Digital Technology Plays Two-Sided Role in Political Uprisings

In times of political unrest, governments frequently try to block international communications, but as technology evolves protesters continue to find more and more ways to get around government censorship.

Just last week, activists in Egypt managed to use dial-up modems and satellite phones to get reports, images and video out of massive civil unrest in the country, despite the government’s unprecedented move to block virtually all Internet and cell phone service.

But a month prior, activists in Tunisia had digital technology turned on them when the government allegedly captured its citizens' usernames and passwords on various e-mail and social media sites in order to spy on them and squelch dissenting speech.

So what kind of role has digital technology played in recent political uprisings and what kind of an impact has it had?

One of the first instances of digital technology in political uprisings was seen in the 2000 student-led Serbian uprising, which led to the overthrow of dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

“There were two means of communication: the Internet and the mobile phone. We used the Internet between offices (laptops were still expensive) and mobile phones because of their abundant availability,” Ivan Marovic, one of the founders of the movement, Otpor, said in a 2008 thesis interview.

The group, Marovic said, had “four laptops and four digital cameras to record police brutality. Imagine if we had had phones with cameras, like last year in Burma.”

But even the basic cell phones allowed Marovic and his colleagues to coordinate a mass movement and the logistics behind it.

“We used SMS a lot. For instance, to invite people to a meeting we had a program that would send SMS to the listed number,” Marovic said. “The most important was the march from Novi Sad to Belgrade on April 14th, 2000. That’s some 80km, 24 hours on foot. We had to coordinate things while walking. For example, the food waiting for us in different towns. Also, buses for those who couldn’t walk anymore. Then the welcoming rally in Belgrade, and finally, to inform the press. I used up three [cell phone] batteries that night.”

Four years later, the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine took a cue from Otpor, using digital technology to mobilize hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to hit the streets – some sleeping outside in tent cities through 11 freezing November nights -- in protest of an allegedly fraudulent presidential election.

“The opposition leaders wanted to maintain 100,000 simultaneous protesters 24-7 in the main square and they quickly built a notification system using text messaging so if somebody had to leave in order to go pick up their kids at school or go to their job or for whatever reason that they would be able to text someone to come take their place,” Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, told

But experts say the movement would not have happened without the Internet, especially in light of the government’s censorship of mainstream media.

“The Internet became the nearly exclusive portal for samizdat journalism, the Soviet era tradition of covertly publishing works that would otherwise be censored or endanger the author,” The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University said in a 2007 study. “These websites made an indelible impact by creating an alternative media voice that led an increasing number of people to challenge the official line presented by the mainstream media and Kuchma regime.”

A third, reportedly more fair, election was eventually held and Victor Yushenko, the more democratic candidate favored by the protesters, was declared the winner.

Just three years later, protesters demanding an end to 45 years of military dictatorship in Burma, also known as Union of Myanmar, had an ever easier time documenting the uprising – they had cameras right on their phones.

The 2007 protests, triggered by overnight fuel price hike in August, escalated dramatically in September when Buddhist monks joined the movement.

The Myanmar government responded brutally but cut Internet access in hopes of hiding the violence from the rest of the world. Thanks to cell phones cameras, YouTube videos, blogs and photo sites like Flickr, activists found ways around the black out.

“Citizen Witnesses are using cellphones and the Internet to beam out images of bloodied monks and street fires, subverting the Myanmar government's effort to control media coverage and present a sanitized version of the uprising,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

These protests never reached any concrete conclusion, but the citizen journalism during the uprising allowed the world to witness the government’s brutality first-hand in the stiffest challenge to Myanmar's ruling junta in nearly two decades.

A disputed election at the end of that year in Kenya brought Internet and text messages together in a way they never had never been joined before.

“As word spread throughout Kenya that incumbent presidential candidate Mwai Kibaki had rigged the recent presidential election, text messages urging violence spread across the country and tribal and politically motivated attacks were perpetrated throughout Kenya,” the Berkman Center said in a 2008 study.

“There were protests demonstrations, the government’s security forces started to crack down creating violent dissidence around parts of Kenya, and a young woman by the name of Ory Okolloh reached out to techies that built a mapping system called Ushahidi, which means witness in Swahili,” Rasiej said. “They made it possible for people to text incidences of violence, and it would instantly post on a map like on a Google map, providing a visual display of all the incidents happening across the country.”

That display was then used to share those incidences with the international community and media “which then started covering the violence and putting pressure on the regime to stop attacking protesters,” Rasiej said.

“It’s now being used in everything from mapping the disaster in Haiti, which it continues to do, to parking spaces in D.C. and N.Y. during snowstorm, to the Chilean earthquake, to the Gulf Coast oil spill,” he added.

But two years later it was social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that were all the rage.
Activists in Moldova relied heavily on both sites in April 2009 to raise awareness and plan protests after the communist party there won a majority of seats in what protesters called a fraudulent election.

"It just happened through Twitter, the blogosphere, the Internet, SMS, websites and all this stuff. We just met, we brainstormed for 15 minutes, and decided to make a flash mob [internet-organised spontaneous public gathering]...In several hours, 15,000 people came out into the street," Natalia Morar, the journalist accused of masterminding Moldova's "Twitter revolution’ told the BBC.

The protesters, some who turned violent, first picketed Election Commission headquarters, the president’s residence and other government buildings before storming the building of the Moldovan Parliament, Foreign Policy contributing editor Evgeny Morozov wrote in the magazine’s "Net Effect" blog.

Once there, protesters got around blocked cell phone coverage in the central square by sending information via Twitter using their phones’ GPRS technology, Morozov wrote.

A recount held roughly two weeks later reinforced the original election results. The opposition argued that because the ballots themselves were fraudulent, recounting the same ballots once again yielded fraudulent results.

But though the Moldova uprising earned the name the “Twitter Revolution,” Rasiej says it was the Iranian “Green Revolution” -- also called the “Twitter Revolution” by some -- that most notably defined online political organizing, Rasiej says.

After the June 2009 Iranian Presidential Election brought the return of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, protests began around the country and in other areas of the world alleging the results were a coup.

In response, the government shut down text messaging, blocked Facebook and YouTube and cut off the BBC Persian-language service — but they forgot about Twitter.

Iranian Twitterers, used camera phones to take pictures and videos of huge demonstrations and bloodied protesters throughout the weekend, detailing crackdowns on students at Tehran University and giving out proxy Web addresses that let users bypass the Islamic Republic's censors.

They then used the proxy servers to get photos and videos of brutal attacks on demonstrators up on YouTube and Flickr for the web for the world to see.

Protestors also called for cyberattacks on Ahmadinejad’s government websites, which went down for a short period of time, and Twitter users across the globe set their home city and network to Tehran, in hopes of shielding protestors there from being as easily caught by the government.

Still the Guardian council certified the election and on August 5, Ahmadinejad was sworn in for his second term.

It’s important to consider how technology “empowers the government via surveillance, how it disempowers citizens via entertainment, how it transforms the nature of dissent by shifting it into a more virtual realm, how it enables governments to produce better and more effective propaganda, and so forth,” Authory Evgeny Morozov explains in his book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.

Morozov says while the Internet “could make the next revolution more effective, it could also make it less likely.”

Rasiej agreed, saying in Iran, authorities “started flooding the Internet with false images and false tweets in order to confuse and cover for the ones that were particularly onerous.”

He says accuracy of information from protesters is also an issue.

“People don’t realize that if somebody’s taking a picture of somebody shooting a gun and the next image is a picture of someone lying on the ground bleeding, that doesn’t necessarily mean that person shooting the gun shot that person,” he said. “There was a whole bunch of videos that came out during the Iran revolution where the storyline was trying to be continuous but then people started noticing that the shadows of the trees were different from one scene to the next.”

But as technology continues to evolve, Rasiej says, so will people’s understanding of and reaction to it.

“It’s extrememly chaotic, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s extremely powerful and impactful in its use,” he said.

Fox News' Garrett Tenney, Alexandra Hein and Patrick Manning contributed to this report.