Twittering the Revolution

Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin has an interesting article on how the U.S. State  Department has been working energetically with  Twitter, Facebook, Google et.  al. to keep the information pipelines open  in Tunisia and Egypt.

The Tunisian government responded by hacking massive amounts of  Twitter,  Facebook, and e-mail accounts and targeted other sites where  protestors were  convening or communicating.

Facebook contacted the State Department soon thereafter, another State   Department official told The Cable, asking for assistance and to help   coordinate the response. Facebook then created an encrypted option for   accessing the site from Tunisia…

In addition to encouraging technical workarounds, the State Department  effort  includes jawboning Ben Ali and Mubarak to back off on information  control.

Rogin writes:

… the State Department convoked the Tunisian ambassador in Washington to  complain about the government’s tactics.

 In the case of Tunisia, the State Department mixed a strategy of working  with  companies and third party groups with a series of private and  public  communications between the Obama administration and the  government of  now-ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.


State Department officials told The Cable that their efforts paid off,  given  that Ben Ali — before stepping down — said that he “heard the  Tunisian  people” and removed the blocks on the Internet and social media  sites, although  he had never cut off the entire country from  communication.

I’m sure that Ben Ali, with the wreckage of his regime crashing down  around his  head, appreciated taking the time out to discuss his social  media policy with  the United States.

At least he could jet to exile with the consolation that he would not be   remembered as the despot who was too mean to Twitter and Facebook.

Mubarak, on the other hand, will have to deal with the shame of having presided  over “the worst shutdown in Internet history”.

The situation is rather awkward for the State Department.

After all, Ben Ali and Mubarak were U.S. allies.  Helping their  opponents evade  information controls in order to overthrow their  governments is a rather  un-allied thing to do.

In Rogin’s article, the State Department makes two rather unconvincing  arguments:

1. Hey, Twitter, Facebook, and Google are American companies whose business  should not be disrupted!

As Rogin’s source put it,”These tactics were used against American companies, so  we have equities on multiple fronts.”

It’s not particularly persuasive to say that the U.S. State Department  needed  to work actively to abrogate the sovereignty of these two  countries in order  maintain the usual volume of tweets, eyeballs, and  clickthroughs from Tunisia  and Egypt on behalf of American corporate  entities

 2. Hey, these networking services didn’t overthrow the government by themselves!

The State Department official said that while technology was an  accelerant for  the protests and a way for the protesters to get  unvarnished information, it  did not spur the movement.

With all due respect, that’s bullshit.

It happens that I believe that dissent will find a way to communicate  and  organize: pancakes at the fall of the Yuan dynasty, pamphlets during  the  American revolution, chapatis in India during the Sepoy Rebellion,  cassette  tapes in Iran at the fall of the Shah.

Sooner or later.

Well, Facebook, Twitter, and Google made it sooner.

The events in Egypt and Tunisia illustrated an American strategy: the  U.S.  State Department views free communication as a strategic weapon  against  authoritarian adversaries whose governments are vulnerable to  organized popular  dissent.

Ever since the State Department intervened during protests by the  Iranian Green  movement in June 2009, convincing Twitter to postpone  maintenance so opposition  protestors could communicate, the U.S.  government has been ramping up its  worldwide effort to set up a network  of organizations that could circumvent  crackdowns on Internet and cell  phone technologies by foreign governments. That  effort faced its first  two major tests over the last few weeks and the State  Department has  been working with private companies, non-governmental  organizations, and  academic institutions to activate this network and put it to  use in  real time.

“Our mission is to provide a lifeline of protection when people get in  trouble  through a range of support for the activists and the people on  the ground,”  Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights,  and Labor (DRL)  Michael Posner said in an interview on Friday with The  Cable. “I think there  will be an increase in contacts on several levels  in the coming days and  weeks.”

Even before the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, the State Department was  working  to drastically increase its activities with the internet freedom  organizations,  many of them using State Department funding provided  through a grant program  administered by DRL. This month, State announced  it would spend another $30  million on this project.

For Posner, the drive to create an “open platform” for Internet  communications  is part of the overall drive to protect the universal  rights the administration  has been trumpeting in recent days and that  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton  laid out in her speech on Internet  Freedom.

Rather ironically, the first successful instances of the policy were  classic  cases of blowback, taking down two American allies in the Middle  East while  Iran and China are taking notes on the sidelines.

Rather significantly, the State Department has doubled down.

Ben Ali and Mubarak are history anyway; and their demise can serve a  useful  demonstration of the power of the information-freedom death star.

The anxieties of the Saudis and King Hussein of Jordan are apparently an   acceptable price to pay for declaring to the Iranian and Chinese  leaders—and  their citizens—that America will continue to apply its  ingenuity, energy, and  advantages to promote information freedom openly  and covertly to apply  potentially destabilizing pressure against these  regimes.

China is rather anxiously scrubbing the Chinese Internet of stories and   comments that emphasize the popular mass-movement character of the  risings in  Tunisia and Egypt. Published reports focus instead on local  chaos and the  efforts of the Chinese government to evacuate Chinese  nationals.

Global Times took the bit in its teeth and weighed in with a “color  revolutions  are bad” editorial; the rest of the official media appears  to be doing its best  to ignore the issue and possible consequences for  China.

However, Hu Jintao probably isn’t packing his bags for Switzerland just  yet.   The Chinese government seems to have enough wealth, time, and  legitimacy to  apply itself to the serious problems of corruption, income  inequality, and the  fundamental pig-headedness of one-party states when  it comes to managing and  channeling dissent.

Also, China has an important advantage.

It has the U.S. as an unmistakable, threatening adversary that serves as a focus  for patriotic and nationalistic sentiment.

This probably puts China in a better situation than the governments of Tunisia  and Egypt, which have—all information freedom triumphalism  aside—found the U.S.  as an equivocal, ultimately fatal ally.

Finally, it should be pointed out that the U.S. is all for information  freedom—as long as it isn’t Wikileaks.  In other words, The Truth Shall Set You Free……Unless It’s My Truth.

PETER LEE edits China Hand.


More articles by:

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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