Shadow Government

The internet equalizer: Why isn’t the Obama administration doing more to promote social media?

Like father, like son.  Two Syrian dictators, both named al-Assad, brutally attacked their own people. Both started their campaigns of violence in the central Syrian city of Hama. Both caused Syrian deaths. Both followed protests calling for reform and opportunity.  That’s where the similarities end. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad’s military killed at least 10,000 Syrians, ...


Like father, like son. 

Two Syrian dictators, both named al-Assad, brutally attacked their own people. Both started their campaigns of violence in the central Syrian city of Hama. Both caused Syrian deaths. Both followed protests calling for reform and opportunity. 

That’s where the similarities end. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad’s military killed at least 10,000 Syrians, according to conservative estimates. Neither Syria’s neighbors, the United Nations, nor the world’s democracies protested, barely uttering a sound in reaction to the state-sponsored violence. With its borders tightly controlled, foreign media denied access and Syrian state media complicit in the cover-up, the world was in the dark. 

Fast forward almost 30 years. Bashar al-Assad, doing what dictators do, responded to calls for political freedoms with the indiscriminate force of his military. The United Nations estimates as many as 2,700 civilian deaths, although the violence continues. But, unlike his father, the younger Assad earned wide-spread condemnation from world leaders.

The French foreign minister denounced the "extreme violence." European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek bluntly demanded "no more killing, no more torture, no more arbitrary arrests." In the U.S., President Obama condemned the "outrageous use of violence," and Secretary of State Clinton urged a ban on Syrian oil and gas. 

To be sure, numerous factors contribute to the difference in international reaction, but one of the most critical is social media. Unlike their counterparts 30 years ago, today’s Syrian reformers have new media technologies that enable them to organize and tell the outside world. 

The world learned of Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities not from international media but first-hand accounts relayed in real time. The first glimpse was through a camera phone photo that rapidly spread on the Internet last March followed by amateur video on Facebook and YouTube. 

For Assad and his kindred autocrats, social media threatens their iron-clad control over information, ideas and opinion. Accustomed to disseminating what they want, when they want through state organs, social media equalizes the power to inform, persuade and mobilize. It’s power to the people in a modern setting.

There are other examples. In Tunisia, the democracy movement shifted into high gear after Tunis street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire late last year. Images of his act of protest and other demonstrations against the government spread digitally, energizing the Tunisian movement and stimulating historic events in Egypt and Libya where activists used social media to motivate and organize.

For the fifth year in a row, Freedom House reported that more countries regressed in political and civil rights, including the right to speak freely, than those that advanced. It also reported that just one in six people "live in countries where…state intrusion in media affairs is minimal."

During an era when basic liberties are under siege, the Internet has emerged as an equalizer. More than just another way to communicate, social media gives reformers the ability to connect, drawing strength and encouragement from one another. 

Media has served as a political tool since Johannes Gutenberg demonstrated the use of movable type. Cassettes were the media weapon of choice in the 1979 Iranian revolution. In the former Soviet Union, underground activists used the fax machine. History is full of examples.

Three characteristics of social media make it a powerful tool for political reform. First, it’s instantaneous. Images of Tunis street vendor Bouazizi went viral, reaching thousands in a few short hours. Second, it’s visual. When Syrian security forces fired on civilians as they left mosques, news spread via a powerful YouTube video showing a man’s bloodstained, lifeless body.

Third, it promotes collaboration. By its very nature, social media builds communities around a shared idea, theme or cause. Iran’s Green Revolution was nicknamed the "Twitter Revolution" as activists teamed up through the micro-blogging service and voiced their individual desires for reform into a national groundswell.

Authoritarian states are not sitting on their hands as they seek to prevent digital media’s use as a political tool, often with technology acquired from the West. Chinese officials restricted Internet access after blaming riots earlier this year on a lack of government control. Gadhafi’s secret police spied on email and Skype conversations in Libya. Tools were deployed across the Middle East during the Arab Spring in an effort to block web access.

Some regimes are taking another step by embracing social media. China engages popular bloggers to repeat the state line. North Korea uses Facebook and YouTube to advance its propaganda. Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has more than 2 million Twitter followers. 

The equalizing power of social media raises several implications for the Obama administration. First, the administration should recognize the power of digital media to empower reformers and speed freedom’s march around the world. 

Secretary Clinton and other officials have spoken of it, even devoting one major address to digital technologies, but it barely scratches the surface. Connecting U.S. diplomatic goals with advancing Internet and digital freedoms is a significant shift in foreign policy thinking but can be realized through presidential leadership. 

Second, democratic reformers need assistance circumventing politically-motivated Internet and wireless network restrictions. Reformers often have the will but not the way. Training and software will equip them with knowhow and technology.

Third, the administration should address export controls. It’s inconceivable that a nation founded on protecting individual liberties can serve as a vendor of censorship and eavesdropping tools for the al-Assads of the world. President Obama and Congress must work together to ensure that U.S. and allied technological savvy isn’t used to stifle abroad the inalienable rights free people enjoy at home. 

Similarly, the State Department should work with allies to ensure that digital censorship is equally unacceptable domestically. British Prime Minister Cameron considered restrictions during the London riots, setting a bad example for authoritarians.

There’s more than enough evidence that social media empowers democratic political movements, especially in less developed countries. U.S. and allied leadership can help ensure its equalizing potential is deployed where it’s most needed.


Brian C. Keeter has provided communications assistance to democratic activists and observed elections in Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. He is director of public affairs at Auburn University.

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