YouTube’s fingerprints on the Arab Spring

A website sponsored by the video giant promotes some troubling activities in the name of "cyberactivism."

By RACHEL C. BANDLER
December 19, 2011 23:28
3 minute read.
Egyptian soldiers beat a protester in Tahrir

Egyptian soldiers beat a protester in Tahrir 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer)

When people think of YouTube, silly videos of cute kids and old re-runs of “I Love Lucy” come to mind. Especially among my peers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, YouTube - and its parent company, Google - are revered as technology giants that most students would die to work for upon graduation. However, when I stumbled upon the YouTube-sponsored website movements.org while conducting research for a cyber-politics class, I was shocked by what I found.

Co-founded by Jared Cohen, the current director of Google Ideas, Movements (www.movements.org) is a website devoted to teaching cyberactivists, in an explicit, step-by-step manner, how to use social media tools to stage protests and revolutions.

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The site is sponsored by big-name advertisers including Pepsi and media outlets including CBS News, YouTube, MTV, Facebook, MSNBC and National Geographic.

Movements says its mission is to “represent[s] a new model of peer-to-peer training wherein these leaders lend their experience in digital organizing, especially short-term protests and campaigns.” The non-profit group is also “dedicated to helping these activists to build their capacity and make a greater impact on the world.”

But who exactly are these “activists,” and what “training” is YouTube providing them with? It turns out that Movements not only teaches people how to use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, but actually offers training on the use of social media for the purpose of galvanizing protest and revolution.

For example, the site’s homepage displays a prominent advertisement, “How to Bypass Internet Censorship,” as well as an entire section of “how-to” guides that “identify best practices for the use of digital technologies for social change.”

In the “Plan and Strategize” section of the website, there is a ten-step plan that teaches cyberactivists how to spark massive crowds and inspire “plazas teeming with protesters,” and explains simply how to use Blackberry for nonviolent protest.

Furthermore, the “country profiles” section of the Movements site highlights six countries – Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, China and Vietnam – with supplemented profiles.

Each profile includes a revolution timeline and/or social media feed, and provides online readers with detailed information about cyberactivism in that country.

In essence, these country profiles, which can be translated into over 50 languages, make it simple for readers to get involved with online revolutions.

In this way, Movements identifies potential “digital activists,” and teaches them how to utilize social media for social and political change.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Movements is the overt way in which the site states its intentions.

DO THE founders of Movements recognize the danger their site poses to world order and stability? Tools that instruct users to bypass Internet firewalls and effectively rally mass protests online can easily be abused for violent and harmful means. The information offered on the website for “social change” may be used by cyberactivists to organize riots and topple governments, as was done in Tunisia and Egypt.

The question must be asked: When does supporting democracy and cyber freedom encroach on a state’s right to sovereignty and autonomy? When Google posts potentially harmful information openly on the Internet, anyone can access the cyber tools. Like dust thrown in the wind, that information can never be reclaimed, regardless of the original intent. As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The Internet and social media have played a large role in the Arab Spring, but obviously the extent of that role has not been fully appreciated. The American public deserves to know what a proactive and extensive role YouTube, their beverage providers and news channels have played in promoting and enabling social protests across the globe – today, there is a lot more to buying a Pepsi than you might realize.

The writer is a chemistry major at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology and president of the pro-Israel MIT Students for Israel group.


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