The bewildering pace at which information technology is evolving has begun to affect old fashioned politics with unsettling speed. Just months after the Wikileaks data dumps showed how easily a small group of well-informed skeptics could obtain and publish voluminous evidence of the West’s embarrassingly duplicitous statecraft, the events of the Arab Awakening suggest that political censorship may soon become practically impossible in a world of smart phones and decentralized communications. Although protests in the Middle East have been halted by excessive violence (most notably in Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen) there can be little doubt that cyber-dissent’s wide and ever-growing range of disruptive communications, and the speed with which it has found ways around state censorship bode ill for any authoritarian regime whose citizens have access to modern technology.
Consider the situation in China. Beijing currently spends vast sums of money sifting the traffic of more than 400 million ‘Netizens,’ but even with some of the most world’s most sophisticated internet filtres, and despite maintaining the “Great Firewall of China” at staggering cost, the censors have failed to deter a growing wave of protests. Neither software nor state security have proved equal to the humour of dissent – as the events in Tahrir Square unfolded, and “Mubarak” was added to the list of prohibited words, Chinese users bypassed the filters by using “Mu Xiaoping” and “Mu Jintao” as substitutes – nor to the enlightened methods of non-violent protest which have reaped such startling results in North Africa and the Middle East.
Some non-violent protests are so ingenious that they have turned the usually dominant Chinese government into an impotent spectator. In recent months, for example, tens of thousands of citizens, in cities all across the country, have registered their political grievances by walking through their city centres at a pre-arranged time, usually on a Sunday afternoon. Since they carry no banners, refrain from chanting and make none of the usual angry demands, the police are at a loss as to how to disperse the gatherings. Instead they watch nervously as large, smiling crowds stroll through the city’s public spaces, relishing this strange new form of political protest. The government has yet to devise an effective countermeasure to these afternoon walks, and it has no idea how to ban the cleverly worded text messages used to coordinate them.
In other parts of the world the technology has proven an invaluable refutation to government secrecy and official lies. Armed with finger-sized jump drives, CDs, handheld video cameras, and mobile phones dissidents have provided the outside world with unprecedented access to the famine inside North Korea. In Sri Lanka, satellite phones have allowed citizen journalists to post footage of human rights abuses during the civil war to websites in Europe. In Libya, cheap and easily made directional antennae for cell phones have allowed dissidents to access mobile networks well beyond their devices’ usual range, and in some cases even to use transmission towers situated across the border and beyond the government’s control.
When governments have gained the upper hand they have done so at great cost. After the Cairo protests could no longer be ignored, President Mubarak briefly shut down Egypt’s access to the internet. But the ensuing economic shock quickly caused him to overturn this foolish decision. In Tehran, the government has had some success in using ‘deep packet inspection’ to track dissidents who use social media to coordinate political protests, but every new form of censorship has proved vulnerable to unforeseeable innovations. Tehran, too, is well aware that it may soon be undermined by an ungovernable flow of independent information.
What is less clear is how the old media are assimilating these new forms of communication. Most television networks still shy away from showing footage that is deemed too graphic for a general audience, even though this timidity can be shown to have serious consequences on the public’s perception of what is really taking place in a given country. Too often footage which documents the full scale of a war’s atrocities is seen only when it has lost the power to shock foreign nations into taking action. The international community’s unusually timely response to events in Libya shows that this paradigm may be shifting. However, until the developed world works out how it should respond to the sudden disruptions of the new technology, particularly when these precipitate major political crises – often involving the mass murder of peaceful pro-democracy protesters –we seem fated to live in unpredictable and ever more interesting times.