Alive in Interesting Times
Well, the answer to that first question is definitely "yes, we can." At the most basic level, the belief that media can help influence human behavior is fundamental to the practice of both advertising and propaganda (which some wags will say is redundant) - and these disciplines clearly work at a basic level, regardless of ongoing discussion about the precise details of measurement and ROI. Furthermore, a quick glance at the events of the last few months makes it clear that social media did indeed play a significant role in spreading revolution.
Of course, most revolutions have a triggering event or flashpoint that can be identified in retrospect (e.g. the British march on Lexington and Concord in 1775). On December 17, a 26-year-old fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid to protest recent abuse by the local police. With this as our starting point, we can begin to trace the role played by social media in the revolutions which followed.
To begin with, Bouazizi's dramatic self-immolation sparked relatively small protests in Sidi Bouzid, which the state-controlled Tunisian news media carefully ignored. However, some participants posted video showing police brutality against protestors on Facebook and YouTube, where it could be seen by people in other parts of the country. Eventually, it was picked up by Al-Jazeera, the only independent Arab-language news broadcaster.
With protests intensifying over the following weeks, the Tunisian government foolishly stoked dissent by arresting a popular rapper and six prominent web bloggers - triggering another wave of social media outrage, including a surge of activity on Tor, a global social network which allows users to maintain anonymity (thus preventing police from identifying them).
Though Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned on January 14, at this point revolution was sweeping the Middle East. The most important uprising occurred in Egypt, the largest country in the Arab world. Fittingly, one of the key figures in the Egyptian movement was a young Google executive named Wael Ghonim, who used his online skills to help orchestrate protests.
A month after Mubarak stepped down on February 11, events in Egypt are still moving at digital speed, and social media faces a whole new series of challenges: Foremost, can it help Egyptians constitute a new, democratic government? Only time will tell.