in the war between governments such as Egypt, the press and the crowds thronging the streets demanding change.

With Egypt’s return to the Internet on Wednesday, discussions are now centering on the involvement of social media with the country’s crisis.

“Information is power, and the government wants to control it,” said Walid Al-Saqaf, a Yemeni activist, software developer and journalists in a web symposium organized Thursday by Access, an organization dedicated to political freedom of expression through social media. The symposium dealt with the Internet’s role in the recent events in the Middle East.

Mr. Al-Saqaf referenced the current violence in the Middle East towards individuals involved in social media, saying that it is directed against both bloggers and journalists.

“It’s getting ugly,” he said.

Jillian York, a project coordinator at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said that a major question in the wake of recent events was what measures governments will take in regards to this new flood of social media use.

“It’s very interesting the role that Twitter plays in the world of citizen journalism,” said Ms. York. “You’ve got this whole extended network of people who are using these tools.”

Mohamed ElGohary, an Egyptian activist, said that the crackdown on protesters and on the use of social media was becoming very rough.

However, he brought up the significant fact that “government demonstrations are also part of freedom of expression.”

Frank La Rue, United Nations Special Reporter on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said that the same principles that apply to freedom of expression in non-Internet forms also apply to the Internet.

But, “the Internet brings new challenges for the government,” he said. “It reaches out to the broadest public. It makes many authoritative governments scared.”

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