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Twitter, Facebook role in civil strife overhyped

Despite media hype about messaging and social networks being powerful new tools, they may not be as beneficial or as robust as suggested.



Washington: Despite media hype about messaging and social networks being powerful new tools, they may not be as beneficial or as robust as suggested.

People have used Twitter, Facebook and text messaging, both as tools for freedom and for repression in recent strife in Egypt and Kenya, said Brandie Martin, graduate student in mass communications at Penn State University who led the study.

"The key word is `tool`," said Martin. "The depiction that these revolutions are caused by technology is an over-generalization."

When anti-government protests erupted in Egypt Jan 25 this year, citizens began to use blogs, text messaging and social networks to spread information critical of the current government, according to a Penn statement.

Around 56,000 Egyptians became members of a Facebook page about the movement and approximately 15,000 citizens used Twitter accounts to find and spread information about the protests.

However, the government, led by then president Hosni Mubarak, quickly cracked down on bloggers and took over internet and text messaging services, said Martin, who worked with Anthony Olorunnisola, associate professor of communications.

Key mobile network operators, such as Vodafone, Mobinil and Etisalat, honoured the government request and suspended service. Pro-government forces continued to send text and internet messages for their cause.

"President Mubarak used the services to send out pro-Mubarak messages," Martin said.

However, internet service providers outside Egypt, for example, helped Egyptians use the Speak 2 Tweet function, an application created by Google, Twitter and SayNow that turns voice calls into Twitter updates.

Martin said the cause of and reaction to the turmoil in Kenya in 2008 contrasts with the Egyptian response in several ways. Unrest in Kenya was divided along ethnic and tribal lines.

Text messaging was used not necessarily to rally unity, but to broadcast "hate speech" messages, inciting violence against members of opposing tribes. Nearly 1,500 Kenyans died in the violence, according to Martin. These findings were presented at a workshop in Washington.

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