Egyptian Uprisings & the Internet
By Jason Poggioli
Much of the recent coverage of Egypt’s uprising has been spent discussing the impact of the Internet on the people living under repressive governments. Clearly, talking head pundits haven’t been the only ones recognizing the influence of social media as the Egyptian government took the significant step of effectively disconnecting its entire country from the Internet in an attempt to stall the power of Facebook and Twitter.
“Pulling the plug” on the Internet during populist uprisings has been a tactic used before in places such as Myanmar in 2007 and Nepal in 2005, while Iran and China have chosen instead to take the less drastic approach of selectively blocking websites they determine to be a threat. Imagine yourself as a tyrannical dictator for a moment. The impact of the Internet and its social media creations like Facebook and Twitter certainly appear to require careful consideration regarding your future ability to maintain power, but how much would you really need to be concerned?
At first glance, social media, with its ability to bring millions of people together without centralized leadership or complex organizing seems perfectly designed for inciting populist revolts. The Internet breathes to life fads that effortlessly sweep around the world infecting millions of minds only to see them dissipate just as quickly as they were born. Videos, jokes, images all get passed around by email as people ask their friends and families, “Hey, have you seen this yet?” Flash mobs, although benign and relatively harmless, are perfect examples of how a few people can quickly organize large groups to gather and act as one. The parallels to political protests are clear — if ordinary folks can pull together hundreds of people to dance at Grand Central Terminal then what could hard-charging politically motivated activists accomplish?
There is another side to this story, though, that isn’t discussed quite as often as how the Internet can contribute to democratic revolutions. In what ways can the Internet slow or limit the sweep of democracy around the world?
George Orwell’s classic “1984″ has been referred to so often by those discussing the evils of a pervasively spied-upon citizenry that the term “Big Brother” is cliche. As overused as the term is, the cold fact is that it can be applied to the Internet for a pretty frightening comparison in countries like China. Worse still, the same Internet that enables productivity and economic gains can simultaneously be used for carefully targeted suppression of only a few (e.g. the trouble makers) within the same country.
While economic reforms roll through places like China, and their businesses take advantage of all the benefits the Internet brings, the Chinese government can use it to effectively quell social disorder before it begins and be more efficient maintaining power. China, and other similarly non-democratic governments, can use the Internet to target a minority of its citizens, like troublesome students, while allowing its faithful unfettered access to all the communication wonders the Internet holds. With centralized control of the Internet the government can allow state-owned corporations unfettered access while heavily restricting access in educational institutions and public cafes.
The fewer people a repressive government is forced to confront, the lower the chances of a popular uprising resulting in growth and change economically, but repression and stagnation politically — all on the back of the most sophisticated and widespread communication tool the world has ever seen.
So, if you were a dictator, how threatening would you find the Internet?
Jason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org