Social media: Did Twitter and Facebook really build a global revolution?
Social media: From Iran to Tunisia and Egypt and beyond, Twitter and Facebook are the power tools of civic upheaval – but social media is only one factor in the spread of democratic revolution.
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Meanwhile, Burmese dissidents use Thai Web access to communicate globally and push for democracy – and the Burmese government, of course, knows it. The pro-democracy news website Irrawaddy, run by Burmese in exile in Thailand, has faced increased cyberattacks over the past year, possibly run by a Burmese military unit in coordination with Burmese embassies overseas, says the organization's editor, Aung Zaw.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures The revolution will be blogged
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Cyberinterference can be effective to a point, as Egypt and Libya have discovered. Egypt leaned on the country's roughly 30 service providers to effectively shut off the Internet in late January, and in Libya, it's still difficult to get access. But newspapers, such as the postuprising publication Libya, founded in rebel stronghold Benghazi, use their satellite connection to communicate outside the country's main networks. Even some staff members at Quryna, a newspaper once controlled by Col. Muammar Qaddafi, privately used the paper's satellite to send information to foreign news agencies and post content on Facebook in the uprising's early days.
In Syria, meanwhile, blogger Ms. Shewaro says years of government censorship taught bloggers the tools they use now to circumvent controls – even as Syria sees online activism as a serious threat. "They learned a lesson from [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak," Shewaro says. "Don't let the bloggers keep going."
The 'Internet in a suitcase' workaround
The ease with which governments can block the Internet for both broadcasting and organizing has been well known among techies, and workarounds are getting more attention. The Open Technology Initiative (OTI) at the New America Foundation has been developing "mesh networks" that can function for communication and organizing within repressive societies, even without greater Internet access. Their "Internet in a suitcase" is getting $2 million in funding this year from the US State Department.
"It's not really a suitcase," confesses Joshua King, staff technologist at OTI. He says the idea of mesh networks has been around since 2000 – at one point, this kind of network powered all digital communications across Athens. "You can provide local services on a network even if an Internet connection isn't available."
Meanwhile, it's not just government controls that can limit the effectiveness of social networks to spread dissent. It's the social media companies themselves. "We don't think about the fact that these are privately owned spaces. They're owned by companies, so our public sphere is in fact private," says York, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
User data is easy for these companies to track – and to share with governments, should the government ask for or require it. In 2005, Yahoo admitted to sharing, at the Chinese government's request, the user data of at least one person – Shi Tao, who Yahoo denied knowing was a journalist – when he posted antigovernment criticisms; Mr. Tao was sentenced to 10 years in jail.