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by James Corbett
6 March, 2012
As anyone who has logged on to the internet in the last five years is all too aware, social media websites have exploded in popularity to the point where they are virtually impossible to avoid.
With this rise in popularity of social media has come an attendant rise in another trend: the dinosaur media’s attempts to portray these websites as revolutionary tools for freedom loving people around the world.
From Moldova to Iran, Egypt to Tunisia, hyperventilating reporters around the world with deadlines to meet and little information to go on have resorted to making up stories about how Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have shaped the course of revolutions and uprisings around the world. The only problem with this oft-repeated narrative is that it is almost certainly wrong.
Certainly, journalistic laziness can be used to explain at least some of this tendency of so-called reporters to “research” reports while surfing the net in the comfort of their hotel room, but this is not the whole story. In fact, the entire myth of the social media revolution has been carefully constructed by US State Department-linked NGOs with a vested interest in overthrowing unfriendly regimes in certain parts of the world. And it is this story, when put together, that paints these so-called social media revolutions in an altogether darker light.
One of the men who has been influential in shaping the narrative of how social media websites facilitate the “democratization” of authoritarian regimes is Evgeny Morozov, a visiting scholar at Stanford University and former fellow of George Soros’ Open Society Institute. Although he has since switched to arguing the so-called dangers of a free and open internet, he was instrumental in pioneering the concept of a twitter revolution during the Moldovan uprising in 2009. In the pages of Foreign Policy, the Economist and openDemocracy, he crafted much of the language that was to shape the discourse on social media revolution in the coming years: how the concept of “networked protests” facilitated “flashmobs” and helped spur “huge mobilization efforts” around Twitter hashtags. His original post was quickly followed by an update noting that there were, in fact, only 70 registered Moldovan Twitter users in the world at the time, thus casting doubt on the assertion that Tweets about the uprising had even been noticed in Moldova, but the narrative was established and the media was happy to run with it.
Similar flaws could be found in the reasoning of every one of the subsequent media-touted “social media revolutions.” In the Iranian unrest of 2009, 30000 Tweets began flooding Twitter with live updates on the action in Iran, most written in English. The tweets were not authored by Iran’s relatively minuscule tweeting population of under 20,000, however, but were posted almost entirely by a handful of newly-registered users with identical profile photos. Coincidentally, within hours of this phenomenon starting, the newsrooms of Iran’s biggest political enemy, Israel, were already on the story, writing articles about the valiant Iranian opposition who was so intent on Tweeting every sign of dissent.
The uprisings of the Arab Spring are equally suspect. Despite widespread reports of Twitter’s importance in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, the number of Twitter users in the three countries combined is less than 15,000. Facebook hardly fares better, with penetration in Egypt reach just over 4.5% in July of 2010, far less than anything broadcast on any of the major television networks.
Although the proponents of this twitter revolution myth are comfortable admitting that the entire phenomenon has been blown out of proportion by the media, one thing that they explicitly refuse to examine are the motivations behind these revolutions in the first place. In 2010, Evgeny Morozov himself gave a keynote address at the Berlin re:public conference in which he went out of his way to avoid addressing the fundamental issue of why these US-unfriendly governments are being overthrown, and whose interests these revolutions really serve.
In the end, the social media revolution phenomenon–to the extent that it is not simply a cover for funding, training, and even providing direct military cooperation to subversives in countries that have been targeted for “regime change”–is nothing more nor less than another weapon in the arsenal of the Western powers who have been caught time and again destabilizing uncooperative governments around the world for decades.
What makes the irony of this supposed support for revolutionaries in countries like Iran and Syria all the more apparent is the way that the political puppets who profess their solidarity with the internet activists of these countries are the very same people who are implementing more and more draconian controls over their own citizens’ use of the internet to inform themselves and organize dissent.
In August of 2011, while the media and the political class were still soiling themselves with delight over the supposedly spontaneous uprisings that supposedly took place via social media in the so-called Arab Spring, the Bay Area Rapid Transit authority shut down cell phone service throughout the BART network in order to quell a planned demonstration over the shooting death of a passenger the previous month. The irony of an American government authority using the precise methods of internet disruption on its citizens that had earned the supposed tyrants of the Middle East that same government’s wrath was apparently lost on all involved.
In November of last year, it was revealed that the US State Department had helped to fund Psiphon, an online encryption system that helps users circumvent government firewalls that was then distributed in Syria. Later that month, Syria was demonized for breaking American technology sanctions when it was found to have acquired Internet filtering technology developed by a California-based company. Yet Senator Joe Lieberman has been happy to openly muse about adapting this technology for use by the American government against its own citizens.
The most startling hypocrisy of all, however, occurred last February during a speech by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at George Washington University. The speech was ostensibly about the brave men and women of Egypt who stood up against the authoritarian Mubarak and how they used the internet to organize their dissent. During her speech, ex-CIA analyst and well-known online dissident Ray McGovern stood up and turned his back to Clinton to make a silent protest about America’s ongoing wars of aggression around the world. He was immediately beaten up and removed by security.
Oddly, the establishment media failed to portray McGovern’s protest as a “Twitter revolution,” or even to report on it at all.