BY RYAN HOLMES
Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan banned Twitter—at least, he tried to. “We now have a court order. We’ll eradicate Twitter,” he said. “I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”
Despite the ferocity of the rhetoric, Turkish users easily found ways to flout the edict. In the days following the ban, more than 2.5 million tweets were sent. Tech savvy users manually changed their DNS address to circumvent the ban. Meanwhile, at HootSuite, traffic from Turkey tripled as users sought alternate means of accessing Twitter.
New reports, however, indicate that the Turkish government has clamped down even further. The Washington Post reports that the Twitter service is now being cut off at the IP level. Already, however, users are finding new workarounds, including using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to bypass the block and using anonymous browsing tools like Tor. In addition, people inside Turkey can still Tweet via SMS, a technique that Twitter itself spelled out.
All of this points to one salient fact: These Twitter bans have a pesky habit of not working—and sometimes of backfiring completely. Since 2009, regimes in Iran, Egypt, Venezuela and other countries have all tried to block or throttle Twitter during moments of political unrest. In each instance, users found creative workarounds and proved that social media is incredibly resilient and profoundly decentralized.
To prove the folly of banning Twitter, the great research team here at HootSuite has put together a “Brief History of Failed Online Authoritarianism”:
If you were on Twitter in 2009, you might remember seeing a lot of green profile pictures. Twitter famously played a central role in Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution, and “greening” was seen as a gesture of support for the protesters. On June 12, 2009, incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of Iran’s presidential election, a contest all three opposition parties and most international observers immediately dismissed as rigged. The opposition took to the streets, and the fundamentalist firebrand set police and the feared Basij militia on protesters.
Dubbed the first Twitter revolution, the protests that followed Iran’s sham election saw the emergence of many of the tactics, both government and opposition, that would become hallmarks of revolution in the social media era. At first, the government was caught flat-footed. Few among the Ayatollah’s faithful even knew what Twitter was in 2009. When unrest began to bubble over, the government tried to block access to Facebook, but initially left Twitter alone. But they soon took notice.
On June 20, 2009, philosophy student Neda Agha-Soltan, a bystander to one of the Tehran protests, was shot in the chest by (according to CNN and the BBC) a Basij militiaman. #Neda trended globally, as video of her death spread via Twitter. According to Mashable’s Ben Parr, at the height of the protests, more than 221,000 Iran tweets were sent per hour. When the government blocked Twitter, the opposition quickly figured out how to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access banned sites.
Twitter remained an essential tool for organizing protests and sharing stories about the government’s brutal crackdown. While the government maintained its grip on power, it lost the cat-and-mouse game with its online detractors. As would the authoritarian regimes that followed in its footsteps.
The Arab Spring revolts were decades in the making, the result of corruption, poverty, police brutality, food prices, electoral fraud, and myriad other systemic problems in the Middle East. The spark that lit the fuse was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on Dec. 17, 2011, in front of the Tunisian parliament. Less than three months later, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the longest-serving leader of the Arab world’s most populous country, had resigned. Twitter, as in Iran, was widely used among protesters, with thousands of Tweets per day emanating from Tahrir Square.
The Egyptian government began blocking access to social networking sites including Twitter and Facebook on Jan. 24 and 25. HootSuite was not initially blocked, and starting Jan. 24, experienced a spike in user sign-ups and activity from Egypt as people quickly recognized a way to bypass Egyptian government blocks. Between HootSuite, VPNs, and other common tactics for circumventing the government’s blocks, the Egyptian opposition was able to stay in touch with each other and the outside world using social media. At least for a few days.
On Jan. 27, the authorities began shutting down the country’s official domain name system. The five major Egyptian service providers—Telecom Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Link Egypt, Etisalat Misr, and Internet Egypt—were shut down entirely around midnight that night, leaving 88 percent of the Egyptian Internet disconnected. Pulling the plug on the whole Internet, as Egypt demonstrated, will effectively block access to Twitter. But dictators clinging to power should take note: the OECD estimated the total cost to the economy of the outage at around $90 million.
The latest political upheaval in which Twitter is playing a significant role is the uprising against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, successor to the late socialist hero Hugo Chavez. The social media dimension of the chaos in Venezuela’s streets differs from that of previous conflicts in that both sides are active on Twitter. The government and opposition (leaders included) contribute equally to the cacophony of insults, innuendo, accusations, and spin. Twitter has deeper roots in Venezuela today than it had in Iran or Egypt prior to those revolutions. Chavez himself, a master of incendiary populist rhetoric, joined in 2010, and encouraged his supporters to do the same.
Like their predecessors, the government censors in Venezuela have tried a combination of blocking Twitter and shutting off the whole Internet for the times and places of big protests. Venezuela also introduced the new tactic of blocking images periodically and throttling the internet to inhibit the sharing of media. This time the workarounds were well known. And Twitter spokesman Nu Wexler even got involved, offering Venezuelan users specific advice to circumvent blocks using the service’s SMS feature.
Ranked 117th out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, Venezuela aggressively controls all media, and yet protests continue to smolder in its streets. Venezuela’s efforts, like those of the Iranian and Egyptian regimes, prove that, unless you’re willing to turn your country into North Korea, censorship as a means of diffusing political unrest doesn’t work in the age of social media.
One lesson from history that too few authoritarian regimes have learned is that a heavy-handed crackdown on a peaceful protest often makes its message more powerful. The past half-decade of failed attempts to shut down access to Twitter proves that same is often true of the stories and images shared on social media. And just like the right to protest, the right to connect with fellow citizens online is an essential part of democratic participation and empowerment.
Ryan Holmes is the CEO of @hootsuite and the founder of @invoke. He likes social, startups, grownups, cycling and is learning to walk on his hands. This essay was originally featured on Medium and republished with permission.