Washington - After the "Arab Spring" surprised the
world with the power of technology to revolutionise political dissent,
governments are racing to develop strategies to respond to, and even control,
the new player in the political arena - social media.
Anti-government protesters in Tunisia and Egypt used
Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to run rings around attempts at
censorship and organise demonstrations that ousted presidents Zine El Abidine
Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak.
That served as a wake-up call to those in authority. By
allowing millions of citizens to coordinate political action quickly and often
without conventional leadership, the new technology is challenging traditional
political power structures.
"We are well beyond being able to consider social media
a fad," said Alec Ross, one of the creators of technology policy for
Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and now senior adviser for innovation
to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"If you are not open to social media spaces, then you
are not attuned to the dynamics on the street and you sacrifice both
understanding and power."
Being ahead of the game when it comes to embracing social
media, Washington hopes, will be key to maintaining its influence in a changing
Diplomats at every level are being trained to use it to
explain US policy and, more importantly, listen to what is being said and
written in the countries in which they operate. Ross says that as an early
adopter of the technology, the State Department is now becoming an adviser to
other governments on social media.
The United States, too, has seen some modest signs of social
media-organised protest, with hundreds of protesters occupying Wall Street for
days this month in anger at perceived excesses by its banks. In Europe,
activists have used similar tools to coordinate mass street unrest, although
few expect US disturbances on that scale.
Monitoring online dissent
Since events in Cairo and Tunis blindsided governments,
analysts and markets around the world, experts say investment has stepped up
hugely in tools to monitor social media platforms in the hope of predicting
"What people are increasingly looking at is predictive
analysis," said Rohini Srihari, a computer scientist at the University at
Buffalo, State University of New York.
"The Holy Grail is to beat the news. They are looking
to predict a specific riot or protest at a specific location and time."
Much of the interest in that technology is seen coming from
intelligence and national security agencies, but private companies and
investors are also taking notice and new firms springing up offer a range of
Not all promise to predict events with precision - but they
do offer ways to deliver insight on wider trends and snapshots of online
"Social media is better for strategic rather than
tactical analysis," Fadl Al Tarzi, chief operating officer at United Arab
Emirates-based monitoring firm News Group International, told a conference on
social media and politics at the United States Institute for Peace in
"It is hard to predict exactly when something will
happen but it can show you broader trends. Yes, if you had enough conversations
with enough of the right people you would get the same level of information but
that is not always economic or feasible to do or possible at the same
Political repression, economic crises and the widening
wealth gap in many countries could all fuel further growth in social media-fed
protest. Much of this growth, like recent protests against cuts in Spain and
many of the demonstrations of the "Arab Spring", may prove peaceful
but some of it has already proved violent and disruptive.
The question for governments is what responses might prove
effective and acceptable. So complex and fast-moving are modern systems, some
experts suspect, that any attempts at censorship or shutdowns will simply be
circumvented or overwhelmed.
But there are clear signs that some in authority would
dearly like to find ways of tightening controls.
British Prime Minister David Cameron was widely criticised,
even within his own party, for threatening to impose censorship and shut down
social media and messaging platforms in response to London's August riots.
The way inner city youths used secure smartphone messaging to
coordinate mass looting sprees and arson showed such tools were not merely the
preserve of political activists.
San Francisco's BART transit system faced widespread anger
and accusations of breaching the US constitutional guarantees of free speech
when it sought to shut down cellphone services within the system in an attempt
to stymie protests after a shooting by a transit authority police officer.
Autocratic states, however, have few such reservations. In
Russia, websites used by dissident bloggers found themselves under cyber attack
from hackers suspected of being sympathetic to the Kremlin.
China's use of its sophisticated system to monitor and
sometimes censor online debate efforts is widely believed to have stepped up
dramatically this year. Beijing's communist leaders managed to avoid the
widespread street protest they saw elsewhere, but failed to prevent almost
unprecedented criticism of their response to a high-speed rail crash.
In the Middle East, the reaction has been mixed. Some
countries have moved to arrest or threaten bloggers or those they accuse of
spreading "malicious rumours", while others have also tried to reach
out to online activists.
Carrot and stick approach
"There's been quite a strong reaction," said
Sultan al-Qassemi, a blogger and commentator based in the UAE. "It's a
carrot and stick approach. Some of it is good. But they have been also seeking
out individual people to make examples of."
In effect, major social media companies - such as Google,
Facebook and Twitter - could become gatekeepers of debate and dissent.
And while some internet giants such as Facebook may be
willing to make concessions to access markets like China, Google looks to be
bracing for an era of confrontation.
In July, its chairperson Eric Schmidt told a conference in
Dublin he believed the firm's tussles with governments over internet censorship
would get worse, adding that his own colleagues faced a mounting danger of
arrest and torture. During the Egyptian revolution Google executive Wael Ghonim
was seized and arrested for involvement in helping organise the protests.
At the State Department, Ross said he believes the world is
still nowhere near a global consensus on how to handle the coming changes. But
finding solutions, he said, is vital.
Many argue that if governments are not to shut down the
internet and other networks altogether - with all the attached economic costs
and at the risk of producing a still-larger backlash - then they will have
little choice but to allow the relatively free flow of communication, including
"If you are willing to sacrifice economic modernity and
growth, then turn off the internet," said Ross.
"But if you want to be part of a vibrant, global
marketplace and build a knowledge-based economy, you have to have an open
internet.... We hope to maximise the benefits and minimise the negative impact
of living in a hyper-networked world."