While the ultimate outcome in Egypt is undetermined, the unrest and the government’s response to it have demonstrated once again the power of new media in moving masses and shaping events.

While it is comforting to believe that new media help tip the balance of power in favor of democracy, the reality is more complex. For every Tunisia, there is an Iran. Governments are anticipating the disruptive effects of new technology and disrupting them instead. Tools of liberation can just as easily be used as tools of oppression.

The popular narrative behind the events in Tunisia is that social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook helped organize and accelerate unrest, unseating President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in office. Those flames were fanned by other new media platforms, such as YouTube and Al Jazeera, and have ignited protests elsewhere in the Arab world. That ability to inform and mobilize publics has spurred the belief that new technology inherently empowers individuals and is democratizing.

It is important to remember, though, that technologies are just tools and that their impact depends on whose hands they are in and the use to which they are put. There was a similar euphoria two summers ago when Iranians rose up in protest against the alleged theft of a national election and appeared poised to thwart the Tehran government’s determination to remain in power. But the government proved more adept than in Tunisia. The Green Revolution was shut down and those same new media were used to track down dissidents and protesters.

With access to the infrastructure that facilitates communication, governments can trace digital trails and identify digital fingerprints. Police forces use the Internet and social media to stuff their files on individuals. Scrubbing identities on the Internet is harder than it seems. It is no longer true that “on the Internet, no one knows that you are a dog.” These are equally powerful tools of surveillance. Ubiquitous closed-circuit TV networks allow some governments almost complete coverage of urban areas. Facial recognition software allows governments to track and identity individuals from raw footage in ways that were unthinkable a decade ago.

Governments are taking other steps as well. In China, a substantial force — estimated to be in the tens of thousands — constantly monitors the net to purge it of dangerous or inflammatory material. Some countries are reportedly creating counter forces to go after and disrupt dissident groups.

In Egypt, the government took another step. Rather than just shutting down and blocking new media technologies (which the government did), Cairo took the entire country offline. On Jan. 28, at 22:34 GMT, the country’s four Internet service providers cut all access to the Internet. It was a remarkably simple act, but one with potentially enormous consequences, as it cut off the country from the digital world. Any company now thinking about doing business in Egypt must consider the possibility of a similar cutoff in the future. Current circumstances may be exceptional, but it is hard to believe they will not arise again. The prospect of a repeat of protests and another cutoff will do great harm to the government’s hope of being perceived as a regional economic power.

What should be even more disturbing to the government is how ineffective such moves are. Protesters have resorted to dial-up modems to connect via phone line to out-of-country servers. Copy machines are being put into use and one 26-page pamphlet has been widely distributed by hand.

Experts doubt that networking tools actually generate protest. There is little if any evidence that they push happy citizens into the streets. There are many forms of communication during periods of unrest and there is little proof that “tweets” or Facebook posts are any more effective than word of mouth. Real outrage is not generated in 140 characters.

Another way that social media shape situations is by shining a spotlight on events outside the country in which they are occurring. Governments that control the media can merely ignore events they do not wish to see made public or shape the reporting of them. That is much harder — if not impossible — when cell phones upload video to the Internet for distribution worldwide. That attention has an impact, forcing other governments to respond to those developments.

It is telling that much attention in the last week has been on the response of countries like the United States, which provides billions of dollars each year to the Egyptian government. There is intense speculation about what U.S. President Barack Obama has told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in his phone calls.

The idea that Mr. Mubarak is under pressure from the U.S. to step down or reform emboldens the protesters as well. This is one of the more powerful uses of new media. It pressures both governments and the governments that must deal with them. This is one of the few certainties in this new media environment.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.