Repressive regimes increasingly use social media to ensnare dissidents and spy on reporters.
The specter of Syrian President Bashar Assad using chemical weapons against his own citizens is a sign of the despot's desperation.
Another came on Nov. 29, when for two days the Internet in Syria was shut down, as Assad attempts to shut down insurgents in his country's vicious civil war.
Syria is not the first Arab Spring nation to lose the Web. Egypt's deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak shut it off during the Tahrir Square protests.
"But that backfired from their perspective because people just wanted to go outside and talk to their neighbors to see what was going on," said Andy Carvin, senior strategist at NPR's social media desk, who has closely tracked the role of social media during the Arab Spring uprisings.
Carvin was speaking on a panel titled "How Authoritarian Rulers Use Social Media to Repress Revolutions, Collect Intelligence." The presentation was part of a November conference in Istanbul on international security and terrorism organized by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Stanley Foundation and the Istanbul Policy Center. The panelists explained how, during some earlier uprisings, protesters were far more digitally deft than their analog rulers.
"Facebook to organize, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to bring your message to the world" is how Neil Fisher, vice president of global security solutions at Unisys, described social media's revolutionary uses. Social media can also be "the perfect media for grooming radicalization, hearts and minds, or any other kind of propaganda," said Tony Dyhouse, cyber security director at British-based ICT Knowledge Transfer Network.
Some of the propaganda was turned against protesters, particularly in Bahrain, explained Carvin. "Bahrain is one of the most wired countries in the Arab world. It decided to use the attributes of social media against the opposition by bringing in several American PR companies. They were able to create numerous fake Facebook and Twitter accounts and overwhelm many conversations with pro-government propaganda."
Carvin also said the Bahraini government created opposition "most wanted" pages, which implicitly implored supporters to take matters into their own hands.
Syria's digital counterrevolution was even more menacing. Assad's regime used "phishing" to retrieve passwords and planted malware to track dissidents' online activity.
"Then, of course, there's just the more brute force method," said Carvin. Describing arrests of dissidents, he added, "It's become so important to them to access your social media that they don't waste time anymore." Seizing and extracting access to digital devices is "one of the first things they go after."
Some of the same cyber snooping, plus cruder methods, took place in Libya. Carvin recounted a reporter having his entire source list compromised. His sources may have evaded capture, however, after an insider tipped off the reporter. Others may not have been so lucky: Their computers were secretly accessed in hotels. And in Syria, a British documentary maker had his computer confiscated, compromising at least 10 safe houses.
Repressive regimes' cyber spying is changing reporting fundamentals. "We need to start having a broader mind-set of what it means to be safe in a world that is virtual and digitally detected," Carvin said. Investigative journalism "suddenly becomes really hard," said Fisher. "You can't go undercover." Without a social media history, he adds, "trying to maintain a deep legend about yourself is extremely time-consuming."
But it's not only protesters and reporters at risk. Nations need to be online, too, and governments' interference with the Internet could stunt their development
"Unless you're jumping on the wagon into the [computing] cloud, you will be left behind and as a nation-state you will be a pauper," said Dyhouse.
"Shutting down the Internet in Egypt, there wasn't just the outcry of people who use the Internet for their daily life, but also the outcry of business," said Fisher. "These regimes are in their dying days. They won't be able to control [the Internet] unless they want to stay in the dark ages and become another North Korea."
"Can authoritarian regimes survive the social networking era?" Fisher asks. "In the long term, definitely not. But in the short term, yes, they can."
Meanwhile, even newer media will be deployed by opposition groups. "These regimes will always be on the back foot," Fisher said.
Indeed, it's ultimately more about feet than fingers. Blogging, posting and tweeting advance movements. But it takes taking to the streets to face down horrid yet hollow dictators. And even more than feet, it takes guts.
"Social media makes it possible for the rest of the world to get a better handle of what's going on," said Carvin. "It humanizes it in a way that was very difficult to do beforehand. It forms efficiencies for networks that are trying to form very, very quickly. ... Too many people get swept up in the romanticism of social media revolutions when in reality there is a lot of blood and sweat being spilled in order for this stuff to actually happen."
* * *
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.