By Steve and Cokie Roberts
When Egypt’s leaders shut down virtually all Internet and cell-phone service, they exposed a basic truth about the modern world. New forms of communication not controlled by governments can — potentially — shake the foundations of autocratic rule.
“President Hosni Mubarak betrayed his own fear,” writes Scott Shane in the New York Times, “that Facebook, Twitter, laptops and smartphones could empower his opponents, expose his weaknesses to the world and topple his regime.”
There is nothing new about popular uprisings deposing despised dictators. Russian revolutionaries dumped Czar Nicholas II almost a century before Twitter was invented. What is different today is how quickly the rebellious spirit can spread — from laptop to laptop, cell phone to cell phone. “Revolutions no longer take months. They take weeks,” says Alec Ross, who advises Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on technology issues. “You can go from zero to 60 like that.”
So, yes, these are heady days for anyone who cares about democracy and human rights. Mubarak is not the only dictator consumed by fear. But a certain amount of caution and skepticism is also necessary. Facebook does not guarantee freedom. Communication systems are value neutral. The bad guys can use them, as well as the good guys. The battle to expand liberty is not over; it has just moved to a different field, and is being fought with different weapons.
As the Times reports, “In Minsk and Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, governments have begun to climb the steep learning curve and turn the new Internet tools to their own, antidemocratic purposes.” Exhibit A: Iran. The same technologies that were used to foment the “Green Revolution” 18 months ago have now been deployed against the dissidents.
“The Iranian police eagerly followed the electronic trails left by activists, which assisted them in making thousands of arrests in the crackdown that followed” the street demonstrations of June 2009, writes the Times. “The government even crowd-sourced its hunt for enemies, posting on the Web photos of unidentified demonstrators and inviting Iranians to identify them.”
China has been even more proactive, squelching social networks before they can incubate cells of unrest. Last year, Google protested that Beijing-backed hackers had invaded its Gmail system, looking for damaging information on Chinese dissidents. Clinton has warned that because so many autocratic regimes are blocking online traffic, “a new information curtain is descending across much of the world.”
Moreover, the same technology used to mobilize protesters in Tunis and Cairo can be used to bolster terrorist networks in Kabul and Baghdad. Eben Kaplan’s sobering study for the Council on Foreign Relations reports that “the Internet is a powerful tool for terrorists, who use online message boards and chat rooms to share information, coordinate attacks, spread propaganda, raise funds and recruit.” He quotes John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, who says that terrorists “swim in an ocean of bits and bytes.”
Still, the courage and ingenuity of young pro-democracy activists is truly inspiring. Tweets are their tanks, messages their mortars, and while they sometimes seem outgunned, Alec Ross is right when he says, “From now on, any and all dissent movements will have technology as a core component.”
The reason is that technology can create an alternative universe, a different way of seeing your world — and yourself. Tweets don’t just spread information; they spur the imagination. And revolutions start with an act of imagination, a moment when a different future suddenly seems possible. It doesn’t take 140 characters to say, “The emperor has no clothes!”
Zeynep Tufekci, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, tells the National Post that while social media “is not a magical tool,” it can “puncture the bubble dictators create around themselves.” And that’s exactly what happened in Tunisia.
After a street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself to death to protest harassment by government authorities, demonstrators took to the streets with “a rock in one hand and a cell phone in the other,” according to Al Jazeera, the Arab-centered news service. As a result, those demonstrators were not just rock throwers; they were also broadcasters, organizers and videographers. They collapsed the “bubble” that their leaders had spent 23 years inflating. And they did it with stories, not stones. “Social media,” Tufekci says, “enabled the revolting citizens of Tunisia to bypass censored state media and talk to each other.”
Talk. Free, unfettered talk. That’s what the autocrats fear most — and what they will do anything to stop.