Following the massive protests in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke about the importance of Internet freedom and social media. USIP’s Sheldon Himelfarb examines how – and how much – the Internet can impact politics and be a force for freedom.

 

February 18, 2011

Following the massive protests in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke about the importance of Internet freedom and social media. USIP’s Sheldon Himelfarb examines how – and how much – the Internet can impact politics and be a force for freedom. Read Himelfarb’s earlier discussion about the role of social media in Egypt.

Secretary Clinton spoke today about Internet freedom, and the recent developments in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.. Based on your research, how has the Internet influenced political and social change in recent history?

What our research tells us, first and foremost, is that we won’t have a clear picture of the internet’s role in the recent developments in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East until the dust settles, and the data is collected and analyzed. Last year’s so-called Twitter Revolution in Iran ultimately proved to be neither a revolution nor twitter-driven upon careful analysis of the activity on that platform. We also know from our research (see the Blogs and Bullets Peaceworks) that understanding the internet’s role requires disentangling the different channels (blogs, tweets, Facebook,) as well as different levels of activism -- individual, group, inter-group, regime. It’s complicated and, next week in Silicon Valley, we are bringing together an array of some of the best researchers on the internet – pioneers in link analysis, meme tracking, sentiment analysis and the like – with the companies themselves (Facebook, YouTube, Ebay, Google etc) to try and begin unpacking the incredible events of the last few months.

So that’s what our research has told us – don’t rush to judgment about the role of technology in anything as complex as political and social change.

At the same time, I want to call out the voices of the activists themselves. If you listen to these voices – whether it’s Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was jailed for his role in helping to organize the protests in Egypt, or Ai Wei Wei in China who was also jailed for his activism – their answer is loud and clear: the Internet IS the key enabler of these revolutions, they proclaim unequivocally.. And as we’ve followed the progress of the freedom movements over the last few years, from Colombia to Cairo, it seems that they’ve only become more certain and strident about this.

And, candidly, I think their clear and unwavering voices are helping to drive the Administration and others towards greater policy-level activism, of the kind we saw in the Secretary of State remarks today. We could and undoubtedly will debate the merits of the specifics: Is a fund of $25 million for developing circumvention technologies too little too late or just right? Are we doing enough to hold the companies accountable who are producing the filtering and security technologies that the authoritarian regimes are buying to crack down on their citizens etc et? But if you step back from the specifics, what I think we see is ever greater confidence in our support for Internet freedom, and a hardening commitment to ensuring that this transformative technology is a shared global resource.

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