Decapitating Revolutionary Leaders via Twitter

During the Arab Spring, several comments countered my skepticism of how much revolution was actually being achieved in places like Egypt.  I had several reasons for my skepticism, one of them being:

3- Social media provides a platform for the oppressed to speak out and the government to identify resistance.

Social media is great for expressing one’s opinions. However, Iran demonstrated to the world that Internet postings and Tweets also mark dissidents. Middle East and North African governments monitor the Internet and use it as a tool for rapidly identifying and snuffing out resistance. In the end, social media brings the rapid rise and possibly the rapid fall of potential new leaders.

So it was with close attention I keyed on the recent NPR report entitled “The Technology Helping Repressive Regimes Spy.  The interview of journalist Ben Elgin and his Bloomberg series “Wired for Repression” explores how countries like Iran and Syria use new technology, largely made in the West, to identify and quell young revolutionaries on social media.  Elgin explains how:

“[One Iranian engineer] became caught up in the protest movements after the election of 2009 and he was arrested. He was beaten and put into prison and interrogated 14 times over 50 days,” Elgin says. “During these interrogations, not only was he presented with [his] text message transcripts; he was presented with a very sophisticated diagram of who he had called, and then who those people had called. And he was interrogated on every connection within his network of contacts.”

The era of social revolutions inspired by Twitter and Facebook (I should say enabled, not inspired) will likely end soon.  As seen in a typical arc of innovation, a technological advantage achieved by a revolutionary adversary is quickly countered by a new technological defense – providing sufficient resources exist by a regime to develop/acquire needed surveillance technology.

In line with my previous thinking on the weakness of Twitter revolts, I find this new information technology (IT) enabled leadership decapitation particularly troubling in several ways.

  • While Twitter uprisings can be rapid, new IT surveillance tools also mean revolutionary leaders with some gravity can be more rapidly identified as well.  A regime used to have to wait and assess the leader’s following and try to pin down where the leader operates, etc.  In the old days, it was challenging to even confirm identity.  Social media makes all of this much easier for repressive regimes.  Not only can you pinpoint virtual rebel leader locations, you can also find one or many photos identifying the upstart.
  • If a revolutionary blogger/Tweeter is captured, tortured and killed for inciting unrest and no one knows about it, did it even happen?  Much like the “tree falls in the woods” conundrum, social media revolutionaries are isolated from others.  While anonymity initially empowered Twitter uprisings, this same isolation now makes virtual leaders ever more vulnerable.  Oppressive regimes can snatch up a blogger/Tweeter and eliminate them without many fellow opposition members even knowing – especially since virtual revolutionaries often don’t know their leaders in person.  Unlike the days of Martin Luther King where he was surrounded by supporters, virtual rebel leaders operate alone and often die that way too.  When regimes physically target revolutionary leaders surrounded by their followers, the backlash can further empower the revolution.  Meanwhile virtual rebel leaders can be eliminated and most times (not all) no one even knows who the virtual leader was or that he/she is gone.  Likewise, it’s difficult to become reinvigorated and fight harder against oppression for a compatriot you’ve never actually met in person. Note, I say harder but not impossible.
  • The last implication is for Western social media users.  In the past year, it’s been quite popular for Western Twitter users to retweet the plight of virtual uprisings amidst the Arab Spring.  However, Westerners empowering the leaders of virtual rebellion should tread cautiously.  Oppressive regimes will look to snuff out all rebel Twitter leaders but the first targeted will likely be those gaining Western attention.  Oppressive dictators quelling uprisings fear Western support of Arab revolutions more than the revolutionaries themselves.  Thus, Westerners re-tweeting Arab Spring Tweets (something I’m guilty of BTW) should ask themselves, “when I retweet the plight of Arab Spring Tweeters, am I helping spread word of their cause or am I more likely to be painting a bullseye on someone’s back.”  I’m not sure of the answer, but I’m fairly sure I’ll keep retweeting. But, I’m starting to wonder if I’m doing more harm than good.

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