Home Tips + Tricks Semantic Censorship Evasion: Example from Libya

As Gaddafi’s scope of influence shrinks to the capital, news out of Libya is that the regime is still not giving in. A video of the dictator’s son has emerged, beating the drums of war and saying to supporters “I am bringing you reinforcements, resources, food, weapons, everything you need. We are doing well.” The violence is likely to continue.

So far, digital technology has not played the prominent role it played in Egypt’s revolution, but at least one interesting digital activism case study has emerged: using online dating sites for activist networking. ABC news reports:

“We used to call it the digital black hole,” said Nasser Wedaddy, a civil rights outreach director for the American Islamic Congress and longtime cyber activist who has worked on cyber outreach efforts in the Middle East for years. “It’s not that they don’t use the Internet. They’re very afraid.”

Activists in Tunisia and Egypt adopted social media on a mass scale, but “for all intents and purposes, in Libya, there isn’t much cyber activism going on,” Wedaddy said….

To avoid detection by Libyan secret police, who monitor Facebook and Twitter, Mahmoudi, the leader of the Ekhtalef (“Difference”) Movement, used what’s considered the Match.com of the Middle East to send coded love letters to rally the revolution.

It was “for the freedom, not for the marriage,” he told ABC News.

Not only are Libyan activists showing their flexibility in switching platforms, they are displaying the same “semantic work-arounds” to censorship that have previously been more visible in China, where images of the cartoon green dam girl were used to critique new censorship software and the terms “grass mud horse” and “river crab” are used to poke fun at online filters to freedom of speech.

In Libya we are now seeing the same innovation in co-opting apolitical words to discuss political topics undetected, including switching genders to allow male-to-male messaging and using codewords like “Jasmine” to refer to the revolution in Tunisia, and “love” for liberty. Once a connection is made, activists can continue their conversations on less public channels like SMS and Yahoo Messenger.

The conservative [dating site Mawada] doesn’t allow men to communicate with other men, so other revolutionaries posed as women to contact him, assuming aliases like “Sweet Butterfly,” “Opener of the Mountain,” “Girl of the Desert” and “Melody of Torture.”

….They also communicated in code the number of their comrades supporting the revolution. The five Ls in the phrase “I LLLLLove you,” for example, meant they had five people with them. If a supporter wrote, “”My lady, how I want to climb this wall of silence. I want to tell the story of a million hurts. … But I am lost in a labyrinth. Maybe we can meet on Yahoo messenger,” it told the writer to migrate the chat to Yahoo Messenger so as not to raise the suspicion of the monitors, Mahmoudi said.

In the language of social movements, this is a classic example of “tactical innovation,” responding the an opponent’s counter-measures with a creative alternative.

(hat-tip to Patrick Meier for tweeting the ABC article)

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