Something extraordinary happened at the nexus of social media and political action during the Arab spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, experts agreed during a panel discussion Friday.
But just what happened is less clear.
Certainly Twitter and other social media became a "megaphone" that disseminated information and excitement about the uprisings to the outside world, according to The George Washington University researchers who did a comprehensive study of Tweets about the Egyptian and Libyan uprisings between January and March.
According to that study, more than 75 percent of people who clicked on embedded Twitter links related to the uprisings were from outside the Arab world.
The number of people clicking on those links surged during major news events, especially during the run up to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, the researchers said.
The number of clicks from inside the Arab world was significantly smaller, but more sustained and less subject to the vicissitudes of the news cycle, they said.
"This obviously suggests that new media presents a tremendous opportunity to inform an international audience," GWU associate professor John Sides said, "but it also raises the question: 'Will they be there tomorrow?' "
Attention spans are limited, Sides noted. For instance, the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran attracted a surge of international activity on Twitter. But international attention shot down after the death of Michael Jackson grabbed headlines, he said.
Sides was speaking at a series of panel discussions at the U.S. Institute of Peace focused on the role of social media in conflict zones.
Alec Ross, the State Department's senior adviser for innovation, was perhaps the most bullish panelist on the capacity of social media to transform an oppressive state's political landscape. He called the working of social media during the Arab spring uprisings the beginning of a "massive transfer of power from nation states and large institutions to individual and small institutions."
Marc Lynch, a GWU professor and blogger at ForeignPolicy.com, largely agreed.
"People get very caught up in 'Will this revolution succeed?' and 'Will this dictator fall?,' and I think those are very important questions,' Lynch said. "But, in a sense, I think those are the wrong questions. I think the structural shift of the empowerment of individuals and of these transnational networks . . . is the beginning of the manifestation of a more powerful shift."
While social media can be a tool for harnessing international attention and for organizing protests, it can also be a tool for oppressive regimes to root out and track down dissidents, panelists said. And paid government tweeters or computer programs can flood Twitter hash tag search results and blog commentary to give a false sense of public opinion.
Other panelists warned that data on the role of social media during the Arab spring is so disparate and confusing it is nearly impossible to draw meaningful conclusions from it.
The George Washington University study and similar ones have tended to focus on Twitter, for example, at the expense of other social media because Twitter data is easier to parse, said Fadl al-Tarzi, an executive at News Group International, a Dubai-based media analysis firm.
Yet other social media, such as online conversation boards and blog comments sections, are often more popular in Egypt than Twitter, he said. Also, like other nationalities, Egyptians tend to use Twitter for short blasts of information, while they save more elaborate and thoughtful content for blogs and other mediums.
Blogs also tend to be run by intellectuals and trend setters, he said, while Twitter has broader appeal.