Why the Internet is America’s greatest weapon

Hillary Clinton, used under CC license by Flickr user Cobb Lucas

Alexander Lukashenko is no fan of the internet. True, the President of Belarus, widely seen as the last remaining dictator in Europe, dislikes many things — democratic opposition, for one. But he reserves a special place for the Web. In the past he’s railed against the “anarchy” of the Internet. More recently The Economist reported that his attitude towards the rebels of the online world leans on familiar stereotypes — he described Internet users as nothing more than deluded teenage rebels: “16 or 17 years old, a cigarette dangling from his lips and a girl under his left arm”.

This weekend, however, Lukashenko took things a step further by cracking down on protesters who organized themselves online, and pushing his statewide ban on Facebook, Twitter and the popular Russian social networking site Vkontakte. Why? Because he is worried that young people are using it to try and give momentum to their political protests. Claiming that opposition to his regime is being run by foreign countries, he told AFP that the opposition in Minsk “is using social networks to call for strikes. I will watch and observe — and then whack them in such a way that they won’t even have time to run across the border.”

This marks another interesting point in the seemingly endless conversation about how social media and political activism work together. You might remember how Malcolm Gladwell, famously, kicked off a huge debate when he argued that the ability of Facebook or Twitter (or any other Internet service) to power a revolution is vastly over-represented. He suggested that social media “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact”. Plenty of people disagreed, and as the “Arab Spring” got underway, it seemed as if the pendulum might swing in the other direction: Egypt turned off the Internet, Tunisian bloggers found places in government and protesters even named their children after websites.

All the way along, our own Mathew Ingram has painstakingly detailed the arguments over social media and activism.

In the end, though, I think Lukashenko’s moves to block Facebook, Twitter and VKontakte tells us something different. Understanding how social media might foment social unrest is interesting, but things are more complex than the back-and-forth would suggest — because for all of that arguing, whether or not social media can cause revolutions doesn’t matter if everyone in a position of power treats it like it does.

Whether it’s Belarus shutting down access in a fit of paranoia, or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak hitting the kill switch in an attempt to prop up his failing regime, the possibility of organization taking place on the Internet is as much — or more — of a threat as the reality. As we see action become increasingly pre-emptive (the chosen method of protest against Lukashenko’? clapping), we see the shift take place.

The added twist, of course, is that most of these dictators see the use of social networking as a proxy for American intervention. Lukashenko’s people were quick to put forward the theory that these online protests were somehow linked to a visit to neighboring Lithuania by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And while that might seem like mere delusion, there’s evidence to suggest it has some truth to it: Clinton was visiting Eastern Europe to promote a Tech Camp that “teaches activists web savvy” and “subversion”. She explicitly called out Belarus while she was there, and the Moscow Times quoted a Belarusian activist who had attended the camp “to learn how to keep his group safe online when it uses social media to organize protests at home”.

This is all sides — or at least all the ones who matter — treating social media as a truly disruptive, revolutionary force. And this is what Alec Ross, one of Clinton’s advisers, meant when he said the Internet was the Che Guevara of the 21st century.

Even the services themselves admit that they are being used in this way: Alexis Madrigal recently noted how Twitter’s Biz Stone seemed ambivalent about the service’s relationship with the US government:

The thing we’re facing now is that, you know, the State Department is suddenly really cozy with Twitter because they’re like “Oh wow, we were trying to get this done with AK-47s and you guys got it done with Tweets. Can we be friends?”

But I maintain that it has to be a neutral technology because there are different forms of democracy. You don’t want your technology, you don’t want Twitter, to look like it’s simply a tool for spreading U.S. democracy around the world. You want it to help but you don’t want it to look like you’re in the pocket of the U.S. government. So we try to speak out and say that they have no access to our decision-making.

But it seems he’s already too late. Twitter’s now part of the U.S. government’s narrative, which means social media is part of the geopolitical story all over the world; and when the White House says social media can have an impact, people begin to think it can have an impact. That in turn means it starts to have an impact (even in an indirect sense) which leads the White House to say it’s having an impact. It’s turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s fitting that we’re discussing this on the 4th of July, since the real fear of dictatorships is that the Internet is ultimately a way of America using soft power. In the minds of dictators like Lukashenko, the Internet has the ability to make everyone an American — subject to the same cultural beliefs, the same politics, the same rights. That’s something they are terrified by. And that means that the question now isn’t whether social media can start a revolution, but whether dictators believe it can.