Social media has played a key role in the uprisings of Tunisia and Egypt, proving to be an adaptable and customizable crisis communications tool.
Major technology companies created a new way for citizens to express their views, after the Egyptian government temporarily shut down Internet and cellular service in an attempt to block communications between anti-government protestors.
Google, Twitter, and SayNow created a “speak-to-tweet” service, which allows people to dial a telephone number and leave a voicemail (landline service remained largely intact). The service then translates the voicemail into a written message that is sent over Twitter.
In a blog post titled The Tweets Must Flow, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said freedom of expression is essential.
Jeff Beringer, SVP, global practice leader of Dialogue, the digital practice of GolinHarris, says “this case underscores the fact that companies, governments, and other stakeholders cannot squelch the voice of constituents no matter how hard they try.”
“People will figure out new ways to get their story out, or find old ways to get it out,” he says.
While it is unlikely the new solutions created in Egypt will become permanent services, Patrick Kerley, senior digital strategist at Levick Strategic Communications, says they could impact crisis communications long-term.
“While the reasons for sharing information in Egypt's case were perhaps more political than practical, the solutions could certainly be invaluable during natural disasters,” he says. “Voice-to-Twitter, alternate Internet connectivity solutions, and other technologies can be utilized to ensure more people can access critical information in the days following catastrophe.”
“People in affected areas could use these tools to identify critical needs, communicate with responders, and more – think New York City's 311 service,” adds Kerley.
While some have dubbed the situation in Egypt a Twitter revolution, Sysomos, a social media monitoring firm, found of 52 million Twitter users only 14,642 identified their location at Egypt, Yemen, or Tunisia – suggesting a small minority of people are actually on the ground in Egypt tweeting.
Still, there is no question that the rest of the social media sphere is talking about the revolution in Egypt, some of whom are tweeting on behalf of family and friends in the region.
Sysomos reports the number of tweets that contained the words "Egypt," "Yemen," or "Tunisia" increased more than tenfold after January 23rd – to 1.3 million tweets between January 24 and 30.
Between January 16 and 23, there were only 122,319 tweets that contained those words.
Ian Twine, general manager of Edelman UAE, says Twitter has proven a rallying tool for the Arab community outside Egypt.
“It is great for the Arab world to show how they have an opinion on this, and it is a pretty clear message from the Twitter users of the world that [Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak has to go,” says Twine. “This has been a message of solidarity from the Arab Twitter world.”
David Holdridge, president and founder of Bridging the Divide, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reform of American foreign assistance, says the Internet will only help give a strong voice (as well as support) to suppressed populations in the Arab world.
Bridging the Divide is in discussion with the US State Department and information communications technology companies about creating broadband support groups in cities like Cairo, Holdridge tells PRWeek.
“The idea is to provide upward pressure on governments to extend access and make the Internet open,” he says. “The increasing access of a growing, modern class over there to the Internet is something that is not going to be turned back.”
Indeed, Facebook reported its highest number of active users from Egypt – five million – since Internet access was restored to the region.