Double-Edged Sword: Social Media's Subversive Potential

Social media facilitate state surveillance because of most people's lack of familiarity with basic security settings on their social profiles, much less digital encryption or counter-censorship tools.
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"I heard em say the revolution wont be televised; Aljazeera proved em wrong, Twitter has him paralyzed." So begins an American hip-hop song that has become an anthem of the revolution. In authoritarian regimes the spread of information is a subversive act. Twittering, Facebooking and blogging are all about spreading information and communication. The information revolution has helped bring about political revolutions in a region of the world considered 'exceptional' by so many as being inherently incompatible with democracy. The contours of the information society have made citizen journalism and other forms of digital activism one of the most potent and politically charged manifestations of power in societies where citizens lack access to the political field and the media sphere is dominated by state interests. 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 were 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 cyberactivsts, 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 a 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 social media 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 protests are organizing mass protests 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 loosing battle. Tunisia inspired Egyptians, and Egypt will inspire the world.

The people who took to the streets put their well-being at risk given the repressive tactics for which the security services are so famous. The Egyptian authorities targeted professional journalists, citizen journalists, activists and the human rights and legal aid organizations that have helped protect and defend their rights. But the subversive power of social media have put a powerful tool in the hands of those challenging the status quo.

Social media are not a panacea to the political, economic and social problems plaguing the region, but are potentially powerful tools for organizing, mobilizing, communicating and putting domestic issues on the international agenda -- both news and political. 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 mobilization strategies and as key communication forums, circumventing 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 4 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. And becoming a trending topic helps generate media attention, even as it helps organize 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.

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 to the government who needs to be surveiled. 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 fuckin air bomb the demonstrators if they truly became a threat to the regime."

The same applies to the protests that rocked Egypt from January 25 until February 11, 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.

But social media are also a double-edged sword for activists and the Egyptian public at large. They're 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 and thus help shift the balance of power away from authoritarian governments. But these media also facilitate state surveillance because of their 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 know 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 president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In Sudan, authorities used faux protests publicized 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 organize 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

So 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 raising the offices of key rights groups like the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and the Hisham Mubark Law Center, 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 tantalizing markets, but the fact is that many multinational corporations actually have economies larger than many countries, and without access to their services and technology would be unable to compete in the globalized world. Companies like Canadian-based Research in Motion, and Google, the US-based internet search giant, should take a stand for the rights and values of the countries in which they started and grew. Without the benefits provided by the political and legal environments of Canada and the United States, these companies would never have been able to start up or grow into the innovative powerhouses they have become. There is a reason that few if any of the 21st centuries best technologies, most successful companies and most pioneering enterprises have emerged from authoritarian countries.

At least US companies like Google and Twitter have come out of the side of freedom (unlike their Canadian counterpart RIM, which last year gave in to demands by digital dictators Saudi Arabia and UAE to have access to encrypted secure messages) 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 publicized 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. But while these social media were important, it was the fact that protests and popular support transcended the digital forums that have grown to become important tools for social movements to subvert state control of the media and public space in recent years that makes these recent uprisings monumental.

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