In the United States, it is difficult to imagine a day passing without some piece of Internet satire passing through our online social networks—from ingenious comics dubbing preposterous non sequiturs over the speeches of politicians in the “Bad Lip Reading” videos to Twitter users creating fake profiles for celebrities such as ESPN baseball writer Keith Law to creatively mock them. But in 2008, a young Moroccan engineer named Fouad Mourtada was subjected to a horrific ordeal at the hands of state authorities after constructing a fake Facebook page for Crown Prince Moulay Rachid, the brother of the country’s corrupt authoritarian ruler, King Mohammed VI. Mourtada, who had engaged in a simple act of satire, was abducted by police in Casablanca, tortured until he lost consciousness, and sentenced to three years in prison before finally being pardoned. The Moroccan government clearly wanted Mourtada to understand that the joke was on him. Tyrants are nothing if not relentlessly humorless.
The fate of Fouad Mourtada highlights the very different legal environments faced by users of social media in democratic and authoritarian countries. In democratic countries where freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed, the Internet is often a freewheeling place for criticism, activism, satire, and organizing. But social media are used as a complement to, rather than a substitute for, engagement in the political sphere. In authoritarian countries, though, social media represent, as one Egyptian journalist told me, “voices for the voiceless”—irreplaceable venues of dissent, identity-building, and organizing, in societies where more traditional forms of expression, such as newspapers and television, or even conversations with your neighbors, are closed off. Nowhere was this more true than in Egypt, where these social media users—what many social scientists call “digital activists”—were at the forefront of the inspirational 2011 uprising that removed longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak from power and plunged the country into the maelstrom of contentious politics.
I first met one of these activists, Hossam El-Hamalawy, at a Cairo dinner party in the summer of 2006. At the time, Egypt boasted one of the most extensive repressive apparatuses in the world, with perhaps 2 million people employed in internal security—plainclothes enforcers known as bultagaya, riot police, and others. El-Hamalawy, a handsome and eloquent labor organizer and journalist, was at the forefront of a tiny band of dissidents, loosely affiliated with the protest movement Kefaya (which means enough in Egyptian Arabic), who were organizing small protests in and around downtown Cairo to call for fundamental changes to Egyptian politics. I always knew when I was approaching one of these protests because the tiny band of demonstrators was surrounded on all sides by several rows of black-clad riot police, the streets lined with their distinctive green vans. These protests were often publicized and documented on blogs, because the Egyptian media environment was largely controlled by the state through loyal television stations, newspapers, and magazines. There was very little public space available for dissent. While independent newspapers would occasionally run pieces critical of government policy, the fundamentals of Egypt’s authoritarian regime remained off-limits—except to these activists.
When I opened El-Hamalawy’s blog on my browser that evening, my jaw hit the floor. I found him calling Egypt’s security forces “Mubarak’s pigs,” among other offenses that would clearly have landed him in prison had they appeared on the pages of Egypt’s biggest newspapers. But for some reason, El- Hamalawy and his fellow activists remained free, and what’s more, they would continue to openly use the Internet— not just blogs, but in later years also social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Bambuser—to challenge the government. Many of these digital activists would find themselves in prison, or constantly harassed by police and security forces. One courageous activist named Wael Abbas, who earned his reputation by posting videos to his blog of police torturing ordinary citizens, would find himself blacklisted for years, unable to get a job in the Egyptian media sphere and eventually prosecuted in absentia by the government.
In Egypt they came for the bloggers but not the blogs. The Egyptian government never really bothered to censor or filter the Internet; the country’s rulers figured that arresting and torturing the occasional activist would be enough to scare other Egyptians away from engaging in politics online. This “permissive” architecture was more the exception than the rule in authoritarian countries, where rulers were more likely to respond to the acute threat of digital activism with draconian censorship and “filtering” schemes as well as individual persecution. An organization called the Berkman Center at Harvard runs the Open Net Initiative, which painstakingly documents the myriad ways that authoritarian rulers try desperately to keep information from the ruled. In Tunisia prior to the uprising that toppled Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, the government blocked whole categories of websites, from anything political in character to many forms of sexual content. In order to access political websites, Tunisians would have to use “proxy servers”—programs that access a website through third-party servers, thereby avoiding censorship. This is not actually that difficult a trick to pull off, as Tunisian activists told me enthusiastically when I visited with them in the summer of 2011. But it is onerous, and slows everything down enough that ordinary users might be deterred.
Most Americans have never experienced this kind of censorship, which takes two fundamental forms. The overwhelming majority of blockages will take users to a page constructed by the government, which in many locales, actually explains why the page is being blocked. The other, in many ways a more clever and insidious form of censorship, operates through search engines sanctioned by authoritarian regimes. We can actually see this working from within the United States. If you want to see this in action, open two tabs on your Internet browser, one for Google and one for the Chinese search engine Baidu. Type “Falun Gong” into both search engines and marvel at the difference between freedom and control— through Google you will quickly learn that the Falun Gong is a spiritual movement critical of Chinese authoritarianism. Through Baidu you will have a hard time learning anything about the Falun Gong at all. You may also find that your access to Baidu has been cut off without warning. Happy surfing! Blog hosting companies prevent the publication of many politically sensitive word combinations, and are required to delete the pages of politically active users. The Chinese government also does all sorts of other things, from paying citizens to leave progovernment comments on Web pages and blogs (the socalled “50-cent party,” named after the amount of money people earn for each comment) to cultivating its own network of genuinely progovernment digital activists.
Different authoritarian regimes have created legal frameworks governing the use of the Internet by their citizens and creating or granting permission to the entities that provide such services. Many countries, such as China, license a limited number of companies to grant citizens access to the Internet, and force those companies to be complicit in filtering, censorship, and data mining. In Saudi Arabia, the government allows different companies to provide access but effectively routes all Web traffic through the King Abdulaziz City For Science & Technology. Still others, such as hermetically sealed North Korea, have decided that the only real defense against the contagion of Internet dissent and organizing is to literally keep the Web out of the country, like besieged survivors boarding up the house against marauding zombies. The government maintains its own tiny network consisting of approximately 30 websites. These security architectures give states enormous control over and access to their citizens, but, as with the undead, eventually every fortification is vulnerable to sustained attack. And regardless of the particular legal framework adopted by authoritarian governments, they are all reflections of how much they fear the catastrophe of their own citizens having access to one another and to the world.
Authoritarian regimes have come to understand the threat posed to their authority and legitimacy by the Internet. Most authoritarian governments maintain their grip on power through a combination of naked force, terror and information deprivation. If you don’t know what your neighbors think, or if you are terrified that your neighbors might report you to authorities, how can you and your neighbors ever come together to challenge your common oppressor? This is what is truly radical about digital media as activism: the technologies allow for the easy transmission of beliefs and preferences among networks of friends and acquaintances, in online public spaces that are very difficult (though not impossible) for regimes to permanently close down. They make it easy to share critiques of the state, to download and share information from reliable external and internal sources, and then, perhaps most radically, these very same tools give activists the tools they need to organize offline dissent, at virtually no cost, by forming groups on Facebook, or by aggregating dissent on Twitter through the platform’s hashtag function.
Facebook is often derided for so-called “slacktivism”—people who join a group, such as Kony 2012 and then never lift another finger to do anything about the cause. But it has also been a powerful tool for dissent in authoritarian countries, where people typically do not have the luxury of flirting with exotic causes in far-flung locales. Facebook provides a constant feed of your friends’ thoughts and activities, which can admittedly become tiresome, but can in authoritarian regimes change an individual’s perceptions of the costs and benefits of participating in something such as protest. It allows you to use its canvas to plan events, create slogans, or even choose the dates of collective actions. If you have the patience, you can scroll through the entire Arabiclanguage archive of a group called “We Are All Khaled Said,” dedicated to an Alexandrian murdered by Egyptian police in June of 2010. The group soon had more than 300,000 members and busied itself staging dramatic protests in Egypt’s major cities. It was on the “wall” of the We Are All Khaled Said page that the date of January 25th, 2011, was chosen as the beginning of the Egyptian uprising. Of course, users in authoritarian countries also put a great deal of trust in Facebook. I know from off-the-record conversations with Facebook executives that they take the company’s unexpected role of dissident platform very seriously, but at the same time, we should not confuse the company’s employees with heroic freedom fighters. They are, after all, a corporation trying to make money.
On January 25, 2011, with the help of these platforms, the bloggers and activists came for their oppressors. They brought with them millions of ordinary Egyptians, who had been mobilized by a combination of digital dissent, offline organizing, and clever maneuvering on the part of the organizers. The date of the initial protest was also “police day” in Egypt, an Orwellian holiday meant to celebrate the sacrifice of the police during the 1952 putsch that decapitated Egypt’s British-backed monarchy, but that had come to symbolize the arbitrary depravity of Egypt’s security services, who were known to abduct people for things as mundane as getting into an argument with an officer. Prisoners might be dumped back on the street after an hour, tortured for days or weeks, or simply murdered. It was digital activists who, for years, were at the forefront of efforts to document and publicize, through video testimonials, pictures, stories, and protests, the true extent of this malevolent torture gulag. It was the torture and murder of Khaled Said that finally crystallized for so many Egyptians precisely what it was that they hated about their government, and what they might do to change it. When street protests plotted and executed by digital groups forced Hosni Mubarak out of power, it was a victory not only for all Egyptians, but also for the idea that digital activism is a force to be reckoned with.
The relationship between digital activism and revolution will always depend on the particular authoritarian framework in which the activists are embedded. “Soft” authoritarian regimes —those that allow a modicum of civil society organizations or that hold periodic if constrained elections—appear to be more vulnerable to the efforts of digital activists. Activists can only marvel at the modes of online control invented by the Chinese government. As we’ve seen in Syria—where the early Friday protests against the regime were conceptualized online, and where social media has been an essential conduit of information out of the country—a regime bent on flouting international conventions and engaging in widespread violence can at least temporarily crush even the most determined movements. But even there, facing one of the most closed and ruthless authoritarian regimes on the planet, digital activists are challenging the government in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. The tools of social media are likely to remain the default platforms of political opposition even in regimes that understand the challenge and design schemes to thwart them. As such, they are emerging as the most important threat to global authoritarianism, as well as providing hope that ultimately, the joke will be on the tyrants.