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How to Ignite, or Quash, a Revolution in 140 Characters or Less

The Promise and Limitations of New Technologies in Spreading Democracy

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Do the Internet and social media empower Big Brother or individuals in autocratic regimes, or do they offer a rare level playing field?

This year’s Arab Spring resurrected exuberant claims for the role of new technologies in spreading democracy. At the same time self-proclaimed “cyber-realists” were quick to point out that President Mubarak’s problems seemed to grow after he unplugged the Internet. Now, summer’s deadly stalemate in Syria has given pause to anyone peddling absolute theories about the interplay between new information technologies and revolution.  

If not a panacea, how can social media and the Internet be deployed to maximize civic engagement in autocratic societies? Does the U.S. policy of supporting Internet freedom amount to a policy of regime change in some countries? When Big Brother does unplug the Internet, what can -- or should -- the rest of us do about it?

A full writeup of the discussions from this July 13 Future Tense event can be found in the agenda below. 

For Slate's coverage, please see:


Video of the full event is available here, or jump to individual discussions below.

2:00 pm - Reflecting on the Tunisian Hair Trigger [Video]

Sami Ben Gharbia (from Tunisia)

Co-founder, nawaat.org

Advocacy Director, Global Voices


Steve Coll


New America Foundation 

Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, welcomed the audience, and explained that the Future Tense Initiative was created “to bring to Washington policy discussions about how technology was changing the world that Washington routinely makes assumptions about.” Coll then turned to a conversation with Sami Ben Gharbia, a Tunisian blogger and advocacy director at Global Voices, who spoke from Tunisia via Skype about the origins of online activism, before the revolution gained momentum. Ben Gharbia explained the history of online censorship in Tunisia, starting with the government censoring and blocking of sites that criticized the regime. It then spread to more general blogs as blogging became more popular. Self-censorship emerged, in which bloggers refrained from writing about the government for fear of persecution. After blocking video-sharing sites DailyMotion and YouTube in 2007, the Tunisian government briefly blocked Facebook for 10 days but unblocked it after protests spread. After all other social media sites were blocked, Tunisians gathered on Facebook, which became a hub for activists. Ben Gharbia said online censorship in Tunisia created a generation that knows how to circumvent censorship, use proxy servers and secure communication channels.

2:20 pm - Internet Freedom and Human Rights: The Obama Administration's Perspective [Video]

Michael H. Posner

Assistant Secretary of State for Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

U.S. Department of State



Jacob Weisberg

Chairman and Editor-in-Chief

Slate Group 

Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. State Department, delivered an address about the state of Internet freedom around the world. He talked about technologies being developed with help from the State Department to help people under repressive regimes access the Internet, saying governments that suppress the Internet are governments that fear their people. “Governments that respect the rights of their citizens have no reason to fear a free Internet,” he said. After the address, Jacob Weisberg, editor in chief of Slate Group, joined Posner for further discussion. In the discussion, Posner said technology has played a role in communicating in the Arab Spring, but the key factor is when the people of a country lose their fear of the regime and protest despite pushback, as is happening in Syria and Libya. “The technology alone isn’t enough. People have to be themselves ready to take to the streets or to organize, and civil society organizations in Syria are evolving, but they’re coming out of a very tough environment,” Posner said.

2:50 pm - Friending Revolutions: Social Media and Political Change in Egypt and Beyond  [Video]

Merlyna Lim

Professor, Consortium of Science, Policy and Outcomes and the School of Social Transformation - Justice and Social Inquiry Program

Arizona State University

Professor Merlyna Lim from Arizona State’s Consortium of Policy, Science and Outcomes presented on the history of activism in Egypt and how social media contributed to the revolution. The revolution goes beyond Facebook, she said. The Egyptian people held the revolution based on injustices and grievances that existed before social media, and the moment of the revolution was the result of a long history. Oppositional forces organized in traditional clusters (e.g., leftist, Islamist, secularist, reformist), but Kefaya, the Egyptian Movement for Change, formed around 2004 with people from all of these clusters and became prominent in the blogosphere. Activist bloggers associated with Kefaya took to Facebook in 2008 and opened up to people with weak ties to the group. As some people “liked” the group, their Facebook friends were influenced to “like” the group as well, expanding the reach of the movement and allowing more people to form emotional connections to the message. The role of social media in this sense was to expand the audience and spread the message of needing a new government.

3:10 pm - How the Arab Spring Begat a Deadly Summer  [Video]

Oula Alrifai

Syrian Youth Activist


Ahmed Al Omran

Blogger, Saudijeans.org


Andrew J. Tabler

Next Generation Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Author, In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of  Washington's Battle



Katherine Zoepf

Schwartz Fellow, New America Foundation

Contributor, New York Times

Katherine Zoepf, a Schwartz Fellow at New America and a New York Times contributor, moderated a discussion with Syrian youth activist Oula Alrifai, Saudi blogger Ahmed Al Omran and journalist Andrew Tabler. Al Omran explained how he got into online activism about Saudi Arabia, where political discussion is against the law. Last year was a year of opposition campaigns, he said, and the Internet became a forum for the opposition in a country where people are not allowed to protest. Alrifai discussed a conference she participated in this year in Antalya, Turkey, where Syrian activists gathered to support the growing revolution. Many had to sneak out of Syria to attend the conference, she said, and many even returned to Syria afterward to continue protests. Tabler, who has written a lot about older opposition forces in Syria, talked about the rise of a younger, more tech-savvy opposition that isn’t interested in compromising with the established regime. The people are now realizing there are no positive aspects to the regime remaining in power, fueling the opposition movement. The uprisings could continue for a long time, and could become much more violent, he said, but they will not be able to last without changing dramatically to meet new social conditions.

4:00 pm - Myths, Realities, and Inconvenient Truths of the Internet  [Video]

Rebecca MacKinnon

Senior Schwartz Fellow, New America Foundation

Co-founder, Global Voices Online  

Rebecca MacKinnon, a Schwartz Fellow at New America and co-founder of Global Voices Online, presented on some of the misconceptions that have persisted regarding the use of technology, social media and freedom around the world. While Facebook is dominant in most parts of the world, some countries have other social networks based on government partnerships and censorship. China, for example, gives out “self-discipline” awards to companies that do a good job of censoring their content and policing their users. This system makes citizens feel like they have a lot more freedom than they used to on these government-run networks, but they’re still being tracked, censored and contained a great deal. Russia, on the other hand, doesn’t block access to many sites, but uses intense intimidation to discourage online activism. Much of the technology used to censor and track citizens is provided by companies in North America, and political currents in the West occasionally champion certain types of censorship that could come with unintended and far-reaching consequences. MacKinnon said we ultimately need to make sure the Internet evolves in a way that empowers people and minimizes the way in which it can be used for control.

4:30 pm - The View from Havana  [Video]

Yoani Sanchez (via video)

Blogger, desdecuba.com

Human Rights Activist  

In a recorded video, Cuban blogger and human rights activist Yoani Sanchez explained that she could not travel to the event in Washington, DC, as “one of the punishments for writing what I think, for narrating in a critical way the reality that the official media hides or silences.” Her thoughts and writings are still able to leave the island because of interest in Cuba and a network of friends abroad who translate and publish her blog, “Generation Y.” Cuba reports that 159 out of every 1,000 citizens has access to the Internet, but that number is overstated and includes people with access to the state-controlled and censored intranet. Still, a small group of activist bloggers has found a voice in Cuba and made cracks in the wall of the regime. “The solidarity of bloggers in other parts of the world is very important to us,” she said, because it allows the bloggers in Cuba to continue doing what they do. The community forms a “protective halo” around Cuban bloggers by giving them an audience and bringing attention to the conditions they face.

4:45 pm - Internet Freedom's Next Frontiers?  [Video]

Omid Memarian


Recipient, 2005 Human Rights Defender Award, Human Rights Watch


Mary Jo Porter

English Translator for Yoani Sanchez and other Cuban bloggers

Co-founder, hemosoido.com and translatingcuba.com


Marcus Noland

Deputy Director, Peterson Institute for International Economics


Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea



Andrés Martinez

Co-Director, Future Tense Initiative

Director, Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program, New America Foundation

Future Tense co-director Andrés Martinez moderated a discussion with Iranian journalist Omid Memarian, Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and Mary Jo Porter, English translator for Yoani Sanchez and co-founder of hemosoido.com. Memarian said the US and Iran are engaged in a propaganda war over Internet freedom and the United States is doing very little to push back against censorship by oppressive regimes. Noland, whose work focuses on North Korea, said the Internet essentially does not exist in North Korea, and whatever does exist is tightly controlled. He said this contributes to a system in which there is no form of accountability for the government and providing any information to the people is nearly impossible. Porter said the cost of communicating in Cuba is prohibitively high, so people are rarely able to access the Internet. The main line of support Cubans have is the community of nearly 2 million Cubans living abroad, who read the news and blogs and can then relay the information to their friends and family back home.  All three participants agreed that more simple technologies, like radio, could go a long way to spreading information to the people, though they don’t offer the ability for people to interact with each other.

5:20 pm - Bypassing the Master Switch  [Video]

Sascha Meinrath

Director, Open Technology Initiative

New America Foundation


Ian Schuler

Senior Program Manager, Internet Freedoms Program

U.S. Department of State



Robert Wright

Future Tense Fellow, New America Foundation

Author, Nonzero, The Moral Animal, and The Evolution of God

In the final discussion of the day, Ian Schuler of the State Department’s Internet Freedoms Programs and Sascha Meinrath of New America’s Open Technology Initiative joined moderator Robert Wright, Future Tense fellow at New America and author of “Nonzero,” “The Moral Animal” and “The Evolution of God.” Wright began the conversation by reading an excerpt from a New York Times article about a New America and State Department partnership to create what was dubbed the “Internet in a suitcase.” Meinrath explained that the story was a “visual aid gone out of control,” and the project is instead focused on using technologies that are already available so people can create local telecommunications networks without central location. By avoiding a centralized location, the networks can’t be shut down by governments. Schuler said tools like this are powerful in giving people the freedom to communicate when their governments don’t want them to. As a result, he said, the goal is to advance human rights and not necessarily to change regimes in other countries. Both Meinrath and Schuler said this form of technology is important generally in keeping the Internet free from the form of central authority that other telecommunication industries have fallen under. While various threats have emerged to Internet freedom, both said efforts in education, technology and policy can ensure that the Internet remains free from a “master switch” controlled by one authority.

-- event writeup by Adam Sneed

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Event Time and Location

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 - 2:00pm - 6:00pm
New America Foundation
1899 L Street NW Suite 400
Washington, DC 20036

Event Photos

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A range of photos from this event are available on Flickr. Click on the icon at left to view or download the photos.

Video Clips

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Assistant Secretary Posner speaks at the Future Tense Event
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Yoani Sanchez addresses the Future Tense Event
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Ian Schuler speaks at the Future Tense Event