INTELTRENDS: The role of social networking websites in global unrest
By Steve in Wisconsin
January 29, 2011
During the anti-government protests following Iran’s 2009 election it was reported that protestors were using social networking sites, such as Twitter, to muster their forces. Iran accused Western powers of having a hand in the rebellion and coordinating these activities via the internet. The same social networks played a role in ‘color revolutions’ in Europe and elsewhere.
Allegations that Facebook, Twitter, and Google in particular, serve the interests of intelligence agencies abound; Twitter serving primarily in rapid communications of short messages and instructions.
Social networking played a role in ousting Tunisian president Zine Al Ben Ali. So much so, in fact, that Egyptian authorities quickly shut down the internet at the onset of the uprising there this week.
Social networks as assets of the authorities
As a former law enforcement officer I see the investigative advantages of social networking sites, particularly Facebook.
Facebook links individuals with their friends, family members, acquaintances and social circles. Photographs of all of these people are available – having been voluntarily submitted by the people themselves. The worldwide popularity of Facebook extends to young and old alike, rich and poor, successful or impoverished. From simply a police perspective, a fugitive, drug dealer or criminal can be quickly linked to family and friends — intelligence that can point to his or her whereabouts, criminal associates, and those likely to hide him from authorities. Top this off with high-resolution photos of everyone involved and you have an indispensible investigative tool that extends from the local level up to global intelligence.
Google complements social networks in collecting information
With regard to Google, does anyone but me think it’s unusual that a “search engine” engages in satellite photography (Google Earth) and photographing city streets and neighborhoods (Google Street View)? Google’s acquisition of Blogger, Feedburner, and other web assets help to assemble pieces of an intelligence puzzle, i.e. the subscriber lists to blog newsfeeds and emails, the identity of blog owners, which blogs link to other blogs having common political or ideological interests, etc. Recent allegations that Google was involved in collecting information about home wireless networks shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
Could social networking backfire on the West?
The same networks that were instrumental in fomenting Iran’s anti-government protests now appear to have been used by Tunisians and Egyptians seeking to overthrow their respective governments. The recent article in Algeria’s Ennahar newspaper, titled “Facebook, a U.S. program to bring down Arab regimes“, may have it all wrong. Rather than being used by America to ‘bring down Arab regimes’ it appears that Facebook and Twitter may have been harnessed by the masses to bring down pro-U.S. regimes instead.
The inherent danger of social networking sites is the ability to use this format for secret communications.
I bought a book in South Africa in the early 1980s, set during the waning days of Rhodesia’s white rule, wherein the phrase “See you in November” was used in telephone conversations to convey the message that a covert SAS operation was a “go” – the phrase itself being so innocent when used in general conversation that anyone listening in would be oblivious to what was being communicated. The same applies to social networking sites today. Instructions can be conveyed to hundreds or even thousands of individuals by posting messages of seemingly innocent nature. This may yet come back to bite the West in the backside.
America has long associated freedom of speech and internet access as indicators of the level of democracy in foreign lands. Governments such as China, for example, are routinely condemned for blocking access to Facebook, Google and YouTube. However, it is precisely because these governments are aware of the threat posed by these sites that they are blocked. China learned the power of the internet first hand when the Falun Gong religious sect mobilized 10,000 followers at a moments notice to protest against the government. This was a wake-up call for the Chinese who promptly banned the sect and blocked their website.
Using social networks to implement regime change
The full extent of social networking sites’ ability to topple governments has yet to be seen but it is likely that pro-Western authoritarian regimes will be targeted. As I wrote in an earlier article (deleted when Blogger/Google closed down my previous newsblog, hence I’m on WordPress now) the unrest in North Africa, the Caucasus, Middle East and Central Asia must be viewed within the larger context of an Islamic Caliphate, rather than as mere regional conflicts within the Islamic world. Until analysts see “the big picture” the situation will continue to deteriorate and Western interference in these conflicts will only exacerbate the problem.
UPDATE: See also:
Google Launches Service Letting Egyptians Tweet by Phone
Egypt: Google executive will become a ‘hero’ of the revolution upon release
Twitter, Facebook look engaged in U.S. policy, Armenian blogger says
Egypt: Google ‘very, very proud’ of cyber revolutionary
Steve in Wisconsin is a former deputy sheriff with travels in Africa, Asia and Central America. His primary blog is inteltrends.wordpress.com.
Revised since originally posted.