Traditionally, Arab regimes have used a large repertoire of repressive means ranging from massive torture (as it was the case pre-occupation Irak, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, and to a lesser extent Morocco and Jordan), to the complete control of the press, the banning of the opposition, the diffusion of a culture of fear through the extensive presence of the Mukhabarat or secret services, the encouragement of reporting on others…etc. By the late nineties however, technological changes and the evolution of the international context has led to the widening of the space for contentious politics. The massive popularity of Al-Jazeera, the democratization of the internet, the emergence of an active and independent blogosphere, the “digital normalization” of the Arab public through mass social media such as Facebook and Twitter all created a new space for political contention that Arab states could not really control.
Essentially, Arab regimes’ (or as a matter of fact any authoritarian regime’s) biggest challenge is the development of what has been referred to as “informational cascades” or symbolic events randomly taking unrecorded importance and creating a snowball effect. An unemployed graduate burning himself in front of a crowd in Tunisia, a strike in a major factory in Egypt, a road blocked by Berber students in rural Morocco all have the potential of triggering political mobilization by signaling in a spectacular way to the rest of the population, the existence of an opportunity for mobilization. In practice, social media help lower the cost of participation and make mobilization much more likely.
When faced with grassroots mobilization, the Pavlovian reaction of Arab regimes is to play the card of disinformation and to say that protesters are either Islamic terrorists (as it was the case in Tunisia), or in the case of other countries put the blame on au choix: foreign agents separatist groups, neighboring Arab countries, Israel’s Mossad of course, the US, Spain, France…etc. However, given digital activism particular logic: the fact that picture and videos of real events are readily accessible and can be validated by the community, the fact that western bloggers and academics have personal contacts with the most influential Arab bloggers, all of this validates citizen media and makes the usual scarecrows pulled by Arab regimes increasingly irrelevant.
Blocking websites is nothing new to the region–most of the Gulf filters pervasively, while Tunisia–prior to the uprising–was amongst the worst in the world. Syrians have never known an unfiltered Internet. And yet, the blocking of social media sites is a fairly new phenomenon, primarily because governments are just now tuning in to how such tools are used as a means of organizing protest. – Jillian C. York, Blogger.
Hosni Mubarak’s complete internet-blackout strategy, however, was unprecedented. Never before had a government gone to such lengths to limit contact and organized information flow between groups and individuals. Yet despite this blockade, social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as blogs and photo-uploading sites such as Flickr, continued to serve as a link between protesters on the ground, citizens on the fringes and the global community through various ways. Google even teamed up with Twitter to help protesting Egyptians, by allowing them to share their views on the real-time social network through the use of an application which converts speech-to-text, allowing citizens without internet and SMS to disseminate vital information. Interestingly enough, such efforts on behalf of social media websites remain to be seen in regards to, in particular, Bahrain where the government in mid-February cracked down on net usage and placed several restrictions, particularly on YouTube.
Yet despite the good that can and has come of these media coupled with mobile communication technology such as cellphones, Joseph Mayton, founder of the popular BikyaMasr, notes that while there is now an almost unrestrained platform for political dissidence for activists as well as generally frustrated citizens, there is now also greater prospect for “the government…to keep tabs on those individuals online.” Thus, e-dissidence comes with much risk as much as it does with great potential as highlighted by the surprising and under-reported March 30th arrest of popular online activist, Mahmood al-Yousif – a Bahraini non-sectarian, peace-promoting blogger and Twitter user.
In addition to this, a recent article in Foreign Policy notes a new study by Open Net Initiative “about how Middle Eastern and North African dictatorships are using web-filtering technologies developed by American and Canadian companies to censor the Internet from their own citizens.”
Twitter, on the other hand, has shown a particular commitment to its users with a strong policy of user confidentiality. Twitter has not only realized the significance its service can play in the diffusion of real-time information but also has seemingly realized the strategically smart business move such support is, ultimately. Twitter’s actions do not turn away users but rather bring more users to its service, interested in engaging with the quick-paced real-time information flow.
While with great potential, citizen media should not be given the crowning title of leadership for these uprisings which is so often done without much hesitation. What we are aware of, however, is that despite the unclear impact and reach of social media, authoritarian and democratic regimes alike, are well aware of the challenge posed by collaborative social tools which thrive beyond official control. Only the coming months and years will testify to how governments will begin and continue to govern essentially uncharted and near-infinite territory without borders or rules.
Co-Authored with Merouan Mekouar, a PhD student in Political Science at McGill University, focusing on Islamist movements in North Africa and Southeast Asia. Published at KABOBfest in March 2011.