March 27th, 2011
12:15 PM ET

Fareed's Take: the role of social media in revolutions

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

It's important to remember how recent the entire information revolution is.

Fifteen years ago in Tunisia or Egypt all you could read, hear and see was government propaganda. State television - the main source of information for the vast majority - was a daily catalogue of the great deeds of Hosni Mubarak or President Ben Ali or whomever.

The first great revolution was the satellite TV revolution, which brought images and information and real reporting to the Arab people for the first time.

It was not just CNN. It became Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and all the other channels that broke the state's monopoly of information and let Arabs see the world around them.

The regime might not have wanted people to know of the 2005 protests for democracy in Egypt, for example, but people quickly learned of it anyway. Then came the internet revolution, which provided even more information and gave people the opportunity to post information and opinions anonymously.

There was a superb and hilarious website, for example, that would make daily fun of the turgid propaganda put out by Egypt's state newspaper, Al-Ahram.

Finally came the social networking revolution, which allowed people to share information, opinions and organizing ideas. It helped them rally.  They could do this not just using a computer, which is still a luxury product for the wealthy in the Arab world, but with a cell phone, which is a basic necessity that everyone owns.

So the combination of these three revolutions was to move information from what I call a "one-to-many" system to a "many-to-many" system.

It used to be that revolutions began by seizing the radio station or the TV station because that allowed the new regime to broadcast its message to the masses - control information from one to many.

But  today's technology is many to many, epitomized by the internet where everyone is connected but no one is in control. This system helps the individual; it breaks the regime's monopoly on information; it allows people to organize; and it allows people to refute the lies put out by a regime.

It's not a silver bullet, but clearly today's information technology has the effect of disintermediating - it breaks down hierarchies and monopolies.

That's got to be good for the individual, and it must be bad for dictatorships.

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Topics: Fareed's Take • GPS Show • Innovation • Technology

soundoff (59 Responses)
  1. Janet in Kansas City

    Where are you? Miss your insights, especially with the fast changing situation in the Middle East. Hope to see you soon!

    March 28, 2011 at 12:33 am |
  2. Jim W.

    Fareed, As others have already commented, your greatly missed when your personality,insights and thought provoking questions are not part of the program. as far as your interview today with Malcom Gladwell, boy did this
    chap miss the mark by a country mile. After viewing your " one to many , and " many to many " brief segment it was
    clear Mr. Gladwell's comments were quickly judged as misguided and obsolete. As you correctly indicated, Satellite
    television, Computers, and most of all Cell phones are highly instrumental in the planning and outcome of these peacful
    protests we have seen in the middle east and North Africa.

    Again, when you are absent from your show, the trust factor unfortunatley disappears as well. In my home in St. Louis, we have been viewing Fareed G.P.S. since day 1. We used to watch this week but no longer. If it's Sunday,
    it's G.P.S.

    Today, I was quite suprised at Jane Harmon's take on Libya and Historic tidal wave of unprecedented protests in North Africa, and the Middle East. Seemingly, Ms. Harmon and many others miss the Big Picture. You again are correct in your point that sattelite television, computers, and Cell phones are key to these oppressed people of the region getting information that has always been denied to them by the Dictators, Theocrocies,and Monarchies.

    Certainly, President Obama would have been wiser to not let slip publicly his desire to have Khadffay ousted. I do feel
    that the United States, NATO, and the participating Arab countries should reconviene at the United Nations and start looking to arrange a multilateral peace keeping force in Libya. As you know Fareed no one can correctly forsee the
    outcome of these historic events in the region, but if Khadaffy was allowed to massacre his citizens for protesting, other countries would certainly followed suit. They still may, but No way in this world should Colonel " goofball " be the entity or force that cripples these historic events in the world since Biblical times. Furthermore, the talking heads that demand a immediate end game strategy and blame the President for Libya intervention as folly miss the Big Picture.
    That being said, with the economy, Japan, and the Middle East historic events. thank Goodness for # 43 being retired, and # 44 sitting in the Oval Office.

    hurry back Fareed,

    Jim W.
    Stl. Mo.

    March 28, 2011 at 4:47 am |
    • Jim W.

      Fareed, as indicated, the bigger picture has been articulated by POTUS. In my opinion, this speech, in the face of such historic changes in the region was the best Commander in Chief address given in 22 years. unfortunately, one of the best around ( David Gergen ) was on tonight saying it had weaknesses. Again, like Jane harmon, fearing the
      stalemate scenerio. The true power of leadership was exercised when the President said that as the Worlds true Superpower, the building of a coalition based upon values, and freedom loving people saving others from massacre is the common thread that will overcome these narrow minded fears of stalemate. What a powerful, compelling and well
      articulated view of the bigger picture. Certainly, the minute Khaddafy is kaput, the U.N. Peacekeepers will be sent, to maintain security and begin a foundation of a new begining. It is time for France to get in the game for real and regain
      some status of Liberty spreading, by protection thru power... Take note Janie and Davie.

      March 28, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
  3. michaeljjordan

    I can't help but still be skeptical about the wonders of this social-media revolution. This from Global Journalist magazine:

    March 28, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  4. Aminullah A Lucman

    I think that it may be portentous leaders by warrant of their old iron hands, control over some of the more crucial aspects of governance regress having made them too overtly confident nothing can badger them, let alone remove them from power. But the kids on the block, and the other blocks in and around their periphery while you see them spending extended time on computer games have also their mind upgraded in a way to overtake old style despots busy absconding their treasury, of course not to mention expensive getaway dating girls or losing hordes of money in some Casino joints here there and everywhere. Or just simply stealing away money of proportion unimaginable, scandalous thievery!

    And so came Facebook, Twitter and sms in cellphones etc. Like a tsunami engulfing very young people sharing stories of incredible money being stolen and themselves in need of work and can't have them thought that they have rights, and so came the cyber telling everything, guarded secrets suddenly became so available and easily obtained via the internet of course the rest has yet to taper. After Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, especially with the UN led effort, every of those dictatorial powers may have to go, including perhaps Al Qaedah.

    March 29, 2011 at 12:24 am |
  5. Jennifer

    I really like Fareed's idea about the Internet transferring information from many to many. Watching events unfold online and on the news, it is obvious that governments are having more difficulties controlling the flow of information. I live in a place where there is little local media coverage. It is difficult to get information from local news sources. Bloggers seem to have more information. I agree that new media is useful in getting information to people. However, media cannot determine outcomes, no matter what type of media it is. If we could only have a media that was a medium...predict the future!

    March 30, 2011 at 7:49 am |
  6. Fadl

    Check out this event help at the National Press Club yesterday about Social Media in the Arab world:

    March 30, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  7. Alan

    The many to many relationship brings to mind a database. Social media is just one facet of a broader front. Read - The Emergence of Noopolitik. Go to - - scroll down the page and read it in pdf format. It is not necessary to buy it to read it. At minimum, read chapter three.

    March 31, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  8. Adler315

    I don't do this, as a rule, but I feel that this is particularly germane to this discussion:

    From Hosea 8:7: 'For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind – "They shall reap," not merely as "they have sown," but with an awful increase. They sowed folly and vanity, and shall reap, not merely emptiness and disappointment, but sudden, irresistible destruction. "They sowed the wind," and, as one seed bringeth forth many, so the wind, "penn'd up," as it were, in this destructive tillage, should "burst forth again, reinforced in strength, in mightier store and with great violence." Thus, they "reaped the whirlwind," yea, (as the word means) "a mighty whirlwind." But the whirlwind which they reap doth not belong to "them"; rather they belong to it, blown away by it, like chaff, the sport and mockery of its restless violence.'

    These words from the Holy Bible apply with the same force to Pastor Terry Jones and the congregation of The Dove World Outreach Center in Florida, to Fred Phelps and the congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, to the Muslim participants in those rabid mobs who have slaughtered innocents in Afghanistan, to every Muslim, to every Jew, to every Christian, yea, to every godforsaken living human being, believer and nonbeliever alike. Most of the people writing in simply refuse to accept or acknowledge – or, by virtue of their willful ignorance, cannot even see – the shared human folly, complicity, and madness in this series of tragic events.

    Were I so inclined, I could just as easily cherry-pick the Bible or the Koran to find some sort of justification for any horrific act of my own choosing. Both are sources of holy scripture that are chock full of worshipful paeans to a God of wrath, a God of vengeance, a God of retribution, a God of destruction. I happen to choose a God of peace and a God of forgiveness – and I have some startling news for a great many people out there: so do hundreds of millions of Muslims.

    Pastor Jones was cautioned time and time again that his deliberate public provocation would result in violence and death – including the grievous injury and deaths of American military personnel who are now forced to bear the brunt of his incredible folly. His public declaration in response was "[...], so be it." If Jones had led a group of children to a hornets' nest at a picnic ground and had, despite repeated pleas and warnings from deeply concerned parents, struck that hornets' nest with a tree branch – an act which resulted in the deaths of two of the toddlers – he would richly deserve every bit of condemnation and every lawsuit that the parents of those children could muster. And that's putting it mildly.

    Everyone responsible for instigating violence in this tragedy should be held accountable. Period.

    April 4, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
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