How important were Twitter, Facebook and other social media in toppling regimes in the Arab Spring uprisings?
Amid a fierce debate in academic circles, an upcoming book argues that social media and new technology made a key difference in successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and helped foster grass-roots movements in other Arab nations.
The book by Philip Howard and colleagues concludes that digital media was "consistently one of the most important sufficient and necessary conditions" for the Arab spring movements.
"There was a longstanding democracy movement in these countries that for many years tried many tactics but none of them worked," Howard said.
He maintained that new media made a difference because it "has so fundamentally changed the way people think about their options".
The Arab spring movements "involved a networked public of generally younger folks", which was "structurally different" to prior movements headed by a charismatic leader, Howard said.
Howard, a University of Washington communications professor, who is visiting at Princeton, said authoritarian regimes had been accustomed to controls on traditional media but were unable to keep up with the rapid pace of Twitter and Facebook organising at that time.
Democracy's Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring, written with Muzammil Hussain, counters the conclusions of other academics who found that the impact of social media were exaggerated in the West.
Earlier research led by Sean Aday of George Washington University concluded that new media "did not appear to play a significant role in either in-country collective action or regional diffusion" during the 2011 uprisings.
The study done last year said the tweets and Facebook posts probably did more to spread information outside the affected countries and could have led to "a boomerang effect that brought international pressure to bear on autocratic regimes".
A separate study led by Juergen Pfeffer and Kathleen Carley at Carnegie Mellon University found that "the pattern of spread of the revolutions was not related to the pattern of social media usage".
"In other words, the social media did not cause the revolutions," they wrote.
Even those who credit social media in the Arab spring say it seems unlikely that the popular uprisings can be replicated in other places, because regimes have found new ways to control and track dissidents.