- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
The official Twitter Mobile account announced yesterday that "Twitter SMS on MTN Cameroon has been suspended by the Cameroonian government."
The country’s opposition had been planning "Egypt-like" protests against longtime President Paul Biya in February, but those were quickly disrupted and put down by the government’s security forces. This latest move seems ill-advised since, as Cameroonian blogger Dibussi Tande notes, if Biya didn’t have a problem with Twitter activism before, he likely does now:
"Before today’s ban, very few Cameroonians were even aware that Twitter was available in Cameroon via SMS, and the majority of those who were did not even grasp its potential as a tool for political activism."
Obviously, the government has failed to learn the lesson from North Africa, particularly in Tunisia where the Ben Ali regime was still toppled even though it had banned all social media sites for years and had engaged in a sophisticated cyber-war with Tunisian digital activists. The government has also completely misread the lessons of the February 23 protests; even though Twitter played a prominent role in informing the world of what was happening in Cameroon, over 95% of the tweets which the international media relied on for updates did not originate from within Cameroon. It was information obtained via mobile phones, regular SMS and email which ended up on Twitter and not real-time tweets from activists on the ground. Thus, banning the Twitter short code does little to change the balance of power online.
Plus, as Evgeny Morozov argues and as Sudan and Zimbabwe have recently demonstrated, authoritarian regimes are often better off letting social networking sites stay active to gather information on the opposition.