Claims of the Internet’s transformative power in regime overthrow are overrated
A few miles from the advancing tanks of President Bashar Al Assad’s army, a young Syrian pledged to leave the safety of a Turkish border town and make a perilous return to his homeland. This 20-something dissident, his eyes blazing with courage, was preparing to join the struggle against an obdurate and pitiless dictator. And how was he planning to speed up the regime’s downfall?
The activist – I’ll call him Ahmed – told me that he would tweet, text, blog and Skype to ensure that the outside world knew the terrible reality of Mr Assad’s rule.
There was no doubting his bravery, nor his dedication. But if Ahmed does become another citizen journalist, a “networked individual” plugged into the full array of social media, will it really be the best way to loosen Mr Assad’s grip on power?
Earlier, I had talked to fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the country’s nascent rebel movement. They were stuck in Turkey, on the wrong side of a border laced by minefields, patrolled by troops and menaced by snipers. The guerrillas were ready and willing to strike into Syria, but realistic enough to know that any raid would probably become a bloody failure. Even if it succeeded, these lightly armed fighters could only inflict a pinprick on Mr Assad’s forces.
LIMITS OF SOCIAL MEDIA
So does Syria’s uprising need more technologically savvy multimedia activists? Or – to be blunt – does it require more people inside the country blowing things up?
In the end, which poses the greater threat to a repressive regime: Its atrocities being instantly relayed across the world on Twitter, or a well-armed, tightly organised insurgency?
The 13 months of Syria’s revolt have starkly illustrated the limits of social media as an engine of revolution, and of the claims made for the Internet’s transformative power.
Yes, countless supporters within Syria and across the globe have been galvanised on Facebook and Twitter. Yes, the harrowing video clips on YouTube mean that no one – anywhere – can plead ignorance of Mr Assad’s atrocities. All this has unquestionably helped to keep Syria at the forefront of the diplomatic agenda, despite the mainstream media being largely excluded from the country. But Mr Assad is still there – and over the past two months, his stranglehold has tightened.
To overthrow a dictator as skilled and as ruthless as this, you need more than a vast, horizontal, global network of online activists filling cyberspace with tweets, texts and videos.
You need a rigidly hierarchical, relatively small and highly organised circle of people located within the country, capable of taking direct action against the state. Put simply, you need to forget Twitter and adopt methods that are as old as insurrection itself.
THE ALGERIAN EXPERIENCE
When the National Liberation Front (FLN) took up arms against French rule in Algeria in 1954, this prototype revolutionary army created a cell structure based on a simple triangle.
Every new insurgent was ordered to recruit two more; each newcomer then chose two others. And so the triangles multiplied, eventually giving the FLN the ability to shut down Algiers with a general strike, call mass demonstrations, set off bombs or ambush French troops.
French intelligence, meanwhile, had an immensely complicated task. If an FLN fighter was arrested and broken under interrogation, he would only be able to offer up three names: The person who chose him, and the two volunteers he enlisted. If he could hold out for a few days, this might allow these people to go into hiding and others to be chosen in their place. The triangles not only multiplied, but were self-replacing.
France came within an ace of crushing the FLN during the urban counter-insurgency campaign known as the Battle of Algiers in 1957. But, somehow, the triangles always reproduced faster than they could be broken.
TURNED AGAINST ITS USERS
Any intelligence veteran from that era would envy the task of their Syrian counterparts today. Mr Assad’s security men can identify their enemies simply by hacking their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Once compromised, these will obligingly yield reams of conveniently listed “friends” and “followers”.
Worse, the activists will probably have no idea what has happened, allowing Syrian intelligence to learn all about what they are doing before choosing the moment to strike. And social media can also be turned against its users, with the creation of fake activists, stolen identities, lies and disinformation.
The whole point of these platforms is ease of access and use: Unlike the FLN’s triangles, they are inherently easy to penetrate. As such, social media is the exact opposite of a useful tool for a revolution.
Had Twitter existed in the ’50s, perhaps Algeria would have stayed French for another decade or two.
We can be sure that Syrian intelligence is well aware of these vulnerabilities because it has an exceptionally well-informed tutor.
Iran faced a Twitter and Facebook-fuelled revolt in 2009 after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory in a rigged election. The unrest was a classic product of the networked age: Leaderless, horizontal, vast, inchoate and organised – if that is the right term – in ways that were totally insecure and open to penetration.
Iranian intelligence duly turned social media against the activists, using it to identify and arrest the regime’s opponents by the thousands. Iran’s still-born revolt was crushed in a matter of months.
OVERTHROW BY VENERABLE MEANS
But what about the uprisings last year as part of the Arab Spring? Surely the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were classic examples of Facebook and Twitter earthquakes, allowing activists to rally unstoppable protests against two repressive regimes?
Certainly, the crowds that filled Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis and Tahrir Square in Cairo could not have been mobilised with such speed in the absence of social media. But they could also have been shot out of hand.
These first two revolts of the Arab Spring succeeded mainly because the regimes concerned held back from using overwhelming force. The armies of Tunisia and Egypt were not turned on the crowds: Tahrir did not become another Tiananmen.
There were two reasons for this comparative restraint – and both were decidedly old-world. Egypt and Tunisia gave the mainstream media free access to their countries, meaning that any massacre would have been carried live on the BBC. And both were allies of the West, which made clear that it would not tolerate such bloodshed.
When it comes to Mr Assad, neither constraint applies, which is why he is ruthlessly suppressing his opponents and trying to use social media against them.
Nor, incidentally, was Colonel Gaddafi much bothered by these moderating factors: His overthrow was the result not of Twitter but of a classic military campaign.
If Syria’s regime is to fall as Libya’s did, the venerable methods of revolution, uncluttered by social media, will have to be used once again.
David Blair is the chief foreign correspondent at The Daily Telegraph.