Twitter couldn't overthrow authoritarian governments. Can it at least help those they put in prison?
- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
Back in 2011 — when the Arab Spring was blooming and Muscovites were protesting electoral fraud and the protester was Time’s person of the year — it seemed that social media might just be a tool powerful enough to unseat authoritarians.
It wasn’t, of course. Where social media was once used to organize opposition — Iran during the Green Revolution in 2009; Russia in 2011; Turkey during the Gezi Park protests of 2013 — are now places where social media is used by the government to crack down on its citizens. Twitter is banned in Iran, for example, while in Turkey it is used to persecute journalists.
Even if its revolutionary promise has fallen short, social media has proven powerful at protecting those who fall afoul of the government. Twitter, especially, and Facebook have become a way to help free political prisoners from Venezuela to Vladivostok.
Social media “can be a powerful way to draw international attention to local incidents,” said Emily Parker, author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground. In her book, she describes how Twitter picked up the arrest of a Cuban blogger and drew the attention of the outside world, ensuring her release soon after. “Twitter is not a magic bullet,” she told Foreign Policy, “but social media makes it harder for authoritarian governments to make their enemies disappear.”
Examples abound. In Russia, “Where is Ildar Dadin” (#ГдеИльдарДадин), has been a trending Twitter topic. Dadin was convicted in December, 2015 for organizing street protests without a permit — a crime in Russia. He is currently serving a two-and-a-half year sentence. In September 2016, he was transferred to a penal colony in northwest Russia. His lawyer smuggled out a letter by Dadin in which he accused his keepers of abuse. The letter was made public in November.
And then he seemingly disappeared. On Dec. 31, his wife, Anastasia Zotova, whom he married in a Moscow jail last February, said she hadn’t heard from her husband in a month. On Jan. 4, Vocativ reported that neither she, nor his mother or sister knew if Dadin was alive. Shortly thereafter, Zotova was told that she’d learn of her husband’s new location in two days. Then, on Sunday, after 37 days of silence, Zotova tweeted that she had heard from her husband, and posted a link with audio of the roughly eight minute call between the two, in which he details where he is and how he’s been.
In Iran, citizens are taking to Twitter (banned though it may be) to try to gain another political prisoner’s freedom. Ali Shariati was arrested in October for “gathering and colluding against national security.” (He had taken part in protests against acid attacks on women.) He has been on hunger strike for over two months. The hashtag #SOSALI urging his release quickly gained momentum — though he has not yet been released.
This, after the release of Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, who was jailed in October 2016 for writing an unpublished story in which a character burns the Koran. Her husband, Arash Sadeghi, who was already in prison and said his wife’s imprisonment was meant to punish him, went on a 71-day hunger strike. Iranians took to Twitter under the hashtag #SaveArash, and his wife was released temporarily on Jan. 3.
Social media is also playing a leading role in Venezuela, where peace talks between the government of Nicolás Maduro and the opposition are stalled, in part because the government will not release all political prisoners. Opposition leader Maria Corina Machado told FP that she is “absolutely convinced that some of the political prisoners who received either freedom or better prison conditions” did so in part because of social media, which she describes as “one of the most powerful tools we’ve got.”
This is particularly true because, while the government controls televised media, it cannot control its social counterpart. “You have to live in Venezuela,” she said, “to understand what silence from the [state-run] media actually sounds like. Social media has become the reference point for anyone wanting to know what’s really going on.”
But the disconnect between social media and official media can be a blessing and a curse. If social media — or some pockets thereof — can be used to tell the truth, then it is a truth that few people are hearing. In Russia, Twitter may have helped Ildar Dadin make a phone call — but 85 percent of people, according to a 2015 survey, get their news primarily from (state-owned) television.
“Once you control the TV networks in a country, you control the country,” Mahir Zeynalov, a Turkish analyst and journalist, told FP. He says he had to leave Turkey “because of tweets,” and does not believe Twitter in particular, or social media in general, is any more of a cure to the ails of society now than it was a few years ago.
Some 170 Turkish journalists — some famous, some less so — are in jail, Zeynalov said. “They are forgotten,” he says, “I don’t really see to what extent our activism on Twitter is making a change.
It’s not just that 140 characters pale next to unlimited authoritarian power. It is not just that, for every Ildar Dadin or Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, there are hundreds or thousands of others whose names are unknown. It is also that, just as social media was used both to organize protests and to stop them, so, too, does social media both free political prisoners and help determine who will be the next one behind bars.
That’s been especially true in Turkey in the wake of last July’s botched coup attempt. “At the moment there are 1700 people imprisoned in Turkey for their posts on social media,” said Zeynalov. “You can actually see the scale of the crackdown.”
Robbie Gramer contributed to this article.