The Dark Side of Social Media: How the Internet Can Hurt Revolutionaries

24 Mar
Josh Cheesman

@JoshCheesman

Much as revolution has spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, the topic of social media and the revolutions in the Middle East has spread from Georgie to Ian to Caroline, and now to me. As the title suggests, I’m going to look at the third view on how social media has affected the revolutions – in other words, the dark side of the phenomenon.

Emperor Palpatine

"Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen it. Well, except Libya. I expected that to be over a week ago."

 So, what do I mean by the “dark side”?

In her post Social Networks: Demographics and Democracy, Georgie talked about how the role sites like Twitter and Facebook have played in the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, giving the angry youth a place to voice their concerns, and to organise themselves more meaningfully.

The day after, Ian countered that the role of social media had been overplayed by the Western press, and that few people in the rebelling countries even had Facebook accounts (Are we giving Social Media too much credit for the Middle East uprising?).

I’m not going to dispute either of those arguments, but there is another angle to consider here. Namely, that when you’re planning insurgency, the last thing you want is all your personal information readily available to anyone interested in looking.

“The World’s Greatest Spying Machine

Just a few days ago, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gave a talk at Cambridge University in which he said that the internet was a great help to totalitarian regimes, allowing them to keep track of dissidents with ease.

“While the Internet has in some ways an ability to let us know to an unprecedented level what government is doing… it is also the greatest spying machine the world has ever seen.”

Julian Assange

"The internet can be used to uncover all sorts of private information. I should know, it's how I made a name for myself."

Assange referenced a failed attempt at a revolution in Cairo a few years ago that was organised on Facebook.

Unfortunately, it was precisely because it was organised on Facebook that Hosni Mubarak’s forces were easily able to round up the protesters after the fact.

It’s kind of like posting some pictures of yourself drunk on Facebook and then realising that you have your boss added as a friend. Except instead of a warning, the consequence is being beaten, imprisoned and tortured.

“It is not a technology that favours freedom of speech. It is not a technology that favours human rights. Rather it is a technology that can be used to set up a totalitarian spying regime, the likes of which we have never seen.” – Julian Assange

Beyond Egypt

The Cairo example Assange gave is not an isolated case. While most of the Western media has been trumpeting the achievements of social media in the Middle East, a few reporters have been looking at the negative effects in other authoritarian states.

Evengy Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World, wrote an article for The Globe and Mail called The dark side of internet for Egyptian and Tunisian protesters (obviously I wasn’t the only one who immediately thought of Star Wars allusions when faced with this topic). The article starts by talking about two Iranians hung for posting video online of the country’s “Twitter Revolution”, largely ignored by a media focused on Tunisia and Egypt at the time.

While Morozov goes on to give a balanced account of how the internet can both help and hinder revolution (it’s interesting to note that she cites Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s access to an internet “kill switch” as a must for all dictators – a sign that they do fear the internet), she nicely outlines the reasons why the internet can be such a danger:

“The secret police can now learn more about those opposing the state by looking up their profiles – and their friends’ profiles – on social-media sites. The state ideologues can now bolster the legitimacy of the regime by creating suave new media propaganda and claim that it represents ‘the voice of the people’. Young people can be distracted away from politics by the new i-opium of the masses that is never in short supply online.”

Morozov has also been quoted in an article by al-Jazeera, The dangers of social media revolt. There, Azerbaijan, Morocco and Tunisia are mentioned as examples of countries where dissidents have been caught as a result of their Facebook or Gmail accounts.

The author, writer and blogger Jillian York, posits that this is not even necessarily a case of the government hacking in, but could be the result of undercover agents creating fake online profiles.

Even if this isn’t true, the possibility alone will make potential insurgents that little bit more hesitant to spout revolutionary rhetoric.

And moving beyond the Middle East, how could we forget our old friend China? Well known for its government’s iron grip on internet access, Chinese authorities last month foiled a planned simultaneous protest simply by putting under house arrest everyone who searched the word “Jasmine” (the failed protests were nicknamed the “Jasmine Revolution”) on Twitter or similar sites.

Again, if you’re afraid to even make a search, what’s the likelihood of you actually saying anything to challenge the state?

Final Thoughts

At a Question-Time-style debate at City University last Friday, Times columnist David Aaronovitch responded to Julian Assange’s claim that the internet was the world’s “greatest spying machine” by saying that it was a tool, completely neutral in and of itself, that could be used for both good and evil.

This is the point I think we should take away from all this. Yes, social media may have had a positive effect in the Middle East, but it can prop up totalitarian regimes as easily as it can bring them down. Maybe we shouldn’t be lauding Twitter as the herald of the revolution just yet.

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2 Responses to “The Dark Side of Social Media: How the Internet Can Hurt Revolutionaries”

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