During the Arab Spring, social networking was essential in organizing the masses that rose up and eventually toppled the governments of Egypt and Libya. People used it to track the locations of military and police forces so protesters could steer clear and to schedule the daily rally locations. It became such a threat that the governments of both countries shut down the internet entirely in a vain attempt to squash the growing protests. Cut off from the news in their homes, the average person went out into the street to have a look around and see what was going on, and would subsequently join the protests themselves. Both governments fell soon after.
But would the same thing happen in America? The ubiquitous nature of social media in this country and the cultural attention deficit of a population that's been spoonfed sensational headlines and manipulative advertising for their entire lives has made Facebook and Twitter the perfect place to receive bits of information. The average person rarely delves deeply into any subject, preferring to skim the surface reading headline after headline, and clicking "like" on images they find agreeable. Add an Anonymous mask and a black background to some trite message or quote and you'll soon get a knee-jerk flurry of likes and shares. With so much information at our fingertips, most of us just don't have the time to read entire books about a subject anymore, preferring a synopsis whether it comes from wikipedia or some article/blog post (ahem). People are considered educated if they read the news where daily events are boiled down to a headline, that if clicked, contains an article consisting of a few paragraphs that attempt to sum up events that entire novels would've covered not 50 years ago. This general "summing up" of the information we take in has made Twitter and Facebook the perfect thing to plug into so you feel connected to what's going on, without having to know much about it. But there's more to it than that.
The Arab protesters used their networks as a tool, but here social media is not just a means of communication, but rather a place for many of us to cherry-pick our reality. It's a place where someone can say things they may have trouble saying in person. It's a place where we can carefully craft our image and filter out most negativity. And it's a place where you can easily find a group of like-minded people and discuss politics, and disseminate reading material and art to a group of people that all agree with you. For the average person, standing on street corners and handing out pamphlets or taping them to electric poles and the sides of buildings would be unthinkable. They'd rather create or pass on an image over facebook where hundreds, if not thousands of people can see it instantly. It may even go viral where millions will see it. All the past ways of making a revolution a reality have been transferred to the digital world, where people get into heated discussions and get outraged reading story after story about the abuses of their own government and police force. They write comments, they share the articles, and then... they do nothing. The act of "informing the public" and "waking people up" gives them the sense that they've helped, and that they're a part of something.
The slow transfer of discussion and action from the real world to the digital one has made facebook not so much of a promoter of activism, but rather a container for it. Easily indexed and searched by governments and other nefarious entities. Easily censored and manipulated. The cafés and taverns that the people of the French and American revolutions of the past would have to meet at to discuss politics could only be accessed by first, leaving your house. And if the politics got heated enough it was easy for the people to spill out into the streets together. A facebook group is a collection of random people usually all separated by miles with no chance at all of coming together and accomplishing anything real. They keep each other informed, click "like" and "share", and wonder how if everyone agrees with them, their government is still corrupt and their police are looking more and more like their military.
We weren't the only ones watching the Arab Spring protests. Our government was studying them intensely, learning the various ways the revolutions began and spread. Modern facial recognition and full access to all facebook data by entities like the NSA means they know exactly what's going on, and who's doing it. Far more tech-savvy than the fallen governments in the middle east, they know social media is a goldmine for data and would encourage you to get online and exercise your first amendment rights. Besides, they saw what happens if you shut it off and the last thing they want is for the container of our activism, to become the catalyst for revolution.