For Authoritarian Regimes, Turning Off the Internet is a Fatal Mistake, Study Says

By Veronique Greenwood | August 30, 2011 1:16 pm

Once the Egyptian government cut the Internet, the protests in Tahrir Square were joined by protests across the country.

What’s the News: Social networking has been a star of the Arab Spring revolutions. People can’t stop talking about how Twitter and Facebook helped protestors organize, and when Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak suddenly cut access to the Internet and cell phone service on January 28th, many wondered how the protestors would share information and keep momentum. But as it turned out, depriving people of information had an explosive effect—far from the epicenter at Tahrir Square in Cairo, so many grassroots protests sprung up that the military was brought in. Two weeks later, Mubarak resigned.

Using the Egyptian revolution as a case study, a new paper makes the case that theories of group dynamics explain why access to information can actually have a quenching effect on revolutions, and argues that regimes that shut information sources down are signing their own death warrants.

How the Heck:

  • The paper’s author, political science graduate student Navid Hassanpour, describes various other revolutions in which information kept people content, but he focused on the Egyptian revolution because the information shut-off was sudden and complete, removing many of the confounding factors that make its role in revolutions difficult to gauge.
  • Using the theories of Mark Granovetter, a social scientist who pioneered the study of social networks in the 70s, Hassanpour took a close look at how a sudden dearth of information would affect individual actions. Granovetter helped popularize the “threshold” model of group dynamics, which holds that what neighbors are doing and how many of them are doing it determine the point at which an individual decides to get involved.
  • When information about protests is freely available, individuals can be passive while remaining informed. Additionally, the government can promulgate both reassurances that protests will soon be resolved and threats that military force will be used against protestors, thus maintaining the status quo and deterring involvement.
  • But when people are suddenly plunged into radio silence, they almost by default must take action: they have to leave the house to check up on family members and learn more about events. If they hadn’t heard of the protests before, they will have now, and they will have to take to the streets as well. And the government loses its ability to spin the situation through Internet channels. In Cairo, as more and more people who’d stayed inside began to leave their homes, the process accelerated, and protests exploded all over the city and the rest of the nation.
  • “The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways,” Hassanpour summarizes. “It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.”

What’s the Context:

Not So Fast: While this paper brings up some interesting points and brings statistics to bear on the problem, it is not a controlled study; ideally, this issue would be probed with a larger data set of similar revolutions, some with shut-downs and some without, to learn the true effects of an information vacuum.

Reference: Hassanpour, N. Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest: Evidence from Mubarak’s Natural Experiment. APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper.

Image courtesy of Jonathan Rashad / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
  • AG

    Turning off media or internet itself might not stop protest. But it might be needed for govement crackdown hard with a lot of arrest or killing. So outside world would not know what happens during the action. Let people find truth 50 years later.

  • Brian Too

    My hypothesis is that social media are needed in order to achieve a critical mass of awareness and common cause. Once that critical mass is achieved then cutting off access to communications becomes pointless.

    In the early days of of the Egyptian uprising, everyone would be asking “Is there going to be a protest today?” Then add in all the ancilliary questions, like Where, What time, are You going, and so forth.

    Once the critical mass is achieved this coordination and recruitment becomes unnecessary. Of course there is a protest today! There is a protest every day, unless something changes. It can be found in the same place it has been going on all along.

    The protest movement itself becomes normal and routine, as much as these things can be so.

  • John Lerch

    The BART example doesn’t seem to have elements of the dynamic. The dynamic seems to be the forcing of people into the open. Shutting down service in an area where people already are congregated seems to be totally different.

  • Tyler Killgore

    Well it shows that even when people have little freedoms they still fight to keep the few ones they have. A smarter idea would be to dwindle the access slowly. Kind of like the U.S. and its new soda plan. But it also shows that humans are social animals and will do almost anything to keep that aspect of them.

  • Frank Sellers

    Surprise! Surprise! Republicans are introducing a bill to do the exact same thing here! The House of Representatives is introducing an Internet Blacklist Bill (S.968, formally called the PROTECT IP Act ).

    If this bill became law e Department of Justice could force search engines and service providers to block users’ access to websites, and scrub the American Internet clean of any trace of their existence.

    But you know what Republicans say: Democracy! Schmemocracy!

  • Frank Sellers
  • Eric Gonzalez

    The Philippines’ People Power Revolution started (?) with a radio broadcast plea from Manila Cardinal Sin for the people to amass and protect close associates of former President Marcos who instigated a failed military coup against the latter. At the time (1986), cellphones and the internet were not yet available but people were tuned-in to radio and tv broadcasts, both government and private, and especially a shadowy radio station called Radio Bandido hastily set-up during the critical period. The people gathered in two military camps where the coup plotters were holed-up and ensuing events led to Marcos fleeing the country.

    While correctly not a controlled study (how do you set up one?), the event can be a subset of a larger study, this one having continuous – discontinuous stream of information and misinformation.

  • Magoonski

    Government turning off internet and other media services is like a person running from the cops, it automatically insinuates guilt.
    Government is supposed to protect people’s individual rights and freedoms, if government turns off services than it is no longer protecting those freedoms just the interest of the power hungry idiots we elected.
    Even though I’m a very lazy person, if the government turns off my internet, I will take to the streets in protest solely for that, no other political reason or injustice required.

  • Albert Yang

    Actually, Mubarak made things worse-
    1). He violated human rights and freedom, and
    2). he mostly set off an early bomb.
    By attempting to delay the riots people can now interact with each
    other face-to-face, thus developing the bonds that hold the
    protestors together.

  • realta fuar

    Brian Too above has it right: it’s WHEN and HOW you cut access that are the important criteria.
    For example, had the Met Police in London been smart enough to employ localized jamming of wifi and mobile phones, the hooligans would have been put at a disadvantage as they wouldn’t have known as easily where to assemble or where a police presence was weak, or, as was often the case, non-existent. Don’t be fooled: facebook and mobile phone companies obey the laws of the countries they operate in and if the governments wants your email or your IM chats, they ALWAYS hand them over. So, if you start a revolution, you’d better have the guts , organization, and material to finish it….Most of the time, you’re NOT going to be saved by an outside force like NATO has done in Libya.
    In SOME countries the citizens have a constitutional (or otherwise protected) right to some sort of freedom of the press; in NO country does such a right exist for your mobile phone or internet access . Mobile phones only work in BART underground stations because the company has paid to put in repeaters for the convenience of their customers; they clearly don’t have to do this or to continue to provide this service.


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