The paper provides strong evidence that social media was one of the key causes of these revolutions due to its ability to place a human face on political oppression and had a critical role in mobilising dissidents to organise protests, criticise their governments, and spread ideas about democracy.
The report claims that social media had a central role in shaping political debates, for example,
Our evidence shows that social media was used heavily to conduct political conversations by a key demographic group in the revolution – young, urban, relatively well educated individuals, many of whom were women.
Both before and during the revolutions, these individuals used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to put pressure on their governments. In some cases, they used new technologies in creative ways such as in Tunisia where democracy advocates embarrassed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali by streaming video of his wife using a government jet to make expensive shopping trips to Europe.The report also provides evidence that online conversations about liberty, democracy and revolution on Twitter often immediately preceded large protests. This supports the use of social media as a civic organising tool.
Governments that attempted to shut down the internet, or specific social media services, were clearly also of the view that these were key channels for public dissidence outside their direct control, unlike government-run or influenced newspapers, radio stations and television channels.
Finally, the paper demonstrates how social media was used to open up internal discussions to the world, helping spread democratic ideas across borders, providing global support networks for local dissidents and informing the media, which then fuelled awareness, interest, engagement and support for the Arab Spring through media reports.
The paper is an excellent read and quantifies a number of the effects of social media during the Arab Spring, which could be used by political 'dissidents' in other countries to help influence local debate.
Note that like all research, it is a little of a two-edged sword, as the paper could also be used by governments seeking to minimise debate to pre-empt online dissidence by establishing frameworks that can be extended to allow strict control of online discussion.
These frameworks include national firewalls, broad-based and readily expandable online censorship regimes, internet kill switches and approaches that place the control of national internet infrastructure into government-controlled monopolies.
Often justified as beneficial initiatives designed to protect people from international cyberattacks, online fraud or inappropriate online content (which they may also do), these frameworks, if implemented without appropriate legal and privacy checks and balances, can be repurposed to restrict citizen access and quash undesired public debate, exclude certain individuals or organisations from participating online or even identify specific troublemakers for incarceration or worse.
I have embedded the document below for easy reading, or it can be downloaded in PDF format here, Opening closed regimes.