Monday, August 29, 2011
Today’s New York Times includes an article about a research paper posing an interesting theory on the impact of a government’s efforts to control social media during periods of social unrest (e.g., during open rebellion). The article notes that shutting down Internet access to social media can have a radicalizing effect. A blog post by the chief technology officer of a company that assesses the way the Internet operates across the world raises a complementary notion: making access merely inconvenient instead of impossible might have a de-radicalizing effect.
The research paper focuses on the Egyptian government’s decision to shut down all access to the Internet and cellphone service, while the blog post looks at the effect of Libya’s different decision:
“The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th [in Egypt] exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways,” [Navid Hassanpour, the author of the research paper,] writes. “It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir [Square].”
In an interview, he described “the strange darkness” that takes place in a society deprived of media outlets. “We become more normal when we actually know what is going on — we are more unpredictable when we don’t — on a mass scale that has interesting implications,” he said.
Mr. Mubarak’s government collapsed and the former president, at age 83, now finds himself being wheeled into a Cairo court on a hospital bed to face charges of corruption and complicity in the killing of protesters.
Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer of Renesys, a company that assesses the way the Internet is operating across the world, believes that another besieged leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, may have taken note of the Egyptian experience.
In a blog post on the company’s Web site, “What Libya Learned From Egypt,” Mr. Cowie writes that in March, Libya toyed with the idea of pulling the switch on its Internet service.
Libya’s leaders “faced this same decision in the run-up to civil war,” he wrote, “and each time, perhaps learning from the Egyptian example, they backed down from implementing a multiday all-routes blackout.”
Sophisticated governments will realize that “shutting down radicalizes things,” he said in a phone interview. What is more useful to governments, he said, was “bandwidth throttling,” recognizing that “Internet is something you can meter out.” This “metering out” is meant to make the experience less reliable and responsive, he said, so that video streaming is hesitant and Web pages are slow to load.
Iran, Mr. Cowie said, was one of a number of countries that have realized that “you don’t turn off the Internet anywhere — you make it less useful,” controlling which neighborhoods get it, for example.
Noam Cohen, Link by Link: In Unsettled Times, Media Can Be a Call to Action, or a Distraction, N.Y. Times, August 29, 2011, p. B3 (national edition).