Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, argued that social media have the power to “upset the erstwhile stable dynamics of repression under durable authoritarian regimes” at a luncheon talk sponsored by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Tufekci, who is also a fellow at the Berkman Center, studies the interaction between technology and social, cultural and political dynamics.

In her talk, “From Tehran to Tahrir: Social Media and Dynamics of Collective Action under Authoritarian Regimes,” Tufekci presented data from a survey of protesters taken in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, in February 2011.

Tufekci polled a diverse sample of Egyptian constituencies, from elite youth to members of the Muslim brotherhood. She observed that more than 70 percent of men and 90 percent of women used the Internet during the protest; more than 60 percent of women and 40 percent of men were on Facebook. Twitter followed with 10 percent of men and 20 percent of women.

She says that an overwhelming percent of the Egyptian population have mobile phones which led to “a very rapid diffusion of information,” enabling the uprising. “The cellphone is your lifeline if you’re a vendor on the street; it’s not the case that poor people don’t have cell phones,” said Tufekci. But she notes that a lack of international leverage detracts from the potential capacity of social media to elicit change.

Tufekci says Syria is one of the most visible examples of a country employing what she calls “whack-a-protests” today.

More broadly, in authoritarian regimes, Tufekci says, censorship makes it easier to isolate a rebellion; there are restrictions on the possible means of assembly and a high cost of dissent for individuals, such as torture or jail. “You want to quarantine the disease at the earliest stage and isolate it from other pockets.”

At the same time, most dictators cannot topple every dissenting voice. “Just because there is no Supreme Court doesn’t mean regimes can afford to crush every mass protest they encounter. It’s a balancing game; they have to be agile.”