Social Media: Can Spark Revolts

Since the term “Twitter revolution” was coined in the summer of 2009 to describe the Iranian Green Movement’s use of the microblogging site, the nomenclature has used in an unforunate manner, applied to any sort of use of such tools during times of protest.

But while Twitter, Facebook, and even Google Docs were used in the recent revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, most experts agree that they are tools, not catalysts for revolution.

Nevertheless, praise has been disproportionately bestowed upon these Silicon Valley giants by mainstream media, with little mention of the potential dangers of using such tools.

To find evidence of such risks, we need only look to Azerbaijan where, just last week, the moderator of a Facebook page calling for protest in the country was arrested, or to Tunisia, where dissidents’ Gmail and Facebook accounts were phished by the government in the midst of the revolt.

Risky business

More recently, Moroccans complained of having their Facebook accounts hacked, possibly by the government, or possibly by pro-monarchy forces.

Though some risks are inherent to the architecture and policies of social media tools–Facebook’s “real name” rule, for example, or the lack of HTTPS across most sites–others are a matter of use, and a lack of forethought to the permanence of online postings.

Imagine for a moment that Egypt’s protesters had not been successful in ousting Mubarak; the myriad photos, videos, and tweets posted by Egyptians, many with identifiable information, would remain online for the security service to pore through.

And with cameras omnipresent during protests, anyone who shows their face is at risk, as protesters learned after Burma’s Saffron revolution: intelligence agents scrutinised citizen videos to track down participants.

But even those individuals who remain largely anonymous online run the risk of being tracked down for their activities. In 2008, a young Moroccan engineer by the name of Fouad Mourtada was arrested for impersonating one of the monarchy’s princes, Moulay Rashid, on Facebook.

Facebook claimed they did not hand over the young man’s information to authorities, which suggests that it was obtained through another method, most likely deep packet inspection, a technique common in China and Iran.

Sketchy friends

One of the most easily-avoided risks is in a practice inherent to the concept of social media: making new friends. In the United States, creditors have taken note of users’ willingness to meet new people online and have utilised sites like Facebook to befriend–and then track down–their clients.

Though many social media users are prone to accepting requests from people they may not know well, activists could be at a higher risk as they attempt to build up their networks for a cause.

Some, like Net Delusion author Evgeny Morozov, suggest that authoritarian regimes have the upper hand: In a chapter of his book entitled “Why the KGB wants you to join Facebook,” Morozov cites the example of a Belarusian activist whose real-life activities (including travel and organisational connections) were easily gleaned by the KGB from his online presence.

Though Belarus–by all accounts an authoritarian regime with a history of spying on its citizens, online and off–may be an extreme example, the lesson is that average users are potentially putting themselves at risk every time they disclose an affiliation, post about a trip, or share a photo album.

But the potential risks of social media hardly outweigh the benefits, and for every phishing attempt or government spying case there is a success story of social media for activism: The Egyptian Facebook page that drew awareness to torture and mobilised thousands; the Syrian students whose cell phone videos of teachers abusing students led to the teachers’ dismissal; every rabble-rousing campaign to free an imprisoned blogger.

Rather than discourage use of social media during times of protest, these cautionary tales should instead invoke greater awarneness and lead to better education on the risks present, and better, safer practices.

Women Shared Revolution In Egypt

Among the most prevalent Western stereotypes about Muslim countries are those concerning Muslim women: doe-eyed, veiled, and submissive, exotically silent, gauzy inhabitants of imagined harems, closeted behind rigid gender roles. So where were these women in Tunisia and Egypt?

In both countries, women protesters were nothing like the Western stereotype: they were front and centre, in news clips and on Facebook forums, and even in the leadership. In Egypt’s Tahrir Square, women volunteers, some accompanied by children, worked steadily to support the protests – helping with security, communications, and shelter. Many commentators credited the great numbers of women and children with the remarkable overall peacefulness of the protesters in the face of grave provocations.

Other citizen reporters in Tahrir Square – and virtually anyone with a cell phone could become one – noted that the masses of women involved in the protests were demographically inclusive. Many wore headscarves and other signs of religious conservatism, while others reveled in the freedom to kiss a friend or smoke a cigarette in public.

Supporters, leaders

But women were not serving only as support workers, the habitual role to which they are relegated in protest movements, from those of the 1960s to the recent student riots in the United Kingdom. Egyptian women also organised, strategised, and reported the events. Bloggers such as Leil Zahra Mortada took grave risks to keep the world informed daily of the scene in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

The role of women in the great upheaval in the Middle East has been woefully under-analysed. Women in Egypt did not just “join” the protests – they were a leading force behind the cultural evolution that made the protests inevitable. And what is true for Egypt is true, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the Arab world. When women change, everything changes – and women in the Muslim world are changing radically.

The greatest shift is educational. Two generations ago, only a small minority of the daughters of the elite received a university education. Today, women account for more than half of the students at Egyptian universities. They are being trained to use power in ways that their grandmothers could scarcely have imagined: publishing newspapers – as Sanaa el Seif did, in defiance of a government order to cease operating; campaigning for student leadership posts; fundraising for student organisations; and running meetings.

Indeed, a substantial minority of young women in Egypt and other Arab countries have now spent their formative years thinking critically in mixed-gender environments, and even publicly challenging male professors in the classroom. It is far easier to tyrannise a population when half are poorly educated and trained to be submissive. But, as Westerners should know from their own historical experience, once you educate women, democratic agitation is likely to accompany the massive cultural shift that follows.

The nature of social media, too, has helped turn women into protest leaders. Having taught leadership skills to women for more than a decade, I know how difficult it is to get them to stand up and speak out in a hierarchical organisational structure. Likewise, women tend to avoid the figurehead status that traditional protest has in the past imposed on certain activists – almost invariably a hotheaded young man with a megaphone.

Projection of power

In such contexts – with a stage, a spotlight, and a spokesperson – women often shy away from leadership roles. But social media, through the very nature of the technology, have changed what leadership looks and feels like today. Facebook mimics the way many women choose to experience social reality, with connections between people just as important as individual dominance or control, if not more so.

You can be a powerful leader on Facebook just by creating a really big “us”. Or you can stay the same size, conceptually, as everyone else on your page – you don’t have to assert your dominance or authority. The structure of Facebook’s interface creates what brick-and-mortar institutions – despite 30 years of feminist pressure – have failed to provide: a context in which women’s ability to forge a powerful “us” and engage in a leadership of service can advance the cause of freedom and justice worldwide.

Of course, Facebook cannot reduce the risks of protest. But, however violent the immediate future in the Middle East may be, the historical record of what happens when educated women participate in freedom movements suggests that those in the region who would like to maintain iron-fisted rule are finished.

Just when France began its rebellion in 1789, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had been caught up in witnessing it, wrote her manifesto for women’s liberation. After educated women in America helped fight for the abolition of slavery, they put female suffrage on the agenda. After they were told in the 1960s that “the position of women in the movement is prone”, they generated “second wave” feminism – a movement born of women’s new skills and old frustrations.

Time and again, once women have fought the other battles for the freedom of their day, they have moved on to advocate for their own rights. And, since feminism is simply a logical extension of democracy, the Middle East’s despots are facing a situation in which it will be almost impossible to force these awakened women to stop their fight for freedom – their own and that of their communities.