Demonstrators protest in Tunisia in 2011. (Credit: EPA/Newscom)

Two years ago this week, the tragic suicide of a young Tunisian fruit seller set in motion events that roiled the Arab world and changed history.

Twenty-seven-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi from the town of Sidi Bouzid had been struggling to feed his family and found his only means of doing so, his fruit cart, confiscated by local authorities. Slapped in the face by an official, in despair and rage, Bouazizi set himself on fire outside the local magistrate’s office.

Self-immolations are not unheard of in this part of the world. But a new factor had entered the equation: cell phone technology and social media. Captured on cell phone video, his protest went viral, was seen around the world, and within weeks sparked the start of the Middle East uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring.

Over the past two years, the “Arab Spring” has become a vastly more complex phenomenon than those who hoped for a democratic blossoming—such as the Obama Administration—had anticipated. Egyptians are in a power struggle with their elected government again, and Syria has descended into civil war. American diplomats and security personnel were killed by terrorists in Benghazi, Libya, in a well-coordinated attack on September 11.

Yet, one thing that remains clear is that this period represented the maturing of social media as a political tool and cell phones as a means of mass organization. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and the Iranian elections of 2009 were the first instances of cell phones and social media playing a role in mass demonstrations. Yet, the Arab Spring went much further, as North African and Middle Eastern governments fell and civil war erupted in Syria. The question of how to control social media has become a key for autocratic rulers.

The “Arab Spring” is the most visible example of the impact of technology and social media on policymaking, social movements, and protest. Globally, there are now more than 5 billion cell phone users—out of 7 billion people on the planet. Mobile and digital technology is changing parts of the world where lack of communication infrastructure has impeded economic growth, according to the Center for International Media Assistance.

Conditions other than the presence of technology have to be in place in order for uprisings to take place; poverty and repression can fuel the fire. But there also has to be a certain amount of hope or at least anger to spur a population to action. Here the new technologies come in: providing the means of organizing and, equally importantly, spreading the news of a world beyond where life is less harsh, and prosperity and freedom are natural aspirations.