Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cyberactivism and the Twitter revolution


In the revolutionary wave occurring in the Maghreb and the Middle East that began in December 2010 following Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, better known as the Arab Spring, new technologies played a crucial role. Future historians will judge the actual role of new technologies and whether they were a determining factor or not, but in any case it is obvious that most protests and demonstrations were called through Twitter, Facebook and the personal blogs of many activists. It was not by far the first time that the Internet, the social networks and the mobile phones played a role in demonstrations: in the 2009 protests after the presidential elections in Iran or the parliament elections in Moldavia, in the 2009 protests in Xinjiang (western China) or even in the Spanish demonstrations against the information manipulation after the 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid, which were called and followed through SMS –without SMS, these demonstrations would not have been so massive. However, thanks to the Arab revolutions we have all been aware of the significant role played by new technologies among activists.


Some theorists consider that these electronic communication tools do play a significant role (cyber-utopians) whereas some others consider that their significance has been blown out of proportion (cyber-skeptics). This is a long-lasting debate to be discussed by future sociologists and political analysts. But there is something true: new technologies are more present in social movements and they play a more active role in any kind of activism. And this happens not only in historic events (what professor Evgeny Morozov, one of the most influential cyber-skeptics, coined as “Twitter revolutions" in a celebrated article of his personal blog). There are thousands of Internet activists in the world using computer tools to spread their messages, coordinate campaigns or just keep updated and in contact with other activists. These activists are found everywhere, but they are very important in countries with severe repression against freedom of speech or in countries with poor or no democracy at all. When armies or police forces prevent people from demonstrating in the streets, there is only one public square available: Internet. A clear example can be seen in Saudi Arabia, where most bloggers are women who have no other means to express their claims and concerns, as stated by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). And needless to say, repression against Internet activists is also growing, although they cannot be so easily caught as “analogical” activist. According to RSF data, 123 cyberactivists have been imprisoned so far in 2011, and 70 only in China. The second country with the highest rate of imprisoned internauts is Iran with 20, followed by Vietnam with 17 and Syria with 4. The growing cyberactivism (and thus the growing repression) is shown in the following figures: 123 internauts imprisoned this year against 109 in 2010, 83 in 2009, 58 in 2008, 50 in 2007… As Internet activism gets stronger, censorship and repression get stronger too. Just to give an example, authorities of Saudi Arabia admit the blocking of 400,000 web sites, including many blog platforms. China has an army of 40,000 censors who comb Internet looking for any act of dissidence to be blocked. According to RSF, one out of every three Internet surfers in the world does not have free access to Internet.
But Internet is a vast area difficult to fence, so censors would rather manipulate contents than just cut connections or block web sites. Many governments have a team of cyber-agents who underrate negative comments about the government regime and promote thousands of positive messages allegedly written by other citizens. This is likely to be the best option for censorship and repression in a future, because censorship as we know it today seems to be clearly inefficient: cyberactivists always find a loophole. If you are interested in being updated when something is brewing in the world, just read blogs and keep posted in social networks. If you want, you can get started with our Twitter!

Sources:

  1. The Arab Spring: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring
  2. A good way to get introduced into the blogosphere of Maghreb and Middle East countries is through the personal blog of the Catalan journalist Lali Sandiumenge called Guerreros del Teclado. This blog is in Spanish but it includes a thorough list of Arab cyberactivist blogs written in English and Arab:  http://sajafia.blogspot.com (from 2007 until the Arab Spring) and http://blogs.lavanguardia.com/guerreros-del-teclado/ (latest months).
  3. The debate between cyber-skeptics and cyber-utopians: http://owni.eu/2011/02/25/of-cyber-skeptics-and-cyber-utopians-%E2%80%93-debunking-myths-and-discussing-the-future/
  4. Post about Moldova’s revolution in which the phrase "twitter revolution" was coined: http://neteffect.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/04/07/moldovas_twitter_revolution
  5. Press Freedom Barometer 2011 by RSF: http://en.rsf.org/
  6. A post at Delivering Data about Internet censorship: http://www.deliveringdata.com/2010/10/internet-censorship.html
  7. Article at the journal Liberation (21/08/2011) about Internet censorship in China: http://www.liberation.fr/monde/01012357064-pekin-s-acharne-contre-les-microblogs
  8. Twitter of Delivering Data:  https://twitter.com/#!/DeliveringData

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