international analysis and commentary

Social networks and awakening societies

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The constant flux of news from Facebook pages, Twitter tweets and RSS feeds leaves little time to reflect on what technology really adds to global politics. Many commentators have praised social media for being a pivotal instrument in the uprisings in North Africa and the Arab world. Meanwhile, they have cited cyber threats and WikiLeaks as perilous to freedom and security. It is easy to pay tribute to Facebook and Twitter when civil protests fuel the toppling of authoritarian regimes, but less so when the same social networks are the driving force behind cyber attacks or when they disseminate unsolicited information on Western governments.

Notwithstanding this apparent dichotomy, technology and the internet should be heralded as engines of immense wealth creation, forces for openness, transparency, innovation and freedom.

There are many reasons to believe this – especially considering recent events in the Arab world. Facebook and Twitter not only facilitated grassroots resistance movements by serving as platforms for the exchange of ideas and logistics, they also fed real-time information to international media outlets. Furthermore, the innovative power of technology demonstrated one of its benevolent sides. During Mubarak’s internet crackdown on January 28th, Google and Twitter created “Speak-to-Tweet” – an innovative service that allowed people to tweet by calling one of three numbers (one Italian) and leaving a voicemail message. This feature meant live reports could flow out of Egypt even when the regime had imposed censorship.

Events in the Arab world are of extreme historical importance today and have rightly taken precedence over other protests. However, in much the same way as in Egypt, a Flemish University student used Facebook to organize the “Shame” demonstration against the absence of a Belgian government. At the end of January, around thirty thousand demonstrators took to the streets of Brussels in a peaceful protest organized mainly through social media. Yet in this case, few pundits glorified the power of social media as an instrument of civil unrest. It is thus an oversimplification to applaud social media only when it is empowering protests – previously impossible – under authoritarian states.

Along with the ability to innovate, the endless possibility to circumvent controls is another bedrock of the internet. This second feature creates considerable apprehension even in the West. Instances not only in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya demonstrate how proxy or VPN software – not to mention “Speak-to-Tweet” – allowed users to bypass censorship and blocked websites. Individuals use these tricks to connect to sites like Facebook or You Tube in China or watch foreign news in those countries where it is prohibited. These unauthorized circumventions, depending on the situation, can be described as legitimate attempts to keep the internet open or as illegal hacks into domestic sovereign laws.

This breach of security opens up the question of individual liberty. Certainly, access to the internet via third-party proxies allows censorship to be bypassed but with critical pitfalls. For some commentators, social media and the internet can be used just as much for repressive purposes as they can for liberating ones. Once more, if the protests in Libya don’t succeed in toppling Gheddafi, the people who used the internet against the regime are likely to be strongly persecuted. Should social media be praised also in this instance?

In fact, the internet has proved a very rich source for providing incriminating details about activists; the police scrutinize Facebook groups, tweets and even emails very closely. Despite state controls in democratic and non-democratic countries alike, episodes like WikiLeaks have emerged.

Most governments immediately condemned the WikiLeaks cables as a threat to their own state security. Global corporations such as Visa, Mastercard, Amazon & Paypal soon followed suit, blocking payments and freezing WikiLeaks’ accounts. Whilst this decision remains questionable, to this day WikiLeaks is heavily dependent on Twitter and Facebook as its primary channels for external communications. Thus, taking the side of Western governments, these are the two organizations that need to be closely watched – the very organizations which are being praised as championing civil liberties in the Arab world.

In many ways dealing with cyber space remains highly controversial and somewhat esoteric. It is a place where geography matters little, the reach of national law is incomplete and the role of nation-states as security providers is an open question. Although a definition of cyber attacks exists, (espionage and information theft are defined as cyber crimes while cyber attacks are defined as the destruction of data or systems) analyzing these threats remains very technical.

Undoubtedly an aura of mystery covers potential cyber attacks. These might include the shutting down of power grids, financial systems and air traffic control, or even degrading an enemy’s military capabilities. Stuxnet – the world’s most famous industrial “malware” which was developed by Israeli intelligence – apparently infected, sabotaged and delayed Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor in 2010. This might be good news for a number of reasons, but Western IT systems likely suffer the same vulnerabilities.

Overall, social media’s real potential lies in the ability to protect whistleblowing, privacy and civil liberties – ideally through an open but secure internet. Constant innovation does guarantee more openness, and sites like Facebook do facilitate popular demonstrations. However labels like “twitter revolution” do little justice to the underlying causes of the protests.

Reality is far more complex, like the civil societies that are exploiting the potential of new technologies.