How to Ignite, or Quash, a Revolution in 140 Characters or Less

On July 13th, I attended an event at the New America Foundation: How to Ignite, or Quash, a Revolution in 140 Characters or Less, which looked at the promise and limitations of technology in spreading democracy. July 13th also happened to be my birthday, and one of the most special messages I received that day came in the form of a tweet from Ghada Shahbender (@ghadasha), an Egyptian human rights activist and one of this year’s winners of the James Lawson Award.

The coolness of this moment immediately hit me. As I sat in this event—crammed into a corner of a crowded room, head buried in my laptop, tweeting take-aways on the role of internet and technology in social movements—an activist in Tahrir Square was also following the event’s Twitter hashtag (#140rev), saw that I was participating in the conversation, found out it was my birthday (presumably via Facebook), instantaneously sent me a message directly to my phone, and then followed up with a photo of her view of Tahrir Square at that very moment.

It’s cool not just because an amazing activist like Ghada Shahbender, whom I had recently met for the first time at the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict, would think to send me a birthday message, but also because this short 140 character or less digital exchange, encapsulated what is, for me, the power of social media—the connections it can help sustain, the conversations it can create across great distances, and the ability it gives people to instantly share and document key moments.

The birthday tweet from Ghada was not the only cool thing about this event, however. I also got to hear from some of leading thinkers, scholars, and activists in this field like, Rebecca McKinnon (@rmack), Senior Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, Sami Ben Gharbia (@ifikra), co-founder of Nawaat.org and Advocacy Director at Global Voices, Michael Posner (@State_DRL), Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Ahmed Al Omran (@ahmed), blogger and creator of saudijeans.org, and Merlyna Lim (@merlyna), professor at Arizona State University, among others.

You can see my curation of key tweets and resources by checking out this Bundle I put together. But in this post I will just focus on what I consider to be the top five insights from this event.

1. Lim’s insistence on recognizing the seeds of Tahrir is worth repeating because resistance to the Mubarak regime had been building for years. What began on January 25th, and continued for 18 days, was not a spontaneous event, but rather a culminating event born out of many years of online and on-the-ground organizing by a variety of groups. You can check out a version of Merlyna Lim’s Prezi presentation here. Lim’s comment also reminded me of another key insight I heard from Egyptian blogger and activist, Alaa Abd El Fatah (@alaa), who spoke at the Personal Democracy Forum back in June. During his presentation, he said that

factories and universities are the most important social networks for this revolution; since the seventies and until now. … Here is what technology did. It offered a perfect medium to try and build a single narrative that talks about revolution. What the internet offered was that you start a small group somewhere, but you can make noise that is louder than the size of your group, online, and then connect with others. And also, you are no longer dependent on saturating any institution because there is a lot of individuals that do not belong to a union, do not work in a public sector workplace, and are no longer in university or have never gone to university, but they can access you online or they can access your speech that is online through their own physical social networks. This is what the internet offered—a platform where we could connect these things so that we build up the critical mass required.

In short, Egyptians had already been organizing themselves for years in small groups in physical spaces, but it was difficult to bring all those groups together into a single mass movement. The internet and various social platforms brought these dispersed and seemingly disparate organized groups into unified, mass collective action.

2. This comment was made by Tunisian blogger and activist, Sami Ben Gharbia, and its relevance is two-fold. First, internet access represents a service that movements can use to generate a dilemma action. A dilemma action is an action that puts your adversary in a lose-lose situation (see barrel example from Otpor!). No matter how the adversary decides to respond their choice will end up harming their legitimacy. Second, the strategic utility of movements using social media in repressive contexts depends on how savvy those movement are in understanding not only how these tools can benefit their struggle, but also benefit intelligence gathering for their adversary.

During the revolution in Tunisia, the Ben Ali regime decided not to block Facebook because he feared it would increase the people’s anger and frustration with the government. But leaving it open allowed organizers and budding activists to share, coordinate, and spread anti-regime information via that platform. Losing situation either way.

On the other hand, Facebook is also a tool that regimes can use to track and identify the actions of different individuals and groups. Regimes may choose to keep platforms like Facebook open because they can use it to mine information like names, addresses, meeting places, family members, etc., and use that information to try and thwart the movement. There is no question that the Ben Ali regime was monitoring Facebook and tracking specific users before and during the revolution, however those efforts proved fruitless in the end.

This may have been why, in Egypt, Mubarak made a different calculation. His regime decided, Let’s not only block Facebook and other social media platforms, let’s shut down the internet all together. This may have prevented groups from continuing to the use internet for activist purposes, but it ultimately backfired. Once the internet was shut down, people who had been following and supporting the revolution online now had no choice but to join their friends, neighbors and family members in the streets in order to remain engaged in the struggle. For this very reason, the day after the internet was shut down was when Tahrir Square and streets throughout Egypt experienced some of the largest demonstrations. The government’s strategy of shutting down the internet was also based on an assumption that activists were only relying on the internet to coordinate and organize actions and that shutting it down would snuff out the movement. This assumption proved faulty.

3. Ahmed Al Omran, a Saudi blogger, raised the danger of drinking the “revolution Kool-Aid”—the seductive belief that just because a revolution worked one way in one Arab country that it will or can happen the same way in another. This is a mistake because each country has its own dynamics, history, geopolitical interests, and strategies for responding to opposition movements. Tunisia is different from Egypt, and Egypt is different from Saudi Arabia. This is exactly why successful nonviolent movements have always been indigenously led. There is no one model for overthrowing an autocratic regime. Nonviolent struggle requires detailed knowledge about the specific and nuanced contexts of that particular conflict and only those on-the-ground in that situation can provide that knowledge. So there is much that can be learned from studying past movements, but most of that learning comes in the form of understanding the dynamics of the numerous nonviolent tactics that movements have used throughout history, how movements develop and implement strategies based on their analysis of local conditions and power structures, and inspiration that is gleaned from successes.

Ahmed pointed out that resistance campaigns in Saudi Arabia, such as the Saudi Women’s Driving Campaign, and other movements for change in that country, face a number of hurdles in large part due to the extreme amounts of oil wealth the Saudi Royal family has at its disposal. Not only are these financial resource used to stifle dissent inside the country, they are also being used to finance military action in neighboring countries like Bahrain to help suppress the uprising there, and to house ousted autocrats like Tunisia’s Ben Ali. In addition, the relationship between the United States and the Saudi royal family remains strong, forcing the United States to turn a blind’s eye to the abuses committed by that government.

That being said, conditions and structures do not determine whether or not a movement will be successful, the skills and agency of the movement do. The Egyptian movement that ousted Hosni Mubarak used nonviolent actions and sanctions to not only defeat a highly repressive regime, but also force the United States to withdraw its support for that regime, which had been a stalwart ally for 30 years and the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, much of which came in the form of military arms and training.

4. Rebecca McKinnon spoke in depth about the hypocrisy of western governments, particularly the United States, in stating internet freedom as cornerstone of foreign policy, while at the same time western companies are designing and providing authoritarian governments with the technology and services to censor the Internet and/or leverage it as a tool of repression. MacKinnon wrote about this in the piece, West Censoring East: The Use of Western Technologies for Middle Eastern Censors. She also speaks to this in this great TED presentation.

This is connected to another one of MacKinnon’s points, which underlies much her work, that relations between citizens and their governments are increasingly being mediated through the internet, which itself is controlled by private interests. This disconnect is probably just more apparent in the United States than it is in other parts of the world. Resisting corporate control of the internet and the fight to protect net neutrality is one of the most important battles in the United States today. It’s important for freedom of speech to be protected by ensuring that one’s access to consume and ability share information over the internet is not determined by a corporate controlled, multi-tiered internet that would allow those who pay more or are corporately affiliated with the ISP to be able to spread their information faster and wider just because of their wealth and connections.

5. I end with this statement from Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Michael Posner because it ties together all the prior insights. First, it’s an example of what MacKinnon spoke about regarding the two-faced nature of U.S. policy—both in how the US government takes a firm stance in its position that other countries should respect the internet access rights of its citizens, while domestically, private interests and legislation are working to limit freedom of speech on the internet. When can America’s policy on internet freedom abroad be adopted domestically?

Second, the United Nations recently declared internet access to be a human right, in large part because it has demonstrated its role in empowering people to resist tyranny, abuse, and corruption. Since our social lives and interactions are becoming more enmeshed with internet access, this is an important step in advancing all the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Third, a principled stance on internet freedom and the right to internet access necessitates a closer look at how private companies are using their expertise to undermine those rights. Actions should be taken to sanction companies that collude with autocratic governments to use the internet as a tool of repression. Secondly, companies like Facebook that accept praise for being a platform for pro-democracy movements but refuse to adapt their terms of service agreements to make the use of their platform more safe and secure for those activists need to re-think those terms.

And lastly, internet freedom is a game-changer, but it depends on how we (from government elites to citizen journalists, from private companies to activists on the ground) decide to play it. The internet, by itself, is an amoral infrastructure. It is our commitment to human rights that will need to shape the internet’s moral arc and bend it toward justice.

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