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The Power Of Social Media In Egypt (And Its Downside)

The mass protests in Egypt are another interesting case study in how social media are used by protesters. A number of familiar but interesting examples have been reported, although it's hard and too early to gauge their relative importance right now:

* The demos have been widely publicized on Facebook, which has now reportedly been blocked in Egypt.

* Some activists have coordinated on Twitter (also blocked). Some tweets even reportedly contained disinformation to confuse police -- something the authorities in Belarus recently did to try to confuse protesters.

* As with Iran in 2009, videos from ubitiquous cell-phone cameras are quickly posted to video-sharing sites like YouTube. If you doubt the power and proliferation of the cell phone, just check out this video from the protests.

* Protesters are using proxies (including mobile proxies) to access banned sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Then there's the inevitable downside of all of this:

* As much as the #jan25 Twitter hashtag enables protesters to coordinate, it also gives the police an easier way to monitor protesters as the conversation is focused in one place. Also, it's not clear how anyone could organize anything on popular hashtags like #jan25 with all the retweets, messages of solidarity, and sheer volume of tweets. If activists really wanted to organize through hashtags, they'd probably use ones not popularized by Western media.

* Widely publicizing proxy IP addresses through social networks can, of course, alert the authorities to their presence.

* As we saw recently in Belarus, a mobile phone can be a tremendous benefit for an activist in a protest (a camera, organizing tool, and portal to foreign media in one), but it's also pretty easy for the authorities to track who was present at the protests. Our Belarus Service reported that hundreds of people were summoned by the KGB after phone records revealed they were at the site of the antigovernment protests on December 19. (It's unclear if the telecom operators handed the information over to the authorities or if they carried out the surveillance on their own.) If the government cracks down and restores order, then in the post-protest clean-up, taking your phone to a demo could be a big liability.

As in Tunisia, it seems where social media are truly transformative is in getting the story out (no small thing) to the wider world and acting as a surrogate for a state-controlled media either ignoring the story or only touting the government line. In that vein, for a great write-up of the events of January 25, check out Gordon Reynolds piece in "The Awl" or anything Global Voices is doing.

There is amazing user-generated footage coming from the ground, bypassing the filter of traditional media. In the video above, at about 1:20, watch Egypt's Tiananmen Square moment, where a man takes on an armored vehicle and water cannon.