Revolution in Cairo

Interview Evgeny Morozov

Evgeny Morozov

Author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Morozov writes Foreign Policy's Net Effect blog, is a visiting scholar at Stanford University and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. He argues that social media has not changed political dissent in any profound way, and warns that authoritarian regimes are likely to co-opt these new technologies. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 9, 2011.

Talk about the demonstrators a little bit. The April 6 group is one of the primary ones that people have been focused on and we focus on in this film. You have met some of them over time, in some conferences and such. Who are they? What are their methods? Anything special or unusual that you saw among the group of people that make up these activists?

I think April 6 is one of the many groups that were instrumental in getting people into streets. I think none of them right now claims that they were the dominant group. Again, it was a very wide effort. I think this accounts for its success, probably, that there was no single group leading the efforts.

“To call it a Twitter revolution or a Facebook revolution would be to downplay the kind of sacrifices that were made by many people in Egypt or in Tunisia or even in Iran, and to focus on technologies and platforms which are American, which have very little interest in actually spreading any of these revolutions.”

April 6 Youth Movement emerged in 2008. They wanted to support the striking workers in Mahalla, which is kind of an industrial center in Egypt, and they initially collaborated here closely with trade unions, with the workers' unions in Mahalla.

But since they established presence on Facebook in 2008, that was when much of their planning and talking and deliberations happened. Their activities continued, even after the initial protests in 2008 subsided. So in some sense, the fact that they had a home on the Internet and on Facebook helped to preserve some momentum within the movement.

They tried to do the same in 2009 and get the same kind of protests that happened in 2008 in the streets. It didn't happen, but they continued talking and deliberating.

And at some point, many other Facebook groups popped up, some of them defending rights of particular bloggers or activists who were either tortured or arrested, and some of them were even murdered or died in police custody.

And so, again, it's a very dispersed movement. It's not clustered around certain ideology. I'm not even sure that there is a political agenda which is very sophisticated. I think the main goal is to basically get rid of [Hosni] Mubarak and stop the emergency rule. If it's not 25 bullet points that they want to achieve, it's a very kind of basic, "Enough with Mubarak" kind of rhetoric.

... Is this, in fact, a Facebook revolution?

No. Frankly, there is not much of a debate. At least I'm not one of the people who denied the fact that social media was used. ... I know that Facebook definitely played some role in planning, and it played some role in announcing where the protests should take place.

Is it something that we should be surprised about? I think not. Throughout history, we've seen revolutionary movements use whatever communication tools were available. Bolsheviks made great use of the telegraph and of the postal service. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 made great use of tape recorders when many of the sermons were smuggled into Iran. ...

The question I think we should be asking is is really whether something has changed in the texture of authoritarian states, and then how they function, that will make it impossible for dictators and for authoritarian leaders to stay in charge when everyone has a mobile phone and when everyone is on Facebook.

My take on this is that not much has changed fundamentally. Strong dictators will find ways in which to control these technologies, in which to make use of these technologies to track down dissidents, intimidate dissidents, use those for propaganda. ... In many cases, [social media] will actually put many activists in danger.

Now there are, for example, reports that the Iranian Green Movement has been inspired by what happened in Egypt, and now they have set up a Facebook group, and now there are 20,000 people who have joined it, in Iran and outside of Iran, right?

And now, just think about it. The Iranian government right now is strong enough. They can go and literally harass everyone who has signed up to that group in advance two weeks before the protest happened.

And the fact that Facebook doesn't allow activists to set up profiles under false names is one reason why the governments can do that. If you try to use a pseudonym on Facebook, Facebook will deactivate your account. It's happened to many activists.

So again, all I'm trying to say is that we have to be much more careful about drawing sweeping conclusions about the future of authoritarianism in the digital era. I think, unfortunately, many of these regimes will corrupt these technologies. They will corrupt the Western companies providing these technologies, and they will probably use many of these technologies to strengthen their grip and power.

We'll go back chronologically. As you had said, when these first demonstrations took place back in 2008-2009, they were suppressed. It seemed that the Egyptian government's authoritarian rule, sending in the secret police and such, these tactics were quite successful?

I would say so. We actually know that about 20 or 25 people were arrested after the first wave of protests in 2008, and we also know that the Egyptian government asked Vodafone and some other mobile operators for some kind of data. Many people have speculated that they have actually asked for data about users. And the mobile-phone users who showed up at the particular place didn't protest in 2008. So the Egyptian government actually tore into Vodafone to learn more about who some of those protesters were.

The same again happened to Facebook. The same happened in Iran in 2009, where, again, there were protests. Some of them were facilitated by social media. But once that initial wave of protest subsided, the government and the secret police tore into Facebook and Twitter and even to Flickr, and they actually tried to hunt down dissidents and hunt down many of the protesters.

They even went searching for photos from the protests that were uploaded to Flickr, in many cases, by the activists themselves, and they took those photos. They circled the faces of people they didn't know in red, and they published those photos on government-run news sites and asked people to identify whoever they could recognize in the photos.

So again, it didn't happen in Tunisia, in part because [Zine al-Abidine] Ben Ali left, and the army sided with the protesters. Had the opposite happened, you would probably see a harsh crackdown.

It's very important to look at cases where social media was used but nothing happened. ... We do know that, in Syria, for example, even now, following Tunisia and Egypt, there have been Facebook groups that were set up. There was a lot of Facebook activity. It didn't result in anything in the real world. There were no protests in the streets. Some people showed up; they were arrested. It didn't transform into wide political movement in the streets.

In Sudan, we've seen an even more severe situation, where the security police themselves went to social networking sites and posted fake announcements of protests, only to then go and arrest whoever would show up, having read that announcement on Facebook, right? ...

So why did it grow and turn into a burning raging fire in Egypt?

As with all revolutions, when the social and political conditions are ripe, people show up; people turn up. And I think in Egypt, probably the government just was not prepared, and it was caught off guard, they themselves not anticipating that so many people are as frustrated with the regime [and] that they would show up in the square.

And the government, I think, tried to correct some of the early misperceptions by turning off the Internet. Had they done it I think three or four days earlier, the outcome could have been different. What happened with Facebook in Egypt was that many of these activists did use it to discuss when to have the first protest, which was on Jan. 25. ...

But the government only moved in to turn off the Internet on the 27th, which of course was late. And by that time, Egyptians were committed, and the movement that was already in the streets had the momentum of its own. It didn't need the Internet. People knew that they have to show up every day at 9:00 a.m. and be in the square until midnight. So in some sense, I think the government was unprepared.

And the conditions in Egypt, again, knowing that there are elections coming up, and this may be the only opportunity to prevent Egypt from getting Mubarak Jr. [Gamal Mubarak] in charge, I think people just felt that it's either now or never. ...

The tactic of shutting down all cell phones, cutting down all Internet, what it does is also close down your banks and close down your stock markets and create a huge problem for 21st-century businesses. ... How does a government like Egypt, or any government, deal with the significant problems in closing down that communication?

I think in the case of Egypt, it was clearly a question of survival. Either you lose 25 percent of your stock market, or you just lose your office altogether. So I think for the government, in that type of situation, it's not the balance sheet; it's not their GDP numbers by 2011, by the end of 2011. ...

And, as we've seen in Egypt, they were OK with having no Internet for five or six days, which I think is more or less an unprecedented move on such a big scale -- on the national scale, in the Middle East, but also globally. I think, of course, that would not have been possible for two weeks or three weeks or four weeks.

But to eliminate the first wave of protests, that probably would happen far more effective[ly] had they done it earlier. And I think, at this point, there is just little point in shutting down the Net, because people are already there. ...

And the only role at this point I think social media is playing is trying to get photos and videos and reports from participants online and shared with the world at large. ...

[Were the demonstrators concerned] about what you're talking about, that the Internet can be turned against them, that they're all ID'd, all relevant information about who they are, where they are, who they associate with, is all out there, so it can be used against them?

... At the very beginning, if you look back at some of the cautions that protesters and bloggers actually themselves brought up, when talking to the international media and talking to each other, yes, they were concerned that social media sites can be used to track the dissidents and the protesters.

There was an interesting printed leaflet, actually, distributed in Egypt in the first few days of the protests, which basically warned its recipients not to distribute it through the social media sites because those were probably monitored by the government. It was basically a leaflet on how to organize a protest and what to do when you encounter the police. And the leaflet said, "Just don't put me online," because if you put it online, people can trace you, and you may end up having a lot of troubles.

So in that sense, sort of all pre-digital analog modes of distribution still are probably more successful because they're just much harder to trace.

But the end results for the leadership of this revolt, what do they fear about how the government could use the Internet now against them?

... At this point, I think it's usually the mobile communications which need to be watched very closely.

As far as I understand, for many of these people right now, the key challenge is communicating with each other. It's not necessarily mobilizing thousands and millions of more people to show up. And it's not necessarily communicating to the world at large, by posting messages to Facebook. It's still internal communication, using mobiles.

Mobile phones are one of the most insecure devices that were ever available, so they're very easy to trace; they're very easy to tap. And chances are that these people are probably much more worried about their conversations being wiretapped and their movements being tracked. And many of them use the same mobile phones to update social media websites.

Now, we've seen some bloggers who were actually tweeting from the square using some of the fancy applications that are now written for the iPhone and for Android, and those applications work in such a way that, when you tweet, it automatically posts your location on a Google map. So, of course, if you tweet a lot of anti-government stuff from your phone, and your location is visible, the police even knows where you are in the square, so they'll just come and grab you.

I fear that that's what happened with some bloggers. They were tweeting anti-government stuff and revealing their location, and police, of course, took advantage of it. I don't know how long that will go on. Obviously, police [have] been snatching a lot of bloggers, a lot of activists, a lot of politicians. I think virtually any blogger who has said something, critical images, by now has been detained for an hour or two.

So I don't know whether it's just a new tactic of intimidation or whether they would believe that these protests are orchestrated by some third party from abroad. ... I think that was the impression that the government had at the very beginning: that these protests are not spontaneous; they have been carefully orchestrated; and that the Internet is just an excuse for some other force to basically get people into the streets.

And those are the kind of questions that's actually asked from this Google executive [Wael Ghonim], according to his interview; that you would believe that it was not at all about the Internet, but it was about some other mysterious political force using the Internet to basically get people out.

What is the significance of one of the leaders of this movement being from Google? Doesn't that say something very specific about the nature of this revolution? It's being led by youngsters who were very savvy about the Internet, and one of its leaders is, in fact, working for Google.

I wouldn't necessarily draw too many lessons from it, in part because Google's own presence in Middle East and North Africa, they're very new to the region. They hired only I think a dozen people, maybe more, maybe less, in the region. ...

And in the Middle East, it happened that many bloggers who spoke English were also anti-government. They did not support the regimes, and many of them now ended up working for these big multinational companies that are entering Egypt.

I don't necessarily think that it means anything in the grander scheme of things. I mean, it probably will make the life of Google harder in many other places. I mean, Google, too, has a lot of executives in China. Even though they theoretically withdrew, they still have a huge office there.

And to now just imagine the kind of suspicion about all Google executives in other [countries]. There's already a lot of suspicion that many of the Silicon Valley firms were more or less very close to the State Department and to Washington. There were a lot of concerns following what happened in Iran in 2009, where Twitter played a role, and the State Department reached out to Twitter. And that created this myth that many of these firms are just an expansion of American foreign policy and that they're pushing for democratization and regime change just by being in many of those countries.

And now I think the lesson that other dictators will learn from Tunisia and Egypt is not only that you have to be very careful about the digital platforms, you also have to be very careful about their executives. ...

Are these countries learning a lesson that they have to be more aggressive against these type of operations, or to take down the Internet earlier rather than later, or are the lessons that are being learned that it's almost impossible to ignore your citizens' basic wants and needs? I mean, what do you think the big lesson here is?

There are several lessons. First of all, of course all of them would want to have an emergency procedure in place for turning off the Internet. In the Egyptian case, it worked magically. They managed to turn off pretty much all of the providers in a matter of hours, and it worked very effectively for six days or so. ...

The other lesson, I think, will be that they will become just much smarter in terms of not necessarily provoking the public. What happened in Egypt was that police in Alexandria arrested and beat up this young guy whose cause became very prominent in the Egyptian blogosphere, and the initial Facebook group, ["We are all Khaled Said,"] which was run by the Google executive, was to commemorate this guy.

And of course there were photos of him and videos of him beaten up. There were even photos of him, I think, from the morgue, which, of course, made for extremely emotional online presence. So I think, for these governments and for their police, they'll just be much more careful in terms of not offending and beating up the public as violently and as openly as they have done in the past.

Again, what happened in Egypt in the last few years was that a lot of bloggers were just filming police brutality on mobile phones, and this is what caused so much uproar in the blogosphere, that many of these videos leaked out. And of course it enraged many people.

So I don't think that the police will stop beating people up. They just wouldn't be doing it in public, just like now there are trainings for police [about] how will you handle protesters without necessarily using violence. You'll more or less be seeing the same tricks, [but] how to do that in the age of social media?

And the third big reason, I think, is that it will be just much more open-source intelligence work down on the social media websites. We should expect that all of the secret services across the world now will have dedicated tasks that will be doing nothing but just monitoring Facebook and Twitter.

And this is also happening here in the U.S., was a lot of politicians in America [were] being very unhappy that the CIA missed what's happening in Egypt completely. ...

Of course it will be happening here, but it will be happening to an even greater extent in Iran, in Russia, in China, where they will try to thwart these protests at an early stage. This will be the key to identify the proper sentiment and to eliminate it before it transforms into something bigger on the national level. And this is where, I think, much of the work will happen.

So your argument, to some extent, is that this is a double-edged sword; that, in fact, this view, this romantic view that the Internet is going to make governments more accountable, maybe not so much?

Governments that are already dying will die faster, so this is not something that I would ever deny. I think that we should acknowledge that yes, if there was social media in the Soviet Union in 1989 and in '90 and '91, yes, the system would have probably collapsed faster.

But if the economy wasn't bad in the Soviet Union, and if it didn't have to compete with NATO, if the oil prices were a little bit higher, social media wouldn't do their job all by itself. So again, we have to be cognizant of the sort of political, social and economic forces that are far more responsible for transforming these regimes.

But also we have to keep in mind that many of these technologies can be corrupted by strong governments. So if the government is strong, if it's willing to survive, they will develop and purchase technologies, many of them from the veteran companies, to monitor and crack down on dissent and to crack down on protesters. ...

All of this technology will come from Western marketing firms, which already spend a lot of money on monitoring social media conversations about brands. But now, instead of monitoring what people say about Coca-Cola, you're monitoring what people say about Hosni Mubarak or Vladimir Putin. ...

So understanding this darker side will actually help us in the West -- politicians, society, journalists -- recognize their own responsibility in controlling the flow of many of those tools, not just in terms of data gathering and intelligence gathering, but also in terms of technologies that allow to spread propaganda, as we've seen in Egypt, with Vodafone being forced to send messages defending Mubarak and asking people not to go into the streets. Again, all of that happened, and we should be aware of that, and we should be working on rules and regulations to make that less likely to happen in the future.

In the absence of social media, would this uprising we have just seen in Egypt have happened?

... We know that revolutions happened before social media. We know that people have been frustrated before. And I think we shouldn't necessarily give too much credit to social media tools, where the real sacrifice is actually borne out by the people.

So to call it a Twitter revolution or a Facebook revolution would be to downplay the kind of sacrifices that were made by many people in Egypt or in Tunisia or even in Iran, and to focus on technologies and platforms which are American, which have very little interest in actually spreading any of these revolutions. Otherwise, they would have been much more proactive in allowing activists to use these sites with pseudonyms, for example, which didn't happen in the case of Facebook.

So I think we have to be very careful just not to downplay video contribution and video sacrifices of the protesters and focusing on some abstract tools instead. I don't think it's fair.

I think mostly what people are saying is it really is the motivational aspects of it. Revolution will not happen without people in the streets, but to get people in the streets, one has to motivate the people. And by throwing up torture pictures so that it's impossible to deny, it motivates a population to make that decision to take the first step out the door.

Sure. Again, it helps when you have other developments. I mean, there are plenty of photos of torture in Syria or Iran, right, [or from] Russia and China. It helps when you have an old dictator who's aging, who wants his son [to succeed him]. It helps that elections are coming up. It helps that Tunisia just had some turmoil. So again, you have to add all of those together. ...

People will say all of the Middle East, all other governments in the Middle East are now looking at Egypt, looking at Tunisia, and saying, "Oh, my God, am I next?" Do you think that's true?

It will be silly if they are not looking at Tunisia and Egypt and not asking whether they are next. But that's what happens when there is a revolution. You know, the Chinese government looks at Egypt and thinks, "Am I next?" And they probably say, "No, I'm not, but we should still tighten certain things up."

So I think revolutions are contagious. We've seen that. They tend to spread. They used to spread widely in the mid-19th-century Europe before the age of Internet. That's what happens with revolutions, and I think governments do recognize that.

But again, many of them plan ahead. Many of them take precautions even before the revolution starts. ... As we've seen in Sudan, the government will have no problem even using these sites to solicit protesters to show up at a certain venue and then arrest all of them. So again, we shouldn't underestimate the will to survive in many of these governments.

... [The U.S. is] putting money into social media organizations and bringing people from different countries and talking about the use of tools to create a more democratic societies. ... But also, at the same time, you also see the need to work with governments like Egypt, the dependence on them. ... Talk about that strange position that that puts the United States into.

My problem with the Internet freedom agenda of Hillary Clinton, that she articulated in her seminal speech in 2010, was that on the one hand, it's very idealistic. It does want to go and support bloggers and activists and arm them with tools that they can use to oppose their authoritarian rulers.

But on the other hand, it's the very same rulers who get support from the United States. So on the one hand, we are training bloggers how to use tweets to oppose dictators, but then we're also training their policemen how to use tear gas to oppose the bloggers. And that disconnect between the highly idealistic inclination of the Internet freedom agenda and the highly duopolistic inclination of the rest of the U.S. foreign policy, I find it very disconcerting.

But I think the way forward is not necessarily to double our efforts on the bloggers' front and then just allow the duopolistic aspect around on its own kind of momentum. I think we have to go and re-examine what's wrong with the essential principles and what's wrong with the fundamentals -- Why is it that we are supporting dictators by sending them tear gas or whatever, by training their police force? -- and not just to prepare generational bloggers who will then go and oppose them, because in many cases, bloggers ... have been squashed in places like Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan, which are also allies of the United States. ...

This makes America look extremely hypocritical in the eyes of many partners. And many bloggers, actually, in the Middle East, realize that, and they don't want to take money from the U.S. government.

To me, the success of the cyberactivists in Tunisia is actually very interesting, because many of them explicitly rejected any support from Washington. They said: "We don't want any of your money for trainings. We don't want any of your money for helping us run our new media sites, because this money will make us look as just agents of Washington, or, even worse in that region, as agents of Israel." And there is no way they want to take that money. And they rejected the Internet freedom agenda. ...

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Posted Feburary 22, 2011

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