Arab Spring Internet revolutions: Are Twitter and Facebook toppling dictators?

What's to come?
July 18 2011 8:34 AM

Springtime for Twitter

Is the Internet driving the revolutions of the Arab Spring?

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This article arises from Future Tense,a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate.

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8. The new threat is Goldilocks dictatorship. Governments are learning that if they cut off social networks or Internet access entirely, people will find ways to connect and conspire outside the regime's influence. The smarter suppression strategy is to set up state-controlled intranets, Internet providers, and portals that give people the illusion of access to the outside world. In Cuba, Sanchez said people think they have access to the Internet, but it isn't the real thing. Posner warned of a similar scenario in Iran, where conservatives are pursuing a "halal" Internet—a "stilted alternative reality of government-approved content on controlled national intranets."

China has pioneered this strategy with a system that MacKinnon calls "network authoritarianism." Search for images of the Tiananmen Square massacre on China's leading search engine, Baidu, and you'll come up empty. Try to post an article about a dissident, and you'll get a "moderation notice" advising you to check your article for "inappropriate content" before it can be accepted. The government doesn't have to censor everything itself; it leaves much of that job to Internet companies that earn "self-discipline" awards—and keep their licenses—by restricting content. And citizens are permitted to talk all they want to about local affairs or low-level corruption, thereby blowing off steam and defusing political unrest. The censorship doesn't set in till they start talking about democracy or the national government.

9. Beware Animal Farm. Ben Gharbia and MacKinnon told a sobering story from Tunisia. Leaders of the former ruling party are reconstituting themselves as new parties to regain power. Meanwhile, the post-revolutionary transitional government is reinstituting censorship of Web pages that, in its view, threaten to incite hatred and violence. Ben Gharbia said the country's ongoing debate over censorship is healthy. But it's a reminder that today's revolutionaries can quickly become tomorrow's tyrants.

10. Use the Internet to keep power the right way. Lots of panelists had advice for dissidents in authoritarian countries. But the best advice I heard was directed at governments frightened by new interactive technologies. "You don't need an army of censors deleting posts on social media sites," said Posner. "You need a cadre of government officials reading those posts and figuring out how to identify and address the legitimate grievances that are being expressed there." Using surveillance to stay in power not by thwarting people, but by serving them. What a concept.

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