Egyptians use their mobile phones to record celebrations on February 12, 2011 in Cairo's Tahrir Square
Social media and smartphones briefly gave youthful Arab Spring protesters a technological edge that helped topple ageing dictatorships a decade ago as their revolutionary spirit went viral.
Regimes across North Africa and the Middle East were caught flat-footed as the fervour of the popular uprisings spread at the speed of the internet via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Unfortunately for the pro-democracy movements, autocratic states have since caught up in the digital arms race, adding cyber surveillance, online censorship and troll armies to their arsenals.
While the so-called Arab Spring offered a brief glimmer of hope for many, it ended with even more repressive regimes in most countries and devastating, ongoing wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen.
"Facebook" is written with stones in Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 6, 2011, the epicenter of anti-regime protests
Nonetheless, say veterans of the period, the revolts mark a watershed moment when digital natives launched the era of "hashtag protests" from Occupy Wall Street to Hong Kong's Umbrella protests and Black Lives Matter.
Hyper-networked and largely leaderless, such protests flare up like flashmobs, making them harder for authorities to suppress, with grievances and demands decided not by committees but crowd-sourced online.
"Blogs and social networks were not the trigger, but they supported the social movements," said former Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia, who ran a blog from exile and returned home amid the 2010 uprising.
"They were a formidable weapon of communication."
The slogans of TV channel "Al-Jazeera" and social media giant "Facebook" are spray-painted at Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 7, 2011
Today, say Arab cyber-activists, states have lost much of their control over what citizens can see, know and say, as evidenced by a later wave of protests that rocked Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon in 2019 and 2020.
While the heavy lid of state censorship has come down once more in many places, that free spirit has also brought change for the better, especially in the small Mediterranean country where it all started, Tunisia.
- 'Mass mobile-isation' -
A protester records with his mobile phone a demonstration in central Tunis on January 19, 2011
The spark that set off the Arab Spring was the tragic suicide of Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, who, pts terbaik sumatera having long been cheated and humiliated by state officials, set himself on fire.
If his desperate act on December 17, 2010 expressed a real-world fury shared by millions, it was the virtual universe of online communications that spread the anger and hope for change like wildfire.
Long simmering discontent among the less privileged was harnessed and multiplied by tech-savvy and often middle-class activists into a mass movement that would spread from Morocco to Iran.
Bouazizi's self-immolation was not caught on video -- but the subsequent street protests were, along with the police violence that aimed to suppress them through fear but instead sparked more anger.
Smartphones with their cameras became citizens' weapons in the information war that allowed almost everyone to bear witness, and to organise, in a trend that has been dubbed "mass mobile-isation".
Clips were shared especially on Facebook, a medium outside the control of police states that had for decades tightly controlled print and broadcast media.
"The role of Facebook was decisive," recalled a blogger using the name Hamadi Kaloutcha, who had studied in Belgium and back in 2008 launched a Facebook forum called "I have a dream ... A democratic Tunisia".
"Information could be published right under the regime's nose," he said.
"Censorship was frozen. Either they censored everything that circulated, or they censored nothing.