By Josh Linden
You may not suspect it, but the Middle East is pretty wired these days. Increasingly so, in fact. By some estimates, the region has the second fastest-growing Internet market in the world. Around 60 percent of Arab youths between 18 - 24 use computers on a regular basis. Four out of five own mobile phones. These technologies have become so ubiquitous, so accessible, that social networking has replaced more conventional modes as the preferred choice for keeping in touch with family and friends.
Evolving communication habits have, unsurprisingly, prompted a serious rethinking of practical social movement theory, particularly in a Middle Eastern context where autocratic power is often derived from a government's ability to monitor, control, and ultimately eliminate publicly available space for civic discourse. Seen as one of the most intractable problems in the broader MENA region, the dearth of free and open forums for political parties, labor unions, religous sects, or other advocacy groups has led droves of Western pundits and politicians to extol the virtues of information and connection technologies (ICT) in the ongoing effort to confront what they view as belligerent and repressive regimes. Just last week the Treasury Department eased Internet export restrictions to a number of countries, including Iran and Sudan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lent the weight of her office to the subject as well, delivering a highly-publicized speech on Internet Freedom earlier this year.
As the theory goes, arming moderate voices with cutting edge connective tools will help reformists circumvent traditional authoritarian restrictions on civil society, ostensibly leading to the creation of a massive online public square where people of all backgrounds can disseminate information, exchange ideas, and organize for a common cause.
It's a perfectly sensible argument to be sure, and ICT has undoubtedly been a prime-time player in many recent events. When the Iranian regime attacked demonstrators in last summer's post-election mayhem, oppositionists coordinated and provided real-time updates via social media. More recently, after former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammad ElBaradei returned to his home country of Egypt to pursue a reformist political agenda, Facebook and Google helped sustain his momentum by providing easily accessible interactive outlets for communication with fellow ElBaradei supporters.
But if you remain skeptical that ICT is some sort of panacea for political and social progress, you're not alone. Technology is, after all, a value-neutral tool. Just as it can be used by well-intentioned activists for freedom or human rights, it can be exploited by extremist groups to recruit, propagandize, and organize for nefarious purposes. In one particularly clever case of cyber-warfare, Hamas supporters set off a "Google bomb" during the 2008 Gaza war, essentially skewing Google's search returns so that a specific message or recruitment website would always show up in response to popular key words.
The more pernicious abuses, however, occur on the state level, where governments are weaponizing ICT to wield against political dissidents. And it can be devastatingly effective. Oppositionists are, often out of necessity, diligent users of publicly accessible social media, making them vulnerable to increasingly Internet savvy government officials. Sure, there are success stories. But for every award given to a courageous crew of Iranian female bloggers — such as the recent honor bestowed upon the contributors to the site Change for Equality [Farsi] by Reporters Without Borders — there are a littany of arrests, convictions, and cases of general malfeasance.
Yet by no means should this suggest the effort is futile. I'm a big supporter of the innovative use of technology to mobilize for positive change, and I empathize with the citizen journalists and activists on the ground who risk life and limb to challenge the status quo; to some extent, it feels a bit silly talking about it from a Western perspective, since U.S. campaigns have been utilizing ICT for years free from the fear of state-sanctioned retribution. The Middle East poses a number of unique challenges, no doubt. But the documented exploitation of ICT by extremists and governments alike should be instructive. If U.S. policymakers devise tools to aid the proliferation of ICT in areas under authoritarian rule, they must do so thoughtfully in order to effectively provide a counterweight to the nefarious usages of these same technologies. Otherwise, it's entirely possible that these transformative tools, seen by many as democratizing agents, could sow the seeds of their own destruction.
As Jared Cohen — a member of Secretary Clinton's policy planning staff — said at a recent event on new media in foreign policy, "Technology is impacting civil society. It's not changing how big it is, but rather how visible, expansive, and inclusive it is." In other words, ICT exerts significant forces — but without smart U.S. and Western engagement, the trajectory of those forces might only reinforce the pillars of autocratic power.