Notes from the Sida conference on Internet Activism

The recent conference on internet activism, put on by the Swedish International Development Agency, was particularly enlightening. Titled “Internet and democratic change – Net activism, empowerment and emancipation”, the organisers gathered both thinkers and front-line activists from around the world, and particularly the Middle East and North Africa, to discuss the role of the Internet in social change.

In particular, the conference focused on case studies from the Arab world, where it quickly became clear that ICTs played a central role in the Arab uprisings.

Mahnaz Afkhami, Head of the Women’s Learning Partnership and the keynote speaker for the afternoon sessions, illustrated the important role that women played in the Arab uprising. Women, she argued, are often underestimated by their governments, and so they are a crucial lever. Coupled with the citizen empowerment afforded by ICTs, women in the Arab world became a powerful force for social change.

However, she also warned that activists should not underestimate the technical ability of their governments and other conservative forces. Governments may have been slow to react to the Internet, but they have shown themselves to be quick learners. There are conservative, ideological groups that are very tech savvy and feel that they have god on their side, and that makes them dangerous.

She concludes that the way forward is to forge stronger links between social activists and the technical community. In particular, women and other activists need training in how to use online tools safely and effectively. As it happens, training in secure online communications is a key initiative of the Connect your rights! campaign.

The case study of Bahrain, as represented by Maryam Al-Khawaja, reinforces Ms. Afkhami’s ideas. Speaking on the role of social media in the ongoing Bahraini revolution, Ms. Al-Khawaja described a government which is far more adept at social media than the former Egyptian and Tunisian regimes.

Echoing the sentiments of Mahnaz Afkhami, she describes how Arab governments like Jordan, Syria and Bahrain have learned from each other and are not likely to repeat the mistakes made by Egypt and Tunisia. For instance, since Bahrain has one of the highest levels of Twitter activity in the Arab world, rather than simply cutting off the Internet, the government has opted for a strategy of obfuscation, recruiting cyber armies to spread misinformation and spamming Twitter hashtags.

Despite over 1500 arrests, and reports that many of these prisoners have been tortured, the situation in Bahrain has received very little attention from western media. Journalists are not allowed into the country, leading Al Jazeera English to describe the plight of Bahrain as “shouting in the dark”.

Ms. Al-Khawaja argues that social media is the key to filling the void left by traditional media. Activists in Bahrain have been busy in recent months using social media to tarnish the regime’s international reputation. The latest target has been the Formula 1 circuit, which is scheduled to be held in Bahrain on November 25th. By challenging the popular racing event, she argues, Bahraini activists are sending a message that: “you do not do business with governments that torture and kill people.”

Despite the lack of media attention, Ms. Al- Khawaja is hopeful. She believes that governments like Bahrain’s are very sensitive about their international image, and will respond to this kind of pressure. As she says, “it works, so let’s use it.”