“We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” –Anonymous Cairo Activist
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, among a host of other popular social media platforms, have significantly altered the ways by which individuals communicate and share information with each other on a daily and, in fact, constant basis. Now, the free access and exchange of user-generated content over the internet has proven not only its ability to connect individuals in Japan with individuals in Sweden, but also its ability to dramatically influence the geopolitics of the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere around the globe. In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, users of social networking sites have displayed a profound proficiency for organizing demonstrations and other peaceful protests in the face of autocratic, and often brutal, regimes. Although pluralistic unrest directed at undemocratic and unpopular leaders has considerably increased recently, (see Oman, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Mauritania, Iran, Jordan, Algeria, Djibouti, Kuwait, Sudan, Syria, Morocco, Palestine, et cetera), the insurrections in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya offer many of the most noteworthy examples of the role and influence of social media in the modern era.
Tunisia: In Tunisia, demonstrators adamantly demanding basic economic and social reforms, and later advocating for the complete ouster of embattled President Zine El
Abidine Ben Ali, initially relied heavily upon email and Facebook accounts to prepare for and organize rallies in Sidi Bouzid and throughout the country. Tunisian authorities quickly sought to censor the increasing dissent propagating from within the country’s borders and commenced an elaborate and far-reaching “phishing” operation in order to not only silence the critique, but to also target the individuals responsible for initiating the unrest. Government officials succeeded in rendering many of these channels of communication inoperable or hazardous to users because of censorship and monitoring campaigns intended to subdue dissent. Activists, however, soon turned to Twitter, which is largely immune to many of the tactics that were employed by the Ben Ali regime. Twitter became the primary tool of communication for anti-government activists once other access to other methods of online communication such as blogs, email and Facebook were diminished. Twenty-eight days after the first protests began, having already fled the country, Ben Ali officially announced his resignation.
Egypt: In Egypt, Facebook provided a fairly natural outlet for the disaffected to demonstrate popular dissent and organize protests against economic and social injustices committed by the government, particularly for workers and youth. Before the recent popular uprisings which succeeded in toppling former Egyptian President Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak, Facebook had been used successfully to organize mass strikes against poor working conditions. The “April 6 Youth Movement” and “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook pages garnered tens of thousands of followers, often in impressively short periods of time. When Egyptian authorities attempted to censor the public’s access to the internet, Twitter ingeniously established a service which allowed Egyptians to post to Tweet via telephone. With the use of these and other platforms, the protests that began on 25 January grew seemingly exponentially until the eventual resignation of Hosni Mubarak eighteen days later. Wael Ghonim, a prominent Egyptian activist involved in the recent uprising, went so far to as to say that “[t]his revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook.”
Libya: At the time of this writing, the insurrection in Libya has yet to decisively culminate either in favor of Libyan protestors or supporters of the government, while Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi bitterly continues to cling to power and threatens to use escalating force against peaceful demonstrators and anti-government activists who dare even to leave their homes. And although Libyan society is and has been much more isolated to the rest of the world than Tunisia or Egypt, for example, reports from inside the country indicate that social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter have been utilized in order to organize many of the nationwide demonstrations that have so far claimed much of the country. Tweets and YouTube videos have escaped from within the country and have exposed international audiences to the atrocities that have been committed by Colonel Qaddafi’s regime. Because of this exposure, the international community has begun to implement or at least consider options including enforcing a no-fly zone over Libyan air space, freezing assets of the regime, implementing weapons and economic embargoes, and perhaps even military action. Time will tell whether the revolt in Libya will be successful or not, but one can already draw the conclusion that social media will undoubtedly play an important role in the outcome. The national security community within the United States must be prepared to follow technological trends such as these, as well as learn how to properly utilize and understand them if U.S. interests are to be maintained in the Middle East and Northern Africa.