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Social media: Did Twitter and Facebook really build a global revolution?

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Libya, on the other hand, has nothing like Egypt's Facebook numbers. "The average person in Libya doesn't use Facebook," says Libyan activist Taher Mohammed, who lives in Cairo. The numbers bear him out: Fewer than 5 percent of people in Libya even use the Internet, according to the United Nations' Human Development Report.

"Even for those who do," adds Mr. Mohammed, "how many young people in Libya really had the guts to use social media for activism before the revolution?"

Revolution before Twitter

Twitter and other social networking tools may be new, but the importance of an era's dominant media to the impulse to overthrow regimes has a much longer history.

"The media of the day has always been transcendent in revolutions. Printed pamphlets were powerful in the American and French revolutions. When [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini came back to power in Iran [in 1979], his revolution ... was spread by cassette tapes," says Mr. Hirshberg. "Today we have something new."

Fernando Espuelas, a United States-based media mogul who pioneered chat rooms in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Americas, remembers serendipitously witnessing the role of early social media in dissent a decade ago, in a country not often associated with digital activism. His visit to Argentina coincided with antigovernment riots that were spurred by the country's peso crisis.

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