Other technologies like short-wave radio, which can also be used to communicate and mobilize, have been available to protestors and revolutionaries for a long time. In reality, so has the Internet, which is the fundamental technological development that allows for quick and widespread communications. The popularity of social media, one of many outgrowths of the Internet, may actually be isolated to international media observation from afar. We can now watch protest developments in real time, instead of after all the reports have been filed and printed in the next day’s newspaper or broadcast on the nightly news. Western perceptions are often easily swayed by English-speaking, media-savvy protestors who may be only a small fraction of a country’s population. This is further magnified in authoritarian countries where Western media have no choice but to turn to Twitter and YouTube to report on the crisis, thus increasing the perceived importance of social media.
In the Middle East, where Internet penetration is below 35 percent (with the exception of Israel), if a movement grows large enough to effect change it will have been joined through word of mouth, not through social networking. Still, the expansion of Internet connectivity does create new challenges for domestic leaders who have proved more than capable of controlling older forms of communication. This is not an insurmountable challenge, as China has shown, but even in China’s case there is growing anxiety about the ability of Internet users to evade controls and spread forbidden information.
Social media represent only one tool among many for an opposition group to employ. Protest movements are rarely successful if led from somebody’s basement in a virtual arena. Their leaders must have charisma and street smarts, just like leaders of any organization. A revolutionary group cannot rely on its most tech-savvy leaders to ultimately launch a successful revolution any more than a business can depend on the IT department to sell its product. It is part of the overall strategy, but it cannot be the sole strategy.
It's worth reading the whole report, but here's a tasty portion that coincides well with the chat I had on Margaret Brennan's InBusiness on BloombergTV last week.
People cause revolutions, not tweets.