The use of social media to drive the Iranian post-election protests is rightly getting a lot of press attention. Not long ago, a regime could easily shut down a few Web sites, newspapers and radio stations, and effectively cut-off communications for its opposition. But social media has made everyone a publisher and has multiplied exponentially the outlets for broadcasting information. As a result, the only way to stop communications is to shut down entire systems. Hence it's being reported that all text messages have been stopped in Iran. But to stop even a few opposition "broadcasters," the regime would have to shut down all cell phone networks, text messaging, and the Internet. In other words, either everyone (including the government) is in the dark or no one is. That is a radical change that puts significant power in the hands of dedicated protesters.
When I was in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, the well-organized Yushenko camp had trucks fitted with Jumbotron screens and satellite dishes on their roofs. The trucks would drive around Kiev, find a crowded street, stop and begin broadcasting an opposition message. It was sophisticated and it worked, but it would have been much easier for the government to confiscate a truck (sticking out like a sore thumb with a satellite dish on its roof) than to stop thousands of students sending tweets, posting blogs, and forwarding photos.
Recent elections and movements - including the U.S. presidential election of Barack Obama, the Moldovan protests, and (going back a bit) the role of text messages in the election of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in 2003 - have made clear the power of social media for democratization. For the development community, it's time we begin incorporating social media as a core component of democratization and development efforts, rather than something to praise from a distance.