As the pundits were busy celebrating the contribution of Twitter and Facebook to protests in Tunisia and Egypt, most of them ignored the terrifying news from Iran, where on Monday two activists were hanged for distributing video footage on the Internet from the country's 2009 “Twitter Revolution.”
The contrast between Tunisia and Iran couldn't be starker: The former has just installed a dissident blogger as a government minister while the latter is still persecuting those who dared to challenge the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 18 months after the elections. Fortunately for Tunisian dissident bloggers, their army refused to shoot the protesters, the country's much-hated ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia and the new government has shown no intention of going after the protesters, many of whom are now celebrated as heroes. However, had the events in Tunisia turned otherwise – with Mr. Ben Ali staying in office after a bloody crackdown – it is likely that his secret police would now be acting very much like Iran's, turning to social-networking sites to identify his opponents.
As protests spread in the Arab world, much has been said about the democratizing power of the Internet, however, it is important to note that in the hands of an authoritarian regime it can become a tool of repression. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been used to publicize protests and share videos of police brutality, but they can also be used to track down dissidents after protests subside.
Egypt is one case where it is still hard to predict which side – President Hosni Mubarak's brutal police force or the predominantly peaceful protesters – will prevail in the long term. A 26-page leaflet with protest tips that has been distributed in Cairo explicitly warns its recipients to distribute it with the help of photocopiers and e-mail rather than social media, as the security police could be watching the latter. These concerns became less of an issue on Thursday, as the Mubarak regime pulled the plug on most of the country's communication systems, including the Internet and mobile networks.
That Iranians, Tunisians and Egyptians would be using the Internet to communicate is of little surprise; there is a symbiotic relationship between revolutionary movements and the latest communications technologies. Lenin lauded the power of the telegraph and the postal service while the Iranian Revolution of 1979 owes a great debt to the tape recorder, which allowed Ayatollah Khomeini to record his sermons in Paris and have them smuggled back to the Shah's Iran.
So it is only natural that the new protest movements in the Middle East turn to Facebook and Twitter: These platforms are cheap and provide almost instantaneous visibility to their causes. And those causes do not need to be widely admired in the West. As both Lenin and Khomeini discovered, one doesn't have to be a proponent of liberal democracy to make effective use of new communication tools. Were a revolution to break out in modern Russia, for example, it is likely to be led by anti-Western nationalists, who have made a far more effective use of new media than the Kremlin's liberal opponents.
The lesson for tyrants here is simple: The only way to minimize their exposure to digitally enabled protests is to establish full control over all telecommunications infrastructure in the country. A “kill-switch” button to turn off all digital networks in times of a crisis is a must. This explains why just a few months after the contested elections of 2009, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard acquired a controlling stake in Telecommunication Company of Iran, giving the group that is traditionally loyal to Mr. Ahmadinejad control over the country's telephone, mobile and Internet communications. It is likely that other dictators will heed the Iranian experience as they watch Tunisia and Egypt.
The events in these two countries provide grounds for optimism about the power of the Internet, but the biggest problem with studying the impact of the Internet on authoritarianism is that most often it benefits both the oppressor and the oppressed (albeit to different degrees). Thus, the Internet is an excellent platform for inciting revolutionary sentiment – and tracking down wannabe revolutionaries; it is a handy vehicle for spreading propaganda – and revealing government lies; it provides a platform that facilitates government surveillance – and helps people evade it.
When the dictators of yesteryear cut telephone lines to contain protests, they didn't always shut down the radio – if only to preserve the ability to spread pacifying propaganda. The Internet, however, plays the role of both the telephone and the radio; it has many uses, some of them more salient than others at particular points in the political cycle. Thus, there is nothing logically incoherent in dictators' desire to shut down this platform in periods of protest – and exploit it to their benefit in periods of relative stability. Those who think that there is nothing for dictators to gain from the Web because they shut it down during protests have a naive view of modern authoritarianism.
It is plausible that certain features of the Internet-mediated politics in oppressive societies will make periods of relative stability longer and more frequent. The secret police can now learn more about those opposing the state by looking up their profiles – and their friends' profiles – on social-media sites. The state ideologues can now bolster the legitimacy of the regime by creating suave new media propaganda and claim that it represents “the voice of the people.” Young people can be distracted away from politics by the new i-opium of the masses that is never in short supply online.
None of this boosts the odds of a revolution in any given regime – but then there are plenty of non-digital factors that could make a revolution more likely. It would be absurd to suggest that Internet control could make problems such as unemployment or corruption simply go away. However, energy-rich regimes that keep on growing while publicizing their fake wars on corruption do have a good shot at survival – and they will find the means to use the Internet to their own advantage. To lose sight of this crucial fact is to let those who help to prolong their survival – above all, Western companies that supply them with censorship and surveillance technology – off the hook far too easily.
Evgeny Morozov is the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom .