With tens of thousands of protesters using social media to challenge governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria and Jordan, news coverage of the breaking events has both highlighted the role of social media in sustaining the protests and the power of images, video and reports circulated through social media, mobile phones and satellite TV.
Since the first protests began in Tunisia in December and then spread to Egypt on Tuesday January 25th, CNN, the BBC, Al Jazeera, Fox News, MSNBC and other news organization have all focused on the role of social media. "What is happening in Egypt has really been fueled by social media," noted Mohammed Jamjoom at CNN, which has been extensively covering its role.
By Friday afternoon, between 2 and 3 p.m. ET, the protests were the lead story on websites for ABC, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the English language sites for a number of international news organizations, including the BBC, Al Jazeera and France 24.
The role of social media in major international protest movements isn't new. Social media and digital media, particularly mobile phones, played a notable role in protests in Burma in 2007 and in Iran in 2009 and 2010. In both cases, governments responded by shutting down mobile services and web sites that they believed were fomenting anti-government action.
In Iran, social media allowed "a censored voice to be heard globally," noted CNN's Kyra Phillips at one point in CNN's coverage of the Egyptian protests.
Phillips added later in the same segment that "social media really made us care about Iran....We saw that young woman shot in the head" and the country's brutal crackdown on dissent following the disputed presidential elections.
But the importance of social media has arguably been even more important during the recent Middle Eastern protests, where a number of news stories have highlighted the role of social and digital media.
At 2 P.M., E.T. on Friday, CBSnews.com featured video on the Egyptian protests at the top of its website and had posted an article noting that "citizens in Egypt have been using Twitter, Facebook and other pathways of the Internet to communicate to the outside world, challenging the government of President Hosni Mubarak....Authorities have shut down Internet services, but protesters are finding ways to get information out and organize mass rallies."
Meanwhile, "the U.S. State department is using Twitter and other social media service for statecraft and diplomacy," CBS also reported.
At MSNBC.com, where the Egyptian protests were also the top story, the network had also posted an information graphic in its technology section showing how internet traffic from Egypt has virtually disappeared on the evening of January 27th.
That disruption was widespread in Egypt, others were reporting. "In a country with 80 million mobile phones, no mobile phone works today, no Internet," noted Greg Palkot in a report for Fox News live from Cairo that was the top story on Foxnews.com at 2 P.M. ET, Friday January 27.
Beyond social media, both mobile phones and satellite TV have played a key role. Poor telecommunications infrastructure in the region means that mobile phones are more widely available than land-lines. Not surprisingly, these mobile phones have been widely used to disseminate information about protects.
In Tunisia, for example, the first protests were posted on Facebook, but mobile texts quickly became the main channel for disseminating information, noted CNN's Jamjoom in its coverage.
Satellite TV is also widely available in the Middle East despite the ongoing attempts by a number of governments to block pan-regional channels like Al Jazeera. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that about 80% of the homes in what it calls the Pan-Arabic region--Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates-had satellite TV in 2010.
Several hundred satellite TV channels are available, most of which are free-to-air, and they include a number of Arabic language 24 hour news channels, including the Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Many of these channels are based in or uplinked from Lebanon or the UAE, making them difficult for authoritarian governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other parts of the region to censor their content. Al Jazeera, for example, is based in Qatar.
These channels are also the major source of video for many U.S. news organizations, with the logos of Arabic-language news channels regularly appearing in their coverage.
For example, the lead story at Foxnews.com featured their correspondent Greg Palkot reporting from Cairo and was accompanied by footage of violent street demonstration that showed the Al Jazeera logo partially covered by Fox graphics.
Al Jazeera footage was also used in coverage on Fox News at 3 E.T. on Friday, where the lead story was on the protests.
Since 9/11, Al Jazeera has been attacked by a number of U.S. politicians and cable news commentators for its decision to air communications from terrorist groups and for a perceived anti-American bias.
Such criticisms have reportedly made it difficult for Al Jazeera to get cable carriage for its English language news site.