While the effects of social media have been studied in the recent case of what’s been popularly called Arab Spring, the focus has mainly been on how positive social media has been for the advancement of those oppressed under regimes in power. What is largely ignored is that social media has also served as a double-edged sword equally instrumental in helping those in power during recent uprisings, depending on the cooperation or outright collaboration by network and telecommunications operators in control of information flow.

For instance, during the unrest surrounding Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak earlier this year, regional mobile operators Vodafone, Mobinil, and Etisalat complied with the pro-Mubarak government’s orders to suspend service for the entire country, though the people in power were still able to send Internet and text messages in support of their cause.

Does Social Media Help or Hinder the Will of the People?Penn State mass communications graduate student Brandie Martin, who’s been studying the liberating as well as repressive possibilities of social media, says: “President Mubarak used the services to send out pro-Mubarak messages. The messages alerted supporters about the location of pro-Mubarak rallies and called for unity in his name.”

Other companies more sympathetic to the dissenting, anti-Mubarak voices in Egypt — such as Google, Twitter, and SayNow — did everything they could to keep the information flowing using applications like Speak 2 Tweet, and even brainiacs at Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center and Acorn Active Media Foundation enacted its own Commotion Wireless Mesh Project to help.

Other uprisings have their own voices striving to be heard, but what happens when those voices, rather than being a call to action for overthrowing an oppressive regime (or for preserving an oppressive regime) are much uglier in nature? In Kenya, ethnic and tribal differences have resulted in civil wars and genocide. Is freedom of speech still a sacred tenet to the people at the switchboards when members of one tribe are urging others to make lists of people belonging to other tribes and where their children go to school so that they can stalk, follow, and murder them?

One particularly chilling example of such a mass text message reads: We say no more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city.

When Kenyan authorities tried to restrict access to communications in order to quell this wave of disturbing discourse, telecommunications companies refused. “There are real questions now as to what the role of telecommunication companies should be,” says Martin. “When should the government go in and block communication when they are used for hate speech?”

How do you feel about the unfettered use of social media in circumstances of social turmoil — and would your feelings change if the social turmoil were happening in your back yard? Drop us a line.

Brandie Martin and her fellow researchers recently presented their findings at the New ICTs + New Media = New Democracy workshop in Washington, DC.