Social media has taken a prominent role in this year’s uprisings in the Middle East. In a post on my previous blog, I summarize social media use by opponents of Mubarak and Gadhafi and compare the communication efforts to those seen during the American Revolution, World War II, and the Cold War. The biggest impediment to employing social media against dictatorships is the regimes’ shutdown of the Internet and mobile phone systems, a tactic as old as communist jamming of Radio Free Europe broadcasts.
The New York Times reports that the United States is funding the creation of “shadow” Internets and mobile networks to circumvent interference by hostile parties. “Internet in a suitcase” is the term given to technology that can be brought into contested regions to foster communication and organization when standard conduits are compromised. Strike another blow for media theorist Marshall McLuhan and his maxim, “The Medium is the Message.” In this campaign, America is emphasizing the medium–the channels for Web, social media and text communication–versus content-centric programs of the past such as Voice of America and its sister networks.
Not all Middle Eastern countries are experiencing a social media moratorium. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are flourishing as forums for dissent in Saudi Arabia. This digital permissiveness in the region’s most conservative country may be due to the Saudi royal family’s historic ties to the West (making overt crackdowns less palatable to longtime allies like the US) and the government’s use of social media to track dissidents and promote its own agenda. Per the last point, the Saudi government is using poorly masked proxies on Twitter to espouse viewpoints and rebut criticism. Evidently, the House of Saud has not embraced social media’s call for transparency.
The New York Times aligns America’s restoration of Internet and mobile phone service in countries such as Libya and Syria with the “liberation technology” movement. Stanford University’s program on the movement studies “…how information technology can be used to defend human rights, improve governance, empower the poor, promote economic development, and pursue a variety of other social goods.” While the concept of liberation technology is noble and promising, Web 2.0 is not a silver bullet against autocrats. In 2009, the Ahmadinejad regime crushed pro-democracy demonstrations despite Iranian dissidents’ access to social media and mobile devices.
History also reminds us that democratic movements are not inexorable. The reversed domino theory that toppled the Berlin Wall halted in Tiananmen Square. The constant uncertainty of freedom compels the United States to promote it aggressively. Information has always been essential to the cause. An “Internet in a suitcase” smuggled into Iran is the 21st century version of a clandestine radio receiver airdropped to the resistance in occupied France. Simply providing the tools can be a decisive communication strategy.