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The Egyptian revolution dominated Twitter this year

Here's the latest data point in the ongoing debate about just how pivotal a role Twitter played in the Arab Spring: This year, according to Twitter, the top hashtag on the microblogging site was not #justinbieber or even Charlie Sheen's bizarre, mid-meltdown reference to #tigerblood (second place) but #egypt, which users used to categorize tweets related to Egypt's revolution. #jan25 -- a reference to the start of the Egyptian uprising -- was the eighth-most-popular hashtag, while Cairo and Egypt were the two most-referenced cities and countries and Hosni Mubarak's resignation was the most-discussed world news event (besting the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, mind you).

Egypt's dominance is emblematic of the important role hashtags played in organizing real-time updates and reaction to big news events this year. In 2011, #egypt, #jan25, and #japan (used during the country's earthquake and tsunami in March) all appeared among the top eight hashtags. Last year, by contrast, no news event appeared in the top eight. Instead, in a year that witnessed major news events like the Gulf oil spill and the earthquake in Haiti, whimsical conversation threads like #rememberwhen and #slapyourself reigned supreme.

The year-end results may also speak to the outsized role Twitter played in Egypt relative to other Arab Spring countries (and, perhaps, the outsized international interest in the Egyptian revolution relative to other uprisings). The Guardian's Peter Beaumont writes that Egypt had "a far more mature and extensive social media environment" before its uprising than Tunisia did before its revolution, and the Egyptian protests went on to forge microblogging celebrities like @Ghonim and @Sandmonkey.  A survey by the Dubai School of Government in March estimated that Egypt had the largest number of active Twitter users in absolute terms of any Arab Spring country, though over half were concentrated in Cairo. While Mubarak blocked the Internet for a spell as his government wobbled (Google worked with Twitter to enable Egyptians to tweet with the #egypt hashtag via voicemail), Egyptian activists also haven't faced as much censorship as, say, their counterparts in Syria.

For a sense of the role Twitter  played in Egypt, check out this visualization by André Panisson of the network of retweets with the hashtag #jan25 when Mubarak's resignation was announced on Feb.11, 2011. A study by the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam in September found that in the week before Mubarak stepped down, the number of tweets in Egypt and around the world about the political developments in the country jumped from 2,300 a day to a staggering 230,000 a day.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

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What could Iran learn from the "Beast of Kandahar"?

The Iranian media reported today, and U.S. officials are now confirming, that a U.S. stealth spy drone was shot down over Iran. The Iranians claim the drone sustained only minor damage.

The top-secret RQ-170, which reportedly played a role in monitoring Osama bin Laden's compound, was nicknamed the "Beast of Kandahar" by Aviation Week editor Bill Sweetman when photos of it first emerged in the media in 2009. There are unconfirmed reports that the drone has been regularly used over Iran monitoring the country's nuclear program.

I spoke briefly with Sweetman today about the significance of the drone, which he says may already be obsolete:  

What made the RQ-170 so cutting edge?

When it entered service a few years ago it was actually the only operational stealth drone that we had. There may well be others, but they're kept more under wraps.

Just the fact that this thing was out and allowed to tumble around a very busy airbase in broad daylight indicated that although this thing was secret, what's secret about it wasn't its shape. It wasn't covered up the way things at Groom Lake are covered up.

There are little tell-tale things like the shape of the leading edge and the shape of the landing gears that indicate that this wasn't really an ultra-stealthy thing. Looking at it and talking to people about it, after a while you came to the idea that what's important here is more what it's doing that's secret than what it's actual capabilities are.

Do we have any sense of what that might be?

I think it likely started off as a platform for an experimental sensor of some kind, which probably has something to do with those strange bulges on the upper surface. Having been around for a while, it's probably been adapted to other things. It probably has an optical sensor on it.

My impression is that this is something that has been built in small numbers, and certainly there are more capable staffed drones in the pipeline behind it, even there aren't some already existing in the black world.

So what can these newer drones do that the RQ-170 can't?

Probably two things. One is lower [radar] signatures.  The other would be the capability to carry other types of sensors, including radar, and possibly weapons as well. This thing is quite small. That gives you limitations in a couple of areas,  including quite simply how big a camera you can put on it. If you want images of a certain resolution, you still need the optics. It also doesn't have a lot of electrical power available if you want to run radar.

When you go to stealth with a UAV, it's not quite the same as putting it on a manned aircraft. On a piloted aircraft, you're going to have sensors on board that tell the pilot when he's being illuminated by radar. So it has a sort of responsive capability. With a simple UAV like this, you're really flying a course based on where you think the other guys radars are, and trying to avoid the peak signature, trying to keep it off the other guys radar.

If you really want a stealthy drone, you need to achieve as low a signature as possible all around. Future stealth drones will have much better signature. Look at the Northrop X-47 they've just flown for the Navy: If you look at that shape versus the RQ-170, you'll notice that its edges are a lot sharper, that the RQ-170 is a little more rounded around the nose.

But again, if you're building a simple aircraft, you don't necessarily want to put all the latest on there, because sooner or later you know it's going to go down somewhere.

So if it turns out to be true that the RQ-170 has fallen into Iranian hands, how big an intelligence coup is that for them?

I shouldn't think so. Under the skin, this is a fairly simple airplane. I doubt if there's anything radical in terms of reconnaissance equipment on board. There aren't that many examples of a huge intelligence haul of that kind coming from one particular aircraft.

For more, see Sweetman's latest piece on why the intelligence gained from the RQ-170 may be limited. We'll keep following this story as well.

Photos: Secret Defense via Aviation Week