Friending the Revolution

Cyrus Farivar

As regimes in Tunisia and Egypt fell in 2011, inter- net activists and Middle East watchers have been scratching their heads trying to work out how much a state’s social media penetration (and more broadly, internet penetration) influences social and democratic revolution.

Though social media specifically, and the internet as a whole, surely have some small role to play in organizing protests, the facts don’t automatically confirm or validate the claims for their liberating power. Anyone interested in democratization should remember this essential truth about this year’s Middle East upheavals: in Tunisia and Egypt, the militaries decided not to fire on their own people, while in Libya and Syria, civil war erupted, bringing state violence against its citizens. Bullets have little to do with Facebook.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to be seduced by this idea that social networking sites or even the internet in general somehow “caused” significant political change in the Middle East in 2011.

Poetry, Parties, Upheaval

But a few facts about actual online life need to be kept in mind. For instance, Facebook use across the entire world is always going to be smaller than the level of internet penetration. (Think of everyone you know who’s online – and then think about the

other people you know who aren’t on Facebook, but are still online.) Thus, in countries where internet penetration is already low, the percentage of people on Facebook is even lower. In Egypt, nearly one quarter of Egyptians are online, but less than 10 percent of the population is on Facebook. In the U.S., where Facebook penetration is now 51 percent, people use it to discuss politics, poetry, and parties. So do people in Egypt and everywhere else.

In other words, just as not every American on Facebook is hatching a way to fix government grid- lock inside the Beltway, neither can we expect every Yemeni on Facebook to be talking about how they can bring down President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

A look at country-by-country statistics, based on figures from the social networking analysis site, shows Jordan and Palestine have more than twice the Facebook penetration as Egypt, and yet there have been no headlines of a Facebook revolution in the Levant. (Venezuela has a solid Facebook penetration rate of 34 percent, but Hugo Chavez – himself an avid Twitter user, too – isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.)

The hopes and temptations of techno-determin- ism have led to speculations about the broader influence of internet penetration on democratization.

One researcher, Jillian C. York, writing on the blog Global Voices, asked earlier this year if the internet can “affect the effectiveness of such tools for organizational or revolutionary purposes? Or, can a tiny group of internet users influence a country- wide movement?” Andrew Trench, a South African journalist, also blogged: “If Egypt and Tunisia are valid case studies, it looks like internet penetration of around 20 percent is the mark.” 

If this were true, authoritarian countries with high penetration rates should be on the brink of regime collapse. But Russia, China, and Iran all have penetration rates well above 30 percent yet remain among the world’s most influential authoritarian countries.

These countries cajole, intimidate, and counter- balance online opposition. For every pro-democracy Facebook group, there are plenty of ways in which governments can co-opt the internet to serve their own purposes, through censorship, placation, and outright intimidation.

Tool of Repression

It’s as well known now that online social networking can be used as a tool of surveillance just as it can be used as a tool of activism. An Al Jazeera English documentary that debuted in August showed how pro-regime forces in Bahrain used Facebook to track down protestors. In June 2009, The Wall Street Journal reported that some Iranians entering Iran were forced to login to Facebook upon their re-entry into the country.

Since 2007 the Chinese government has organized the “50-Cent Party,” which pays hundreds of thousands of young Chinese internet users to post pro-China comments on message boards. The Kremlin has orchestrated cyber attacks against perceived “enemies,” including Estonia. In Iran, for all the talk of a Twitter Revolution, in June 2009 the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei joined Twitter, posting daily in Persian and English.

Earlier this year, Iran concluded its first blogging competition, which was open only to blogs not blocked within the country. The top prize, not surprisingly, went to an Ahmadinejad supporter. China threatened foreign journalists and arrested hundreds of activists who called for protests across the Chinese internet in early 2011. In Russia, the government has formally invited tenders to develop a vast internet-monitoring system to counter online dissent.

What goes on online may be irrelevant in terms of being a democratizing force. Egypt and Tunisia were unwilling to unleash sustained brutal force against their own countrymen. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for countries such as Libya, Iran, Russia, and China.

In recent months, American policymakers have begun issuing millions of dollars’ worth of grants to projects like the “internet-in-a-suitcase,” which activists hope will allow surreptitious access to the internet even if traditional access is blocked or shut down.

But, if already many activists are being harangued or worse at the border, or surveilled and threatened for what they post online, what will happen the first time an activist is arrested for possessing one of these American-made devices? That’s not to say that the United States shouldn’t be in the business of helping people communicate more freely, but it’s important to remember that just because a country has more access to the internet doesn’t mean that it will become a liberal democracy overnight. 

Cyrus Farivar is an Iranian-American journalist and the author of The Internet of Elsewhere (Rutgers, 2011). He hosts Spectrum, a weekly radio show on European science and technology for Deutsche Welle English from Bonn, Germany.