Twitter, Facebook As Political Tools In Arab World

Tunisian and Egyptian political activists used Facebook and Twitter to organize protests and publicize breaking news. Harvard's Jillian York discusses the use of social media platforms for digital activism, and cases in which governments have blocked the services or compromised user privacy.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Early this month, a popular uprising in Tunisia forced the president to flee the country. And now, civic unrest has been popping up all over North Africa, the Middle East, Algeria, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, and in many cases, the protests are being organized, documented and publicized on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube for everybody to see what is happening.

One Egyptian Facebook page has many of the elements you'd expect from a live newscast, up-to-the-minute coverage where clashes are happening. A photo of people marching in the streets of Suez, amongst overturned dumpsters. There's a video showing a man in a standoff with the police, armored truck and its water cannon. Something like Tiananmen Square, I'm recalling years and years ago.

So how does this technology fit in with political activism in the streets? And what should Facebook do when governments are stealing the logins and the passwords of these digital activists as it has happened in Tunisia?

Joining me now to talk about it is my guest Jillian York. She works at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University in Cambridge. She joins us by phone. If you'd like to talk with Jillian and talk about this issue, our number is 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. JILLIAN YORK (Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts): Hi. Nice to be here.

FLATOW: What is your take on the use of this new media, is it empowering the activists?

Ms. YORK: Yeah. I mean, I would say that that's definitely the case. You know, a lot of these countries - Egypt, in particular - have long had active and prolific blogospheres. And so this, you know, this is not a huge difference for them. But in this case, what's really different with these current protests in Egypt, is just how widespread the use of certain social media tools have been in organizing.

Like you mentioned, there's a Facebook page with up-to-the-minute updates, and what I've noticed is that some of those updates are specific events where you can confirm attendance. I saw one a few days ago that had 45,000 people confirmed attending a specific location of a protest. You can also see that people are using these tools to make provisions for, you know, if the Internet were to go down, which has now happened. And I saw a few days ago, there was a Google doc where people where collecting email addresses, in case Facebook went down for some reason.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And as you say, the countries are trying to prohibit this kind of coverage.

Ms. YORK: Right, right. I mean - and I can see why, you know, these governments view this as a threat. I mean, a lot of the countries in the region have been filtering the Internet for a long time. If you look at Syria or Tunisia, two countries that - I mean, Tunisia has obviously loosen up a bit since the recent unrest, but Syria still heavily filters the Internet.

And so with Egypt, they didn't as much, but you can see why these governments view this type of communication as a threat.

FLATOW: Are they real threats or they just protests? Do you think they have any real outcome?

Ms. YORK: Well, the social - I mean, I think that these protests, you know, could have a very real outcome. I mean, it's obvious from the recent comments from Secretary of State Clinton and other folks in the Obama administration, that there's definitely a serious concern about the use of social media tools.

But what I would say is that, you know, these protests were - have been building up for a long time. There's long been resentment by the Egyptian people toward their government. And so, you know, social media is, in a sense, just another tool that people can use. But, you know, I think, in this particular instance, it - you know, the Internet sort of got cut off at...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. YORK: ...not - I don't want to say the right time, but once, you know, the protests that already been building up plenty, so that once the Internet was cut off, people were already mobilized, and they're already in the streets. And there's nothing now that's going to stop them.

FLATOW: Do you see this at all as just a progression of the uses of new media? I mean, television was once a new medium, too.

Ms. YORK: Sure. I mean, that - yeah. That's - I mean, I think that's definitely a good way to look at it, you know? And it's interesting, in the past 24 hours, how we've seen people revert back to telephones. You know, once the Internet is caught off, people are finding different ways to connect with each other through dial up, which I mean, you know, even in Egypt, nobody has been using dial-up for a long time now.

And so people are using dial-up and landlines to try to get information out. And you can even see that on some of these social media sites. People have found ways to post on Twitter, for example, what, you know, the content of their phone calls with friends and family back in Egypt. There's one Twitter account that I saw earlier. I think it's jen25voices(ph), where they're posting literally the contents of phone calls with friends and family back home.

FLATOW: So there's - so people are going to find a way.

Ms. YORK: Oh, absolutely.

FLATOW: Even if they go back to Morse code or something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YORK: I mean, I don't if - you know, Egypt's got a huge youth movement, so it's tough to tell if any of them know Morse code. But, yeah, people are going to find a way.

FLATOW: Well, that's a good point that - I think what needs to be talked about. Is it the youth of these countries that are - or are older people using these new media too?

Ms. YORK: Well, you know, I'm not entirely sure if older people are using this new media. But I know that in terms of the protest happening now in Egypt - I was talking to an Egyptian friend last night who said, very clearly, that he -you know, he's heard from friends and family back home that a lot of the older generation, so to speak, are out in the streets protesting as well. And so, I would not be surprised if they're on Facebook too.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Give us - fill us in a bit, about the Tunisian situation. How was social media used there and what did the government do about that?

Ms. YORK: Well, so Tunisia had long had a, you know, a pretty heavy Internet filtering regime in place. They've blocked lots of video-sharing sites, YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion. All of those were blocked prior to the uprising. Facebook was not, but, you know, they were still - people understood that they do not have a whole lot of free Internet access.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. YORK: And so, you know, there was a definitely a different sort of vibe in the country prior to the unrest. But, you know, once it happened, people are still finding ways to use it to disseminate information. And what we didn't see was as much organizing as we've seen with Egypt. There was a lot more trying to get information out of Tunisia and to the public. And I think, you know, there's another clear reason for that, too, which is that Egypt has more - you know, more international media has access to Egypt.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. YORK: Egypt has a freer press. And so, with Tunisia, the big concern there seemed to be covering what the press was missing.

FLATOW: Can you tell from following the different Facebook pages and the chatter on the Internet, whether this is spreading to other countries now?

Ms. YORK: Well, you can see a little bit. I actually came across a Facebook page last night and I'm also weary to save it. But I came across a couple of Facebook pages last night in Morocco. And that's not one of the countries that's even part of the conversation right now, part of the media conversation.

And, you know, Syria, I think there's some concern there too. Although, you know, from what I've heard there, you know, although attempts at protests there have turned out only a few people. But online, you can certainly see that kind of conversation happening. And the Syrian government seemed concerned as well, because they've cracked down a little bit more on Internet filtering in the past few days, blocking certain mobile websites and things like that.

FLATOW: Do they learn - the people who uses this technology, do they learn lessons from the former people who - for example, are the Egyptians learning lessons from the Tunisians about a better way to do something?

Ms. YORK: I would say yes. And I would say online and off. Global Voices, their advocacy coordinator, Sami Gharbia, who's a Tunisian exile and has got a lot of wonderful thinking and speaking on this, mentioned that there's a large network of sort of Arab activists who live in Arab world and outside of it - exiles and folks living in their countries - who've done a lot of meet ups, you know, in central locations as well.

And so, you know, a lot of people are sharing - I mean, there's a strong network throughout the Arab world. And people are sharing these tools and these ideas with each other, both online and off.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. So where do you see this shaking out? I mean, what is it there for you as someone who follows the Internet? What's the natural progression do you think?

Ms. YORK: Well, it's tough to say. I mean, I think that, you know - I think that there's a lot of, sort of, native interests and ideas coming out of these countries. And I think that, you know, that we should be really just sort of seeing what happens and supporting these different movements that are happening. I mean - and you know, and I say that sort of in the technological sense, not necessarily in the political sense because I realized we all have different ideas to that. But I think it's really interesting to look at what young people are doing in these countries.

FLATOW: This week, Facebook announced that it was going to roll out a secure version of its website. They call HTTPS, S as the security.

Ms. YORK: Yes.

FLATOW: Do you think there's a reason? I mean, is that a response to the Tunisian situation or because Mark Zuckerberg's page got hacked?

Ms. YORK: Well, you know, I think it's partly a response to the Tunisian situation. They'd actually rolled it out for Tunisians a week in advance - or maybe a week or two in advance. But, you know, I think it's also a response to calls from inside - even inside the U.S. for that. I know that's the reason tool, Firesheep, that was created for people to be able to sniff passwords on open wireless networks. And so, that would affect sites like Facebook.

So there's definitely a reason for us, back here in the U.S., to be using HTTPS as well. It's not just for people in those regimes.

FLATOW: Right. You know, Egypt went - literally unplugged their Internet last night, right? I mean, if you go on websites and you just watch a cliff in the graph there.

Ms. YORK: Yes. Well, almost entirely.

FLATOW: How do you do that? Is there a plug? I mean, how do you literally unplug every body?

Ms. YORK: No. In fact, Egypt is rather unique in that they do not have a central government central choke point for their Internet, whereas, you know, in countries like Iran, most of the filtering or all of the filtering is controlled from the central government. In Egypt, the government would have actually had to force or pressure the IFPs to shut down. And what's interesting is that there is one IFP still up in Egypt. And nobody has really been able to tell why.

It's only got about eight percent of the country's Internet market. So it's not a whole lot of users. And it's tough to tell how many of them are actively taking part in this protest through using social media. But, yeah, I think about eight percent the country's Internet users potentially still have access.

FLATOW: Well, one would think that the government needs to have its own Internet connection, right?

Ms. YORK: Right, right. I mean, it's tough to say how they can do this. And who knows what, you know, what the actual government has in terms of Internet. I mean, for all we know, they could have a satellite connection.

FLATOW: Yeah. So - but somebody needs that connection for some reason, to let it remain up there.

Ms. YORK: Right, right. Yeah. I mean, I haven't been able to personally tell what exactly is going on with the government. But if you've noticed, a lot of Egyptian websites on the dot.eg domain have gone down.

FLATOW: Yeah. Do you think sites like Twitter and Facebook have a responsibility to think about these international political roles they're taking? Or are they staying in neutral, it's out of their hands?

Ms. YORK: Well, you know, I would say, generally, I think that they do. I mean, if you look at, for example, Facebook - and I don't want to pick on Facebook too much because I know that there are a lot of different tools out there. But Facebook as one good example, which is that they require users to use their real names on the site. And what that means is if Facebook catches someone using a fake name, a pseudonym, they could effectively terminate that users account for violating the terms of service.

And so in a country like Tunisia or Egypt, some people do you use their real names, certainly, but there are other people that might be too afraid to, for some reason, and so that effectively sort of pushes them out of Facebooks demographic.

And in that sense, you know I think that I mean, thats just one example, like I said. But I think that companies do have a responsibility to think about how users in other countries are utilizing their sites.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Were talking with Jillian York. She works at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Im Ira Flatow.

In the remaining minute or so that we have to talk, do you have any final thoughts about what you think should be, you know, Internet wise or Facebook wise or any social media - where do you think - there are plugs that need to be filled or loops that need to be opened?

Ms. YORK: Well, you know, one of the things that I think is really important is that, just like Facebook did, I mean, Facebook just rolled out https, and I think that that was a great step in the right direction for them. But there are still companies that dont offer that by default. If you look at, for example, I think Yahoo mail is a good example, Hotmail might be another example, though Im not entirely positive.

But there are plenty of sites out there that dont have these secure encryption options. And so, thats one thing that all of these sites should be thinking about, not just for our users or their users in other countries, but for their users here as well.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you. Thank you for taking time to talk with us.

Ms. YORK: Thank you.

FLATOW: And thanks for following this for us.

Ms. YORK: Sure.

FLATOW: Jillian York works at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

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