WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After the “Arab Spring” surprised the world with the power of technology to revolutionize political dissent, governments are racing to develop strategies to respond to, and even control, the new player in the political arena — social media.
Anti-government protesters in Tunisia and Egypt used Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to run rings around attempts at censorship and organize demonstrations that ousted presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak.
That served as a wake-up call to those in authority. By allowing millions of citizens to coordinate political action quickly and often without conventional leadership, the new technology is challenging traditional political power structures.
“We are well beyond being able to consider social media a fad,” said Alec Ross, one of the creators of the social media campaign that helped propel Barack Obama to the White House and now senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“If you are not open to social media spaces then you are not attuned to the dynamics on the street and you sacrifice both understanding and power.”
Being ahead of the game when it comes to embracing social media, Washington hopes, will be key to maintaining its influence in a changing world.
Diplomats at every level are being trained to use it to explain U.S. policy and, more importantly, listen to what is being said and written in the countries in which they operate. Ross says that as an early adopter of the technology, the State Department is now becoming an adviser to other governments on social media.
The United States, too, has seen some modest signs of social media-organized protest, with hundreds of protesters occupying Wall Street for days this month in anger at perceived excesses by its banks. In Europe, activists have used similar tools to coordinate mass street unrest, although few expect U.S. disturbances on that scale.
Since events in Cairo and Tunis blindsided governments, analysts and markets around the world, experts say investment has stepped up hugely in tools to monitor social media platforms in the hope of predicting future upheaval.
“What people are increasingly looking at is predictive analysis,” said Rohini Srihari, a computer scientist at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. “The Holy Grail is to beat the news. They are looking to predict a specific riot or protest at a specific location and time.”
Much of the interest in that technology is seen coming from intelligence and national security agencies, but private companies and investors are also taking notice and new firms springing up offer a range of analytic products.
Not all promise to predict events with precision — but they do offer ways to deliver insight on wider trends and snapshots of online debate.
“Social media is better for strategic rather than tactical analysis,” Fadl Al Tarzi, chief operating officer at United Arab Emirates-based monitoring firm News Group International, told a conference on social media and politics at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C.
“It is hard to predict exactly when something will happen but it can show you broader trends. Yes, if you had enough conversations with enough of the right people you would get the same level of information but that is not always economic or feasible to do or possible at the same speed.”
Political repression, economic crises and the widening wealth gap in many countries could all further fuel the growth in social media-fed protest. Much, like recent protests against cuts in Spain and many of the demonstrations of the “Arab Spring,” may prove peaceful but others have already proved violent and disruptive.
The question for governments is what responses might prove effective and acceptable. So complex and fast moving are modern systems, some experts suspect, that any attempts at censorship or shutdowns will simply be circumvented or overwhelmed.
But there are clear signs that some in authority would dearly like to find ways of tightening controls.
British Prime Minister David Cameron was widely criticized, even within his own party, for threatening to impose censorship and shutdown social media and messaging platforms in response to London’s August riots. The way inner-city youths used secure smart phone messaging to coordinate mass looting sprees and arson showed such tools were not merely the preserve of political activists.
San Francisco’s BART transit system faced widespread anger and accusations of breaching the U.S. constitutional guarantees of free speech when it sought to shut down mobile phone services within the system in an attempt to stymie protests after a shooting by a transit authority police officer.
Autocratic states, however, have few such reservations. In Russia, websites used by dissident bloggers found themselves under cyber attack from hackers suspected sympathetic to the Kremlin.
China’s use of its sophisticated system to monitor and sometimes censor online debate efforts is widely believed to have stepped up dramatically this year. Beijing’s communist leaders managed to avoid the widespread street protest they saw elsewhere, but they failed to prevent almost unprecedented criticism of their response to a high-speed rail crash.
In the Middle East, the reaction has been mixed. Some countries have moved to arrest or threaten bloggers or those they accuse of spreading “malicious rumors,” while others have also tried to reach out to online activists.
“There’s been quite a strong reaction,” says Sultan al-Qassemi, a blogger and commentator based in the UAE. “It’s a carrot and stick approach. Some of it is good. But they have been also seeking out individual people to make examples of.”
In effect, major social media companies — such as Google, Facebook and Twitter — could become gatekeepers of debate and dissent.
And while some Internet giants such as Facebook may be willing to make concessions to access markets such as China, Google looks to be bracing for an era of confrontation.
In July, its chairman Eric Schmidt told a conference in Dublin he believed the firm’s tussles with governments over Internet censorship would get worse, adding that his own colleagues faced a mounting danger of arrest and torture. During the Egyptian revolution Google executive Wael Ghonim was seized and arrested for involvement in helping organize the protests.
At the State Department, Ross says he believes the world is still nowhere near a global consensus on how to handle the coming changes. But finding solutions, he said, is vital.
Many argue that if governments are not to shut down the Internet and other networks altogether — with all the attached economic costs and at the risk of producing a still-larger backlash — then they will have little choice but to allow the relatively free flow of communication including dissent.
“If you are willing to sacrifice economic modernity and growth, then turn off the Internet,” says Ross. “But if you want to be part of a vibrant, global marketplace and build a knowledge-based economy, you have to have an open Internet. ... We hope to maximize the benefits and minimize the negative impact of living in a hyper-networked world.”
Editing by David Storey and Jackie Frank