The Web Whisperers

“If you want to liberate a country, give them the Internet.” Famous words from Wael Ghonim, a Google executive and Egyptian who surreptitiously launched a Facebook page that many associate with the origins of the Egyptian revolution in spring 2011.

It’s hard to believe that just eight years earlier, when the use of the Internet was much less ubiquitous, McLaughlin (2003) published his research, “The use of the Internet for political action by non-state dissident actors in the Middle East,” predicting with a prescient line in his conclusion, “As Internet access grows around the world and diffuses to poorly connected regions, it is likely that Internet-based political dissidence will grow and evolve as well.”

ImageAnd so it did, during the Arab Spring, where revolutions were catching on like wildfires, and country governments toppled one after the other. At the time, there was heightened debate online about the role social media and the internet actually played. Devin Coldewey of TechCrunch downplayed social media’s role, “Twitter and Facebook are indeed useful tools,” he said, “but they are not tools of revolution—at least no more than Paul Revere’s horse was.”

Malcolm Gladwell, also minimized social media’s part in organizing real social activism. In a New Yorker article, he wrote, “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”

McLaughlin’s model analyzing the early days of non-state dissidents’ use of the Internet for political activism shows that “how they do it” is indeed very interesting and critical to truly understanding the evolution of how people depend on the Internet to organize revolutions or press for policy change.

McLaughlin groups the types of non-state dissidents first by objective: are they trying to overthrow the government or just make some policy changes within a current system. Then, he categorizes them by target audience. Are they trying to drum up support domestically, internationally, or trying to erode support for the government regime?

By approaching the study this way, and capturing how each group reacts to various levels of censorship, McLaughlin provides some powerful insights on the delicate balance between a government’s desire to maintain control and a dissident’s desire for equal rights, change, and a free voice.

McLaughlin chose Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia as case studies. Interestingly, when the governments of Egypt and Jordan banned political discourse online, the Muslim Brotherhood organizations in those countries toned down their messaging content and started up new websites that were more based toward religion and charity.

This contrasted with how the Saudi group MIRA reacted in the face of government opposition to their Internet presence. Saudi Arabia, the most autocratic regime of the three case studies, aggressively sought to limit the effectiveness of MIRA’s political activities, first by limiting Internet infrastructure and then by employing a framework of legal and technological censorship.

The reaction from the MIRA was to get around the government by printing their content, making copies, and then passing them out via hardcopies and fax machines. That’s right, fax machines. Just like before the Internet, people take advantage of any tool that helps tell their story better.

But a lot has changed since the McLaughlin article was published. He states that there were less than 2,000,000 total internet users in the Middle East in 2003. Seven years later, there were 20,000,000 users, according to Internet World Stats, and in 2012 there were 77 million. An increase of nearly 40 times.

ImageWith more users, there is more documentation of harsher tactics in Egypt on the part of the government. “In Egypt, the Muslim brotherhood was not only punished by having their websites shut down,” said Canadian videographer and photographer, Sophie Tremblay, who spent six weeks in Egypt after the fall of Mubarek. “I hear stories and saw physical evidence of torture and one of the demands from the military if you wanted to go free was that you swore you would never blog again.”

Further evidence of how threatened the military was of the power of the Internet. Tremblay heard story after story about how the Internet helped ordinary Egyptians realize that there were other people like themselves who weren’t satisfied with the status quo. The Internet allowed them to get around laws preventing gathering, so they were able to share ideas, express their opinions, anonymously, at first, just Web Whisperers, until they felt comfortable and safe, and had amassed enough voices to gather publicly and be heard.

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  1. Nice presentation Jill. I do share Wael Ghonim’s view of “If you want to liberate a country, give them the Internet.” However, as I read in The Net Delusion, this can often come with a price especially when the country that’s using the Internet to try and be liberated is also being tricked and fooled by operatives of the oppressive regime who are also using it!

    The Infographic on slide 5 is really telling of the overall explosion of the Internet globally – especially in such a short amount of time.

    McLaughlin’s predictions were spot on especially with all the 4Chan/Anonymous stuff happening and with the whole Wikileaks situation. There has certainly been an increase in dissident activity that the Internet has helped to support. I suspect we’re only going to see more of it, perhaps in ways we can’t imagine right now.

  1. Session 4 – Global Systems, Watchdogs and What Comes Next « UW Digital Democracy

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