A double-edged sword
Digital activism has become a potent and politically charged manifestation of power - but activists aren't the only ones with access to Facebook, warns Courtney C. Radsch
In authoritarian regimes the spread of information is a subversive act. Throughout the Middle East, states control vast swaths of the media, usually including all terrestrial television stations, major newspapers and radio. Before the internet enabled self-publishing and dissemination, there was really no mass media through which youth and minority groups could get their message out. But through politically entrepreneurial uses of digital and social media, young Egyptians—including the April 6 Movement—and other cyberactivists helped bring down President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power.
Coverage of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia have largely focused on the role of social media, both in western media and on Al Jazeera English. Pithy, reductionist labels like “Wiki Revolution” and “Twitter Revolution” attribute to technology what is, in fact, the reaction to broad disenfranchisement and economic despair, along with disgust over presidential corruption. .
Nonetheless, social media coupled with internet and mobile technology has proved to be a powerful challenge to the political status quo. Over the past month, activists in Tunisia and Egypt used these tools to successfully challenge the reign of authoritarian presidents whose decades in power had left little room for political participation and whose economic policies failed to provide for the needs of their people.
Throughout the MENA region (Middle East & North Africa), mass protests are organised via social media, including in Bahrain, Yemen, and Morocco. But when such efforts are not linked into the broader activist community or public they are bound to fail, like a Facebook protest for Syria that fizzled because it was inauthentic. China tried to block information about Egypt from its citizens by filtering out internet content about the uprisings, but with the fall of two regimes in less than a month this is a losing battle. Tunisia inspired Egyptians, and Egypt will inspire the world.
Tweet a revolution
While Egyptian authorities targeted professional journalists, citizen journalists, activists and the human rights and legal aid organisations that have helped protect and defend rights, social media became a powerful tool in the hands of those challenging the status quo. While it isn't a panacea to the political, economic and social problems plaguing the region, it certainly helps organising, mobilising, communicating and putting domestic issues on the international agenda.
Activists who helped propel the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia used social media—especially Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flikr—and digital tools as an integral part of their mobilisation strategies and as key communication forums. They circumvented censorship tools, attempts by Ben Ali and Mubarak to block Twitter, and even the entire shutdown of the internet in Egypt. Ensuring information continued to get out became an act of protest and agitation, and social media were essential tools for doing do.
With a population of about 80 million and a median age of 24, Egypt has nearly four million Facebook users, representing about 5% of the population. Facebook exploded in 2008 with the April 6 Youth protests and has doubled in the past year. Google, Facebook and YouTube are the three most visited sites in Egypt, and have been essential to digital activism in the region since Blogger became popular in 2005.
In 2008, the April 6 strike page garnered 70,000 followers in about 2 weeks. In the first 24 hours the Khaled Said Facebook page had 56,000 followers. Twitter hashtags #jan25, #Egypt and #Mubarak were all worldwide trending topics for the first several days of the protests. Becoming a trending topic helps generate media attention, even as it helps organise information. The power of social media to help shape the international news agenda is one of the ways in which they subvert state authority and power.
Excuse me, please
Capturing the attention of Western media is a key strategic goal for activists, who largely believe that western media attention offers some veneer of protection to them – though it can also highlight potential dissidents to the government. Sandmonkey wrote of April 6 strike in 2008, when the movement first emerged:
“If this spreads, then the regime will spare no expense to squash it, especially with the visible absence of the western media and their coverage. Without international cover, this won't survive, and the government will fucking air bomb the demonstrators if they truly became a threat to the regime.”
The same applies to the protests that rocked Egypt from 25 January until 11 February, when Mubarak’s resignation was finally announced. Mainstream media covered the Egyptian unrest far more quickly and pervasively than they did with Tunisia – although Al Jazeera far surpassed US and UK news media in the quality of coverage. Their correspondents got outside the capital, interviewed a broader swath of Egyptians and did a far better job of putting things in context, being less prone to attribute the uprisings to American-made technologies.
Most major broadcast media devoted round-the-clock coverage to the protests in Egypt whereas they woefully disregarded Tunisia until just before Ben Ali’s departure. In both cases, however, the social media angle was a lead story and figured prominently in statements by the White House.
Don't look now, but...
But social media is also a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it provides important tools for circumventing government dominance of the media sector and restrictive freedom of association laws that prohibit NGOs from operating or groups from gathering, thus helping to shift the balance of power away from authoritarian governments. But this media also facilitates state surveillance because of its public nature and most people’s lack of familiarity with basic security settings on their social profiles, much less digital encryption or counter-censorship tools.
For example, most Egyptians do not protect their Facebook profiles by restricting access to friends or networks only, meaning that those who joined the Khaled Said fan page that we now know was created by Google executive Wael Ghonim or anti-Mubarak pages (of which there are plenty) are very likely to be known to the regime. Egyptian Facebook users also tend to use the semi-private platform to make friends rather than to stay in touch with existing ones, as is more typical in the US, for example. The lack of high privacy settings coupled with the extensiveness of networks among Egyptian activists means that it is relatively easy for the government to track developments and planning on Facebook.
Twitter is similarly open and is also extremely popular among digital activists, who link it to their blogs and Facebook pages and are followed by journalists. I don’t know of digital activsits who restrict Tweets to only their followers – this defeats the point of such services in any case. The use of Arabic and English by many of the more savvy activists is one example of the concerted effort to ensure the western world is getting their information. Hence it is little surprise that Mubarak blocked Twitter before deciding to close off access to the internet for the entire country.
Tunisian authorities used phishing to access email accounts of activists and follow their activities in the year leading up to ouster of Ben Ali. In Sudan, authorities used faux protests publicised on social media to entrap activists and arrest them. Over the past several months, Blackberry-maker RIM caved to demands by the UAE, followed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, India and others to make its encrypted data streams accessible to host governments. The UAE’s request came just days after youth attempted to organise a peaceful protest against rising oil prices using BB Messenger. And Egypt’s Internet shutdown also meant the government could not surveil and track digital activists
Gaining the upper hand
For the moment the scales are tipped in favor of activists because publicity and popularity provides a level of protection to many of the more outspoken and well-know digital activists, although it didn’t prevent authorities from raiding the offices of key rights groups like the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and the Hisham Mubark Law Centre – both central resources for Egypt’s young digital activists.
Although their popularity puts them on the authorities’ radar, it also means that when these well-connected, highly-followed youth are arrested or prosecuted it activates transnational activist networks. Thus international human rights and journalist organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Freedom House, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontières have mobilized their resources to advocate for their release and draw attention to the abuses by security forces.
Countries like Egypt, Tunisia and the highly authoritarian but very wealthy Gulf states represent tantalising markets and the fact is, without access to technology, these countries would be unable to compete in the globalised world. Companies like Research in Motion should take a stand for the rights and values of the countries in which it started and grew. Without the benefits provided by the political and legal environments of Canada, it would never have been able to start up or grow into the innovative powerhouse it has become.
At least US companies like Google and Twitter have come out of the side of freedom by providing workarounds to enable people in Egypt to use social media and evade censorship even when internet and mobile services were cut, including providing international landline numbers for internet access, ‘speak2tweet’ enabling Twitter posting via voicemail, and cloud servers. These solutions were publicised by people around the world through social media and experienced digital activists, like Manal and Alaa, who posted detailed instructions on how to circumvent the near total censorial blackout on their blogs.
The digital blackout was a powerful reminder of the power of older technologies, and innovative solutions emerged to merge the best of both. Landlines continued to be available, people in Egypt were encouraged to leave their wireless connections unlocked, wireless internet relays to neighboring countries were created by stringing together access points. And while social media was important, it was the fact that protests and popular support transcended the digital forums that makes these recent uprisings monumental.
Courtney C. Radsch is Freedom of Expression officer at Freedom House and an internationally published author and journalist with more than 10 years of journalism and media affairs experience in the U.S. and the Middle East. She is writing a book on cyberactivism in Egypt based on her doctoral dissertation
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