I am a member of a multi-author team which has been doing USIP sponsored work on new technology and the Arab Spring. The USIP has just published a report based on our findings, which suggest that Twitter was rather more important as a way of conveying news out of the region and towards an international audience, than as a means of communication within or across the affected countries.

If the audience is primarily local, then information consumption is more likely to play a significant role in mobilizing protest or affecting dynamics on the ground. If the audience is regional or even global, then new media is arguably functioning as a megaphone, generating external attention from citizens, news media, and governments outside of the country. The mechanism by which it achieves this function might be called bridging. Bridging is particularly valuable when traditional news sources are unavailable or regulated by the government, or when violence or repression makes it difficult for mainstream media to directly cover an unfolding story. For example, the Tunisian government tightly controlled themainstream Tunisian media, making information available online all the more valuable. But in more open polities, which tolerate a higher degree of press freedom within their authoritarian structure, the Internet would become only one part of a complex media ecosystem. New media and user-generated content may also have mattered disproportionately in relatively distant cases such as Yemen, where few mainstream media had bureaus, or Syria, where first extreme repression and then extreme violence made it difficult for foreign journalists to operate.

The location-specific patterns in the bit.ly data examined thus far—temporary spikes in clicks that correspond to widely publicized events—suggest that bit.ly traffic largely consists of consumers outside of the countries where the protests took place. That is, it would appear that bit.ly, in part via Twitter, was functioning like a megaphone. For each protest event, we divided those who clicked on bit.ly links into three categories—those located within the country, those located outside of the country but still in the MENA region, and those located outside of the MENA region—and calculated the proportions of clicks from each category (figure 2).

During all four of the protest events, the majority—and at times the vast majority—of clicks came from outside the country. Only in the case of Bahrain did a large percentage of clicks (37 percent) come from within the region. This is not a surprise, given that Internet penetration is much greater in many countries outside of the region than within the region. But the lack of surprise does not make the pattern any less important.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.