The Twitter Counterrevolution

As goes Twitter, so goes the Internet. Can online activists beat government hackers?

This little bird has an eye on the future, and so do government hackers from the Kremlin to the Pentagon.

Jan 31, 2012
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

The Crowd-Sourced Revolution: In June 2009, tens of thousands of Twitter users across the freedom-loving globe colored their profiles green in solidarity with Iran’s democracy activists, giving coinage to the term Twitter Revolution. Unfortunately, the victory of Iran’s Green Movement fell far short of absolute. Still, the power of digital communication—Twitter, email, blogs, video sharing, text messages—to inform, organize and motivate a downtrodden citizenry had been unleashed.

On January 14, 2011, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali jumped on a jet and flew the coop he had ruled for 24 years, bumped from the seat of power by weeks of street protests sparked by the suicide of unemployed university graduate Mohamed Bouazizi Sidi Bouzid. A popular revolt had tossed off an Arab dictator—a previously unknown phenomenon that would repeat with invigorating regularity throughout the yearlong Arab Spring. Online media in general, and Twitter specifically, were credited with informing Tunisians about the daring feats of early adopter activists and spurring the wider populace to mobilize, in effect toppling the first in a row of Arab Spring dominoes.

In the future, government interference with Internet chatter and images will be increasingly difficult to counteract.

The Empires React: The regimes of Iran and Tunisia were not completely unprepared for the digital onslaught. By 2009, Internet filters were an irksome fact of online life in Iran. Tunisia had selectively blocked video-sharing and social-media sites since 2005. In fact, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s security techs routinely harvested Gmail and Facebook data of suspected Tunisian malcontents.

One primary joy of the Arab Spring is that hacktivists from Iran to Tunisia to Libya to Egypt had found workarounds to circumvent governmental firewalls. That joy may be short-lived. In the future, government interference with Internet chatter and images will be increasingly difficult to counteract.

The Moscow Blowback: In December 2011, despite a frosty winter and chilling reminders of a not-so-distant totalitarian history, dissatisfied Russian voters staged robust and numerous demonstrations decrying what they perceived to be gross election fraud committed by an unjustly entrenched government. Eager protesters rushed to check their Twitter accounts, accessing the hash tag #Triumfalnaya for news of staging areas and reports of police movements.

Unfortunately for the earnest activists, they were beaten to the #Triumfalnaya hash tag by the same phantom multitudes who had elected, by an implausible landslide, to reinstate Vladimir Putin’s government.

The #Triumfalnaya stream was thick with pro-Kremlin and anti-opposition tweets. Scripted derogatory messages spewed in at up to 10 per second, almost certainly spit out by a network of robot computers. Tweets intended to mobilize protesters were lost in the deluge of invective. Kremlin hackers had co-opted the tactics of Anonymous.

Predictably, free thought idealists freaked out.

The Business as Usual Plan: Lately, governments have realized that they don’t need to beat Twitter. The micro-blogging service—once branded “the free speech wing of the free speech party”—can simply be co-opted. Last Thursday, January 26, Twitter’s blog announced that the company has the means, and apparently the willingness, to block tweets to a specific country if the government of that country presents a legal justification to place the blockade.

It is true that a conference room in Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters is named Tahrir Square, paying homage to the 140-character message board’s connection to uprisings in Cairo. Still, the economic imperative for global expansion appears to have softened the company’s obdurate distaste for censorship.

Predictably, free thought idealists freaked out. “Is it safe to say that Twitter is selling us out?” asked Egyptian activist Mahmoud Salem, speaking to the L.A. Times of an entity that is a commercial enterprise at its core and, by definition, created for the express purpose of selling out.

International Community UGC: Unlike disillusioned individuals grappling with corporate abandonment issues, officials from a usual suspect of countries showered Twitter’s proffered information blockade with giddy praise. In particular, Thailand’s technology minister, Anudith Nakornthap, gushed with satisfaction. Nakornthap applauded Twitter’s “constructive” policy guidelines and that the company “felt responsible to cooperate with governments to make sure basic rights are not violated through the use of social media.”

Thailand recently put the online universe on notice that persons “liking” virtual content derogatory to the Thai monarchy were liable to reprisals if they strayed onto the actual Thai domain. Rest assured that Thai monitors are tracking that derogatory content. The country’s Internet censors have blocked 1,156 websites since December.

Granted, some see Thailand as a paranoid, semi-feudal monarchy. What bearing can its viewpoints and policies have on a top-tier superpower democracy?

Homeland Insecurity: The notion that paid agents of the United States government exhaust their resources combing Twitter for comments offensive toward icons of the nation, and pass the identities of these tweet offenders to guardians of our borders, who then detain, harass and deport the obnoxious micro-bloggers, must be some sort of 1984-inspired fear dream of the future, right?

The Department of Homeland security, operating at Los Angeles International Airport, recently placed British tourist Leigh Van Bryan on a One Day Lookout list based on Van Bryan’s pre-holiday tweets anticipating “diggin’ up” Marilyn Monroe and “destroying” America, using destroy in the party sense.

Van Bryan, 26, and his traveling companion, 24-year-old Emily Banting, were pulled from the general arrivals, handcuffed, put under oath and armed guard, full body searched, locked in separate cells for 12 hours with unsavory criminal types, denied further entry to the U.S. and put on a flight back to Europe.

Emily Banting’s deportation-worthy wrongdoing, according to her charge sheet: “It is believed that you are traveling with Leigh-Van Bryan who possibly has the intentions of coming to the United States to commit crimes.”

The official Homeland Security explanation of Van Bryan’s actionable offense: “He had posted on his Tweeter [sic] website account that he was coming to the United States to dig up the grave of Marilyn Monroe. Also on his tweeter [sic] account Mr Bryan posted that he was coming to destroy America.”

Future? Tense: If the Occupy Movement is any indication, an expanding cross-section of Americans is fed up with income inequality, a grossly lethal and economically inimical foreign policy, and a faith vacuum in our public servants. A revolution may one day stir to action in this country. Just don’t be too sure the change will be tweeted upon arrival.

Sources: ABC News | Foreign Policy | Boing Boing | The Atlantic Wire

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