Neda Agha-Soltan wanted freedom. For everyone. Many joined her in the streets of Tehran to protest Iran’s rigged presidential elections of 2009.
During one of those protests, on June 12, Neda took a bullet square in the chest. Bystanders’ cell phones captured the young woman’s collapse and recorded her bleeding out on the street.
Neda’s death went global. Uploaded to the Internet, the cell phone files became the video shot heard ’round the world.
The impact of social networking online became quickly apparent. On June 21, a Wikipedia user created a new entry: the “Death of Neda Agha-Soltan.” The next day, the Associated Press reported details of the shooting. The news service story was based exclusively on Internet sources including Facebook, YouTube and other websites.
Neda went on to become the symbol of the aborted Green Revolution. But it was the social media that first captured her story.
Less than two years later, social media played a huge role in the political upheaval in another Middle East nation: Egypt.
Only 21 percent of Egyptians use the Internet — less than half the usage rate in Iran and below the average of the entire region. But despite the limited access to the Web, sites such as Facebook generated a tremendous amount of pressure on the government from the onset of the Cairo demonstrations. One protest “fan page” garnered more than 80,000 followers in a matter of days.
Fearing it couldn’t stand the heat, Hosni Mubarak’s regime tried to turn off the stove. It ordered Internet service providers to pull the plug on Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and YouTube. Then it cut off almost all Internet access within the country. Finally, Cairo ordered the telecommunications carriers to shutter service to the ISPs.
The collateral damage was tremendous. The shutdown disrupted communications for banks, businesses and ATMs — even the government itself — along with the protesters. And it did not completely silence online activists.
Google, for example, established a voice-to-tweet service, allowing Egyptians to leave voice mail messages that were turned into Twitter messages. After days of frustration and worldwide condemnation, Cairo turned the Web back on. The lesson of Tahrir Square, however, is not that social networking is an irresistible force. After all, Tehran weathered Twitter turmoil in 2009 and seems to keeping this month’s protests under control.
The cyberuniverse gives no side a decisive, unassailable advantage. Writing in The Washington Post following the 2009 Iranian protests, John Palfrey, Bruce Etling and Robert Faris argued that there are “sharp limits on what Twitter and other Web tools such as Facebook and blogs can do for citizens in authoritarian societies.”
Governments, they noted, “can push back on cyberspace when they feel threatened.” And regimes can employ social networking for their own ends, hawking propaganda and spreading disinformation.
Those observations hold true today. While social media helped shuffle Mubarak off to history’s dustbin, it hasn’t begun to budge Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from the seat of power in Iran.
Internet “freedom” is not enough, by itself, to secure real freedom from determined tyrants.
Examiner columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.