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Revolutionaries around the world add new social media networks to tech toolkit

March 13, 2014 at 6:46 PM EST
Recent massive uprisings around the globe have all been at least partially fueled by social media. With increasing surveillance concerns in places like Ukraine, how are protesters using technology to ensure private, secure communication? Hari Sreenivasan discusses with William Dobson of Slate Magazine.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Protests in Egypt which led to the toppling of two leaders, the Syrian civil war, and massive demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil and other countries in recent years all have been at least partially fueled by the use of social media.

Tonight, Hari Sreenivasan explores how technology is evolving and being used on all sides in the crisis in Ukraine.

HARI SREENIVASAN: To assess what’s changed and what hasn’t as various sides try to win the message battle, I’m joined by someone who follows the use of technology in social and political movements. William Dobson is the politics and foreign affairs editor at “Slate” magazine. He’s also author of the book “The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.”

So, last time we spoke, it was after the Arab spring. Here’s a different revolution in the Ukraine. What’s changed technologically?

WILLIAM DOBSON, Slate: Well, the actors have grown much more sophisticated.

When we think about the Arab spring, what people were really focusing on were Facebook and Twitter. Now, those tools are still incredibly important, and you saw them being used to great effect in Kiev and elsewhere.

But now, at the same token, activists understand that these social media tools can also be used as a weapon against them. And they are very concerned about a surveillance state and having their own activities monitored.

So you see their toolkit now has really expanded. And that expansion involves beginning to use new tools, technological tools that allow them to have safe, secure, and sometimes even encrypted communication one-to-one or across many people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. So, one of those apps that really took off, for example, in Venezuela is Zello. What does it do?

WILLIAM DOBSON: Right.

Zello is sort of — you can almost imagine sort of like a digital walkie-talkie. And what it allows you to do is create a channel. And on that channel, you can have tens or even hundreds of people, all who have access to this one communication channel.

And so you saw it used in Ukraine, for example, where, if you were occupying a square, as they were, and you are concerned about government repression or having the square attacked by police or paramilitary, this was a tool that allows you to have a real-time battlefield intelligence, where you can have many people, all of these people who have access to this channel, in different positions around the square, giving everyone else, sharing with everyone else information about where the troops are, where — the places that are safe to exit, places that are now under threat.

You really saw Zello first take off a little bit about a year in Turkey, with the massive protest over at Gezi Park there. And now, as you mentioned, in Venezuela, you have had hundreds of thousands of people download it in the last month.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK.

And there’s also still text-based apps, instead of just WhatsApp, which now got bought by Facebook. There’s a lot of people switching to Wickr?

WILLIAM DOBSON:  Yes, right.

Wickr is like a texting service where those texts you receive are encrypted. It is often the case now in my own reporting with activists in different countries around the world that, if they want a contact made for an interview, or if we’re going to arrange the time and schedule for that interview, we are going to do it over Wickr in many instances, or we will do it over something like Silent Circle, which is another app, where you can send text messages that, somewhat like Snapchat, will ultimately erase and disappear not long after you have received them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, I can set it to disappear two minutes after you read it?

WILLIAM DOBSON:  That’s right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.

So, these technologies, how are they encouraging or enabling a level of communication between the troops on the ground now, the protesters?

WILLIAM DOBSON: Well, essentially, they are — they are vital at this point, because you have to — the first thing you have to understand about many of these places is that there is no way for these groups, these activists or organizers to communicate through the national media.

The national media is completely controlled by the state. So when you think about radio, TV, newspapers, and you have — many times, it’s impossible for them to get their message across that way. So, they are going to rely on social media almost entirely. And these more sensitive, secure communications are vital for them to be able to organize and rally and plan.

You know, I was talking to one activist just the other day who said, you know, we never pick up the telephone anymore. He said, it wouldn’t even occur to us to pick up the telephone, because we know those lines are tapped or there is too much of a danger that they would be. So, we — our first resort is to turn to these types of tools.

And they also change the tools they’re using all the time. They don’t want to be predictable.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how smart are those dictators, so to speak, in your book getting? Are they keeping up with this technological race?

WILLIAM DOBSON: They are keeping up. They are doing their best to keep up.

And you see them employing the tools as well. So, for example, in Ukraine, we saw a little bit over a month ago where the government started to send massive text messages out to people who were in the square. So, if you were a protester in the square, all of a sudden, you got a text message saying, dear subscriber, you’re engaged in a mass disturbance.

So this was the government saying, A, I know who you are. B, I know what you are doing. So the idea that you are an anonymous face in this crowd, forget about it. We know. And we’re able to figure that out based on geo-locating where you are in the square.

So, only people that were involved in the protests were receiving that. That is a level of specificity that is frightening, and it was intended to intimidate. However, your question was how effective have they been?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.

WILLIAM DOBSON:  Well, how effective were they?

I mean, it didn’t really intimidate people, now, did it?  And that is the problem. The regimes haven’t really found ways to use this technology in such a way that they get the outcome that they are seeking, which is to reduce the numbers of peoples in the square. If you have waited to the point that there are people in the square, as a regime, you probably already waited too long.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, William Dobson, author of “Dictator’s Learning Curve” and from “Slate” magazine, thanks so much.

WILLIAM DOBSON:  Thanks for having me.