How Censorship Backfires on Repressive Regimes

By pulling the plug on the Internet, Mubarak hastened his own demise.

As the digital elements of the Arab Spring continue to be parsed, it seems that at least one conclusion has been reached: Internet censorship can seriously backfire for repressive regimes. Turning off the Internet forces activists into the streets, while selectively filtering popular platforms like Facebook unifies even the non-political and motivates citizens to acquire anti-censorship skills.

A previous post by Alix Dunn on this site explained how the “the Internet kill switch didn’t kill Egypt’s protests” because offline and television transmission of key message was possible [UPDATE: and just released a short case study on the topic]. However, we are now seeing that not only were activists able to mitigate the damage of significant digital censorship, it actually ended up being to their advantage.

1) Digital Service Shut-Down Forces Offline Engagement

Rather than limiting participation in the protests, turning off the Internet (the most dramatic form of digital censorship) actually increases offline participation. This conclusion has been drawn repeatedly with regards to the Egyptian Revolution, most recently by the participants at a recent Danish conference, Cyber Activism Changing the World?: A Conference on Social Media and Women in the Uprising. Courtney Radsch, a PhD candidate studying cyberactivism and Arab media, was in attendance and reports on comments by influential Egyptian digital media commentator Mona Eltahawy:

in Egypt, when Mubarak cut off the internet he effectively forced people to the street – a major tactical mistake in Mona’s perspective. By shutting down the internet activists could no longer tweet or SMS each other to see what was going on so they had to actually go into the streets to find out.

At first, forcing citizens to engage offline might sound like good news for repressive governments. Out in the open, activists are easy to identify, torment, and detain. However, when offline activism takes the form of public protests (rather than back-room meetings), the public nature of the protest creates its own cascade effects. Seeing more people on the street makes it more likely that fence-sitters will join in the protests.

2) Censorship Itself Becomes a Cause

A similar conclusion was drawn by digital activist Noha Atef at the re:publica conference in Berlin in April, with the addition that censorship not only forced people to go into the street to see what was going on, but that censorship became part of what motivated them to do so. Jillian York reports:

When Egypt turned off the Internet and scrambled mobile signals (there are 70 million mobile subscriptions in Egypt, ~80% of the population), Noha explains that it drew more people into the streets. She explains that censorship became a part of the cause, and that despite the Internet shutdown, people were taking photos and videos, knowing that at some point the Internet would be available again.

3) High-Profile Censorship Incites Circumvention Skills Acquisition

This idea of censorship as a unifying grievance and a motivation for protest was also described in the Tunisian context. In a recent event at MIT Ethan Zuckerman reports on the comments of Sami Ben Gharbia, Tunisia’s most prolific digital activist:

Facebook became central to the Tunisian media ecosystem because all other sites that allowed video sharing – YouTube, Daily Motion, Vimeo and others – were blocked by the Tunisian government, along with hundreds of blogs and dozens of key twitter accounts. This censorship, Sami argues, drove Tunisian users towards Facebook, and made it hard for the government to block it. The government tried in 2008, but the outcry was so huge, they reversed course. The main reason – usage of Facebook more than doubled during the 10 days of blockage as Tunisians found ways around the national firewall and onto the service. [emphasis added]

Here again a new element is added. It is not only that blockage of digital technologies forces people to engage with other dissidents IRL and that censorship is a unifying grievance that can motivate participation in protest, high-profile cases of censorship, especially of popular services, also motivates users to learn censorship work-arounds that will limit the government’s ability to censor in the long-term.

4) The Dictator’s Dilemma: Increased Pressure from Economic Elites

The dictator’s dilemma is a theory posited by Christopher Kedzie in 1997 that dictators risk commercial and financial repercussions by limiting the Internet and are thus less likely to do so. Though China has proved that it can selectively block cultural content without negatively affecting economic development, when the question is whether to shut down the entire Internet, the dictator’s dilemma is very much back in play. The fact that Mubarak decided to allow the ISP Noor to continue functioning for a while after the shut-down because it provided Internet access to the Egyptian stock exchange is a direct illustration of the dictator’s dilemma.

The theory of change behind the dictator’s dilemma is that the negative financial repercussions will add further motivation to protesters. But this is not specific enough. It is unlikely that the average Tunisian or Egyptian will feel a direct economic impact from loss of Internet access. However, economic elites will. Economic elites, who are often the beneficiaries of government patronage in non-democratic regimes, are most often regime supporters. That is because these elites are essentially conservative in that they benefit financially from the current regime. (If they are opponents, as in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, they are quickly dispatched).

However, economic elites are often not ideological supporters of the regime. If they see that the regime’s actions are putting their profits at risk, they are likely to put pressure on leaders – whom they often have direct access to – pushing to quickly resolve the political unrest. They may not sympathize with demonstrators – in fact, they probably do not because they do not want political change – but they are one more source of pressure on the regime: “Crush them or leave, we don’t care, just open the banks again.” You can bet that when Mubarak was forced to shut down Noor he was getting a lot of angry phone calls from wealthy investors.

Lessons for Activists

Clearly, censorship still has value to repressive governments, and it can still be effective if it does not bother most citizens. In China, most citizens don’t care about the blockage of Facebook because they have RenRen and Kaixin001. Losing Facebook was not a great loss because it had few users. This was not the case in Tunisia in 2008.

It does not even matter much if elites are circumventing censorship, so long and the information they access is not transferred onto the national internet. As Zeynep Tufekci notes:

Thus, the effect of selective filtering is not to keep out information out of the hands of a determined public, but to allow the majority of ordinary people to continue to be able to operate without confronting information that might create cognitive dissonance between their existing support for the regime and the fact that they, along with many others, also have issues. Meanwhile, the elites go about business as if there was no censorship as they all know how to use work-arounds. This creates a safety-valve as it is quite likely that it is portions of the elite groups that would be most hindered by the censorship and most unhappy with it.

From the perspective of activists who wish to challenge censorship, the best option is to create “dilemma actions” (lose/lose situations for the government) in which either:

  1. Citizens are incited to seek access to a service that is currently censored or
  2. A popular and currently accessible service is shut down.

Put another way, I suggest that Chinese activists post the next Hong Kong film star sex tape on Facebook and start posting hilarious political satire on RenRen. Censorship may not be the solid foundation of Internet control that regimes thought it was.

A Media Narrative of the Tunisian Revolution

I recently had the opportunity to meet Kouraich Jaouahdou. Kouraich owns a communications agency in Tunis, and as a former information-communications expert and organizer of several events highlighting bloggers and other groups acting against Ben Ali, tracked the media elements of the revolution from the beginning. Once the protests began in Tunis, he was also out in the street protesting with his fellow citizens. This is how Kouraich remembers the role of the media in the Tunisian revolution, and as the account of a single individual, there are bound to be inconsistencies and errors of memory. In some instances, I have made changes in Kouraich’s account based on news accounts of events. In these cases I link to the source.

2008: Back to Gafsa

Kouraich begins his account of the Tunisian Revolution not in December of 2010, but in January of 2008. Phosphate is a major Tunisian export and Gafsa, a town in the 90,000, is a key production site. In 2008 it served as the epicenter of protests against the Ben Ali regime, and many protesters were killed.

A friend of Kouraich’s posted a video of the massacre to the site Dailymotion. While the Gafsa massacre did not make the news internationally, this small use of digital media for activism did alert the Ben Ali regime to the political uses of social media. As a result, the regime blocked DailyMotion, YouTube, and later on Facebook. However, protests against the blocking of Facebook causes that one site to be reopened that same year.

Tunisian access to Facebook would prove critical to activists in 2010 and social media would ensure that a silent massacre like Gafsa did not repeat itself.

2010: Mohamed Bouazizi’s Act of Despair

By now the world is familiar with the actions of Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller who set himself on fire outside the local municipal building on December 17th, 2010, in his home town of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia.

That same day, protests began in Sidi Bouzid. Kouraich was not present, but from what he could tell through postings on Facebook and Twitter (a hashtag #sidibouzid quickly emerged) and videos uploaded to YouTube and DailyMotion, the protests seemed not to be organized by institutions, but rather by free agents – “just ordinary people.” This mirrors the pattern of leaderless networked protests in Egypt a few weeks later.

Of course, the Ben Ali regime noticed that protesters were using social media. They had learned in 2008 that blocking Facebook could result in a Streisand Effect, where blocking a popular service actually brought greater attention to the political purposes for which it was banned and was a black eye for the regime. Rather than blocking Facebook they blocked the personal and group pages that Tunisians were using to share content about the protest. Digitally-savvy Tunisians like Kouraich were well-versed in the use of proxy servers, and were still able to view the pages, but for most Tunisians, access was effectively blocked.

Al Jazeera the Amplifier

Previous accounts have mooted the role that Al Jazeera played in amplifying citizen media by re-broadcasting video produced by citizens in Sidi Bouzid and elsewhere, which Kouraich corroborated.

In his TED talk few days ago, Wadah Khanfar, the Director General of the Al Jazeera Network, validated this role explicitly:

We in Al Jazeera were banned in Tunisia for… for years and the governments did not allow any Al Jazeera reporters to be there. But we found that these people in the street all of them are our reporters, feeding our newroom with pictures, with videos, and with news! And suddenly that newsroom in Doha became a center that received all this kind of input from ordinary people, from people who are connected …. And then we took that decision.. we are the voice of these voiceless people, we are going to spread the message.

The Value of Sneakernets

In the town of Kasserine, another Gafsa was in the offing. Protests had spread to this town and security forces had blockaded the citizens inside and several deaths had already occurred. It seemed that the regime was hoping to squash the protests with another brutal massacre.

But this time it was impossible to implement an effective information blockade. Activists took memory cards with video on them and passed them over the border to Algeria, from whence they were transported to Tunis and onto the Internet, where they were picked up by stations like Al Jazeera. The Tunisian government was no longer able to operate in an information vacuum.

The Role of Radio

Television played an important role in raising awareness of protests, but so did radio. In late 2010 two new radio stations were launched in eastern Tunisian and the capital region: Express FM and Shams FM. Though the founders of both had ties to the Ben Ali regime, they were not die-hard loyalists, and the stations hired young and independent journalists who were digital natives. In late December – the 29th, 30th, and 31st as Kouraich remembers it – the stations began broadcasting information about the human rights abuses occurring in other parts of the country.

Around the same time Nessma TV, a satellite station based in Tunis, broadcast a forum in which opposition members and activists were allowed to freely explain the situation to the Tunisian public. These figures would never have previously been allowed on national television. The Internet could be seen as starting a domino effect in which more and more media outlets started covering, even on a small scale, the protests against the Ben Ali regime.

Seeing opposition figures on TV and hearing them on the radio served to reduce public fear of the regime, a key turning point in any nonviolent revolution. By the time major protests started in Tunis in late December and early January, thousands were in the streets.

The Phone-to-Computer Network

But the role of social media was not over once news of the protests jumped into the mainstream media. During the protests in Tunis ordinary citizens, now unafraid of Facebook monitoring by the regime, said in the status updates that they were going to the protests, influencing their friends to go as well. On a darker note, Facebook, Twitter, SMS, and digital images were used by citizens to warn of the locations of snipers shooting at protesters , especaailly after Ben Ali escaped, leaving his regime’s armed militia trying to recover the streets.

This online-mobile synergy was another trend in the protests. Sometimes digital analysts like to argue whether the Interet or mobile phones are more important for activism, but in Tunisia computers and mobile phones were merely separate entry points to the same network. People would report sniper positions via SMS or a voice call and then someone sitting in front of a computer would post the information to a Facebook page or tweet it.


The protests in Tunisia reveal three key trends in digital activism:

1. Leaderless Revolutions

In both Tunisa and Egypt we have seen robust protest movements arise online. As Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out, leaderless revolutions do not necessarily stay that way, but the means of leader selection are more democratic than in traditional top-down structures. In a network “meritorious growth” (increased network connections to those who provide value) snowballs through “preferential attachment” (quickly increasing connections for those who are already well-connected).

This is one theory of how Wael Ghonim became the face of the Egyptian Revolution. He was dubbed a leader by the media, but (more significantly) a represenative by the youth movement, not because of top-down patronage but because he inspired the other members of the movement that he was a part of.

Will networked leaders make the transition into the stiff hiercharchies of the state? Will they lose their networks or will their networks change the institutions they enter? Will the networked movements elect traditional politicians to represent them? These are hugely interesting questions which we will see playing out live.

2. The End of Information Vaccuums

It used to be possible for an authoritarian regime to kick out the media and then butcher hordes of its own people through the (often willing) blindness of the international community. As the Chinese and Burmese governments – as well as the Tunisians – have seen recently, even one tourist with a digital camera can bring evidence of an atrocity to international awareness.

The “international community” has also changed. While diplomats have been aware of the atrocities of foreign governments for years and have often made strategic choices not to act, ordinary people may not have such sange-froid. When an atrocity occurs, foreign governments may be pushed by their own citizens and the media to act, even when they otherwise would not.

3. The New Media Domino Effect

During the Cold War, the domino effect referred to the theory enunciated by President Eisenhower that if one country in a region became communist, surrounding countries would follow. The new media domino effect is that if one type of media outlet is broadcasting important information, other media outlets will follow or become obsolete.

This seems to have been the case in Tunisia, where the Internet was the first domino, the freest form of media in an un-free country and the one closest to events on the ground because it was being created by participants in those events. Though state-owned media did not topple in Tunisia, it almost did in Egypt, where anchors on state TV began speaking publicly (though off-air) in support of the protests before Mubarak fell.

As evidence of a new reality becomes harder to ignore, media outlets closer and closer to the regime begin to fall, until the information space is saturated with the alternative narrative of the revolution. Although Muammar Gaddafi says “all my people, they love me” everyone knows he is lying.

It Could Happen To You

In a world of insta-analysis that demands predictions, many commentators looked at the Tunisian revolution and argued that it was an isolated affair, and that structural factors would prevent the rest of the Arab states from suffering similar fates. In a particularly incoherent article containing some gobbledygook about the Roman Empire in the New York Times, primordialist du jour Robert D. Kaplan argued that the unrest was unlikely to spread to Cairo and beyond and plainly stated his admiration for dictators like the late Habib Bourgiba of Tunisia (who he hilariously referred to as “one of the lesser-known Great Men of the twentieth century”). The American political class’s love affair with cooperative dictators is obviously alive and quite well. This journalist consensus reflects what I consider to be an increasingly smug agreement in American political science about the entrenched nature of authoritarian rule in the Middle East – a consensus that both empties social science of any moral obligations, and gives license to the political class to continue dealing with reprehensible tyrants as if they will be around forever.

In any case, last week’s predictions are moot, as the unrest has now demonstrably spread to Egypt (and to Yemen, where I will defer to others). The regime is frightened enough that it has reportedly shut down the Internet across Egypt. And this is not just Cairo – credible reports are rolling in that the regime may be losing control in places like Sallum, on the border with Libya. The Muslim Brotherhood, probably the most organized opposition force in the country, has finally joined the fray and promised to join in demonstrations after Friday prayers tomorrow, whose slogan is now, according to al-Masry al-Youm, “No Retreat and No Surrender” (AR). The unrest has its own unique Egyptian causes, most notably a longstanding campaign against police brutality and torture that intensified with the Khaled Said campaign, but it is also undeniably influenced by events in Tunisia.

There is no way to know what role digital technologies have played in the unrest, but certainly it appears that people are relying on them for coordination. We are privy to video footage of the kind that would not have been possible ten years ago, like this already-iconic video of a single protester bravely castrating a water gun being fired on him by cowards in an armored vehicle. Shutting down the Internet may interfere with Egyptians’ sense that the unrest is national, which is where international activism can play a role by relaying reports from contacts inside Egypt. The question is – will they shut down the mobile networks too? Unless they do, the intrepid will manage to ensure that the Tweet goes on.

I would personally like to take a break from trying to parse the events and wish my friends in Egypt safety and good luck. I was lucky enough to meet dozens of kind, bighearted people during my research in Egypt, earnest and thoughtful young people who yearned for a voice, and for democratic change, many of whom had been to prison for the crime of free expression. They deserve better, and I am in awe of their courage. I certainly hope that if nothing else, we refuse to continue countenancing the sacrifice of their rights at the altar of geostrategy.

How We Should Analyze Tunisia

The political situation in Tunisia is still very much in flux. Even though Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator for the past 23 years, has left the country, a peaceful democratic transition is still far from assured. Still, the “Jasmine Revolution” is a subject of study in and of itself, especially by those like myself interested in studying the digital angle. Fortunately, no one is calling this a Twitter (or Facebook or YouTube) revolution, which represents a great step forward, given the strength of that trope in previous uprisings in Moldova and Iran.

At this point we do not know which technologies were most critical in initiating and then maintaining the street demonstrations that were the ultimate cause of Ben Ali’s exit. However, in telling the digital story of these protest, there is a right way and a wrong way to proceed. Here’s how to do this analysis in the right way:

Don’t Look with an Outsider’s Eye

We outside of Tunisia cannot use our own media experience as a proxy for that of the Tunisian people. As Evgeny Morozov points out:

This is not to deny that many of us were watching the Tunisian events unfold via Twitter. But let’s not kid ourselves: This is still a very small audience of overeducated tech-savvy people interested in foreign policy…. I’m curious to see more data about the role that social media have played in the mobilization of protesters. I hope that Sami ben Gharbia and others would enlighten us here.

Don’t Start with Technology

Evgeny underlines another good point: we need to start with the actions that resulted in Ben Ali’s fall (mobilization of street protest) and work backwards to see whether and how digital technology was used. We cannot begin by looking for instances of social media use and then weaving them into an accurate story of cause and effect. With that kind of selection bias, there is simply too great a possibility for over-stating technology’s significance. If you are looking for the “critical role” or YouTube, or Facebook, or Twitter you will find it.

Remember that Technology is Not a Cause

At the same time, it is important not to be swept into the “people vs. technology” dichotomy implied by articles like “Tunisia: Social Justice or Social Media?”, a piece written by Jamal Dajani of Internews in the Huffington Post, in which he writes:

Although they are an educated tech-savvy generation who were able to use social media as a tool, the underlying force was not a byproduct of this and the current situation would have come to pass with or without it. Crediting social media with these revolutions however, trivializes them and does a disservice to the deep rooted issues that cause them.

Technology has never been a cause of protest and revolution. It has always been a facilitator (or obstacle). And it cannot be separated from human action because technology only has meaning as it is used by humans.

The Answer is “Yes”, Now Ask “How Much?”

As my colleague Rasmus Kleis Nielsen likes to remind me, as the world becomes ever more digitized, it will be difficult to find a political movement that does not have some digital element. With that in mind, the question should be “how much and to what extent did digital technology play a role?”

In some cases it will be through broadcasting the message out to the world via citizen media. In other cases it will be in generating citizen media that is not absorbed directly but that is shared in a kind of two-step flow through through the traditional media where content – particularly digital video – boomerang back into the country of origin. In this case, people learn of protests not be seeing them directly on YouTube but by seeing them on popular news channels like Al Jazeera, who broadcast those videos. Given the popularity of these types of news channels in the Middle East and the lack of evidence that social media guided the protests directly, this is certainly a possibility for Tunisia.

In this case, citizen media would have played a role in digital “information cascades” (see Clay Shirky) by showing Tunisians that their fellow citizens were out in the streets. I believe this is what my colleague David Faris was getting at when he wrote that it is becoming ever more difficult for governments to lie to their citizens.

Yet this is just one hypothesis linking digital technology to the mobilizations that brought down Ben Ali. I think if we are guided by the right principles of analysis we will learn what role digital technology played in the Jasmine Revolution.

UPDATE: Looks like my hypothesis about the interplay of citizen media and regional TV was right on the money. (Jury’s still out on whether there was a boomerang effect.) From Evgeny Morozov:

Over Twitter, Sami ben Gharbia – who, I hope, will finally get a chance to return to Tunisia after his long exile – pointed out that social media did play an important role in “feeding” information to Al-Jazeera and France 24, conceding that at the same time it didn’t have much of an impact on the coverage of the protests in the US.

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