NEW YORK — The use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter is transforming political activism. In the uprisings spreading across the Middle East and North Africa, the use of social media is spawning more diffuse and dynamic political movements. The possibilities are enormously exciting, but authoritarian governments are already catching on.
In this moment of celebration, it is worth thinking about the dangers ahead.
In the traditional model, revolution is guided by a handful of charismatic leaders — the classic vanguard — aided by a small group of disciples. That model is highly vulnerable. A repressive government can often stop political change by arresting the leaders and harassing supporters, as some governments did to limit the “color revolutions” of the last decade.
Social media makes possible a seemingly leaderless revolution, which cannot be so easily decapitated. In Egypt and Tunisia, for example, the revolutions did have people in leadership roles, studying other revolutionary movements and preparing strategies. But they could lead quietly, behind the scenes. Their lack of visibility allowed them time and room to maneuver without attracting government attention. Meanwhile, the movement built virally, with friends passing messages to friends, eclipsing any particular leader.
Facebook allowed political supporters to stand up and be counted virtually, without initially having to stand up physically and risk violent reprisal. Facebook could be monitored — Libya and Syria arrested some users — but as the number of virtual supporters grew, people became emboldened to use Facebook more freely, apparently figuring that the government couldn’t monitor everyone. That drew in new constituents, many of whom showed up when demonstrations took place.
Social media allowed protesters to respond quickly when security forces attacked, warning others on Twitter with hand-held devices. They posted videos and photos of abuse on YouTube and Flickr. Al-Jazeera, in turn, beamed those images across the region — with enormous effect — even when its reporters were barred from a country. These communications generated outrage — and support for the demonstrators.
Some people rushed to the scene. Others applied pressure from abroad. Tunisians advised Egyptians through Facebook on how to protect themselves from tear gas. Text messages and email also allow such communication, but social media make mass interaction easy, quickly engaging many who have no acquaintance with each other.
But social media, like other technology, is double-edged, usable for repression or freedom. Unlike private conversations, social media leaves a virtual paper trail for governments to monitor and exploit. Facebook is especially dangerous because it doesn’t allow pseudonyms even in repressive countries.
That paper trail might be what prompted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to authorize the use of Facebook and YouTube just as the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were succeeding. But the growing protests in Syria suggest that Assad might have miscalculated. His secret police had long managed to arrest the leaders of Syria’s small and embattled civil society. But social media followers can proliferate more quickly than secret police can multiply. Social media also helps activists circumvent government efforts to cover up repression.
Egypt and Libya were so exasperated by social media that they shut down internet and mobile phone communication. But that strategy is fraught, since it impedes commerce, inconveniences ordinary people and even undermines communication among security forces.
The Chinese government, with its massive resources, has so far managed to keep social media in check. Invoking Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, activists cautiously announced “Jasmine rallies” in China, summoning supporters to stroll by crowded shopping areas on Sunday afternoons so the police would have a hard time distinguishing them. But the authorities flooded the areas with police, so few demonstrators risked taking part. Whether that is a successful long-term strategy remains to be seen.
Some governments order social media companies to reveal the identities of anonymous users or to block discussion of certain topics. Working with Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have developed the Global Network Initiative, an industry-monitored voluntary code of conduct that makes it easier for companies to resist these demands and for users to have confidence that companies are protecting their rights. Facebook and Twitter are not yet members. They should be.
Sympathetic governments also have a role. Businesses reflexively oppose regulation, but social media companies could better resist repressive demands if acquiescence were prohibited by law.
These governments should also fund a broad range of technologies and initiatives for circumventing censorship. Governments might also look for creative ways to fight censorship, such as including internet freedom in trade agreements, much as labor rights are now.
The use of social media has opened the door to dramatic new political possibilities. For the moment, the forces of freedom have the upper hand. But vigilance is essential before the inevitable reaction. As we savor recent advances, we should also prepare our defense.
Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.