by Nguyễn Hồng Quân
Looking back at the last two years since the “Arab Spring” swept across the Middle East and North Africa provoking anti-government demonstrations, it can be seen that one of the main reasons was the huge impact social networks have had on political life inside and outside the “Arab Spring” countries. Being aware of the impact of social networks helps us work out appropriate management tools to protect political and social stability, especially with hostile forces hectically promoting “peaceful evolution” by more sophisticated means.
“Technology spreads political riots”
Beginning with a wave of anti-government protests in Tunisia launched by local people (in December 2010) after a 26-year-old man set himself on fire to oppose the police, the chaos quickly spread, igniting a series of political upheavals under the name “Arab Spring” in several countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Social networks emerged as a technology for spreading political dissents and causing the worse political upheaval in the region since World War II.
Though they began spontaneously without instructions from any organization or opposition party, these protests spread quickly with a domino effect because the protesters gathered in large crowds and used social networks as a tool to incite riots. These political riots overthrew the presidents of several countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, forced many heads of state or government leaders to resign, and forced governments in some countries to make concessions to opposition parties.
Two years later, the “Arab Spring” seems to have cooled down, yet its repercussions are still being felt in several countries. The “Arab Spring”, on one hand, reflects the discontent many people are feeling, and on the other hand, shows what an unpredictable and pervasive effect social networks can have on demonstrations and political life. Sociologist O.Glassey, an expert in Information Technology at Lausanne University in Switzerland, has described the role social media played in these revolutions. Like resonance boxes, Facebook and Twitter amplify and echo people’s demands. These tools “ignite” demonstrations by appealing to people to go out into the streets.
In fact, social media have quickly connected opposition groups, and “secret” movements with secret leaders, helping them to hide and evade the authorities. Events in Tunisia showed that Facebook can become a powerful weapon when people use the internet as a source of unrestricted information. Similarly, the Egyptian government seemed incapable of preventing the public from accessing dissident viewpoints via social networks. In the Arab world, popular websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Google provided a political forum to people in 20 countries with the same language, the same religion, and similar cultural features. This broadened the pervasion of the “Arab Spring” movement causing initial passive reactions among the international community, who adjusted their attitudes with the developments of the situation.
Furthermore, social media have also become an effective means of communicating with and gaining support from the international public. Since the conflict in Libya took place, social media have become the most effective tool to communicate with the outside world, especially with the international media(1). Information on social media in Libya includes not only viewpoints, news updates, and links provided to Western media reports on the war, but also statements from outside intervening forces namely the US and the West. Initially, the US and other Western powers only called on the warring parties to refrain from violence and seek a peaceful resolution, but later, they publicly voiced their support for the demonstrators and called for a transfer of power. Social networks immediately posted news and commentary, which supported and motivated protesters throughout the region.
Particularly, social media have helped to provide instant intelligence from the battlefield, a development with huge implications for current and future conflicts. Happenings on the Libyan battlefield in 2011 showed that social media had made it easier than ever for the public to follow military actions online. During the first days of the uprising in Libya, Twitter, Youtube, Facebook and blogs of the opposition groups in the country and overseas became the main source of information. Photos showing developments in Libya were first posted on social networks, even before foreign correspondents could get to the scene. Internet and mobile data services and SMS messages were important in the collapse of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
The current Tunisian Prime Minister said social networks ignited the political firestorms in his country. Inspired by the “Arab Spring”, former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced that a social revolution era has come to the world.
Who manipulates social media?
Information technology became popular in developed countries before penetrating developing countries. Nowadays, thanks to globalization and booming internet, social media have become increasingly popular. With rich and poor alike, social media are widely popular, even developing countries have seen higher rate of social media’s popularization(2). Social media have gained a strong hold in daily life because they meet three basic human needs: communication, information and community. As social networks have grown in popularity and IT advances have made government’s control over these websites more difficult.
It is more notable that these websites all originate from the US, one of the countries with the fastest IT development in the world. US government agencies never miss a chance to manipulate these web pages. The US has developed a complicated network comprising of several organizations and agencies to promote US concepts of “democracy” and “human rights”, provide funding and support for several non-government organizations in different regions that operate under the name “non-profit” organizations.
These organizations and agencies have become an important part of US efforts to propagandize “US style democratic values” around the world, especially in North Africa and the Middle East. These agencies have provided financing, training, support and consultancy to leaders and separatist movements in countries that are in the “lens” of the US and the West so that they can provoke social instability to overthrow local governments through nonviolent struggles
These agencies use the so-called “alliance of youth movements” under the guise of non-profit organizations, which have their own websites and very clear tasks- identifying online active elements in the regions of concerns; helping these elements to link together by experts and stakeholders in civil society, providing them with support, training and consultancy, and establishing a forum to create initial contacts and develop the relationships over time.
In addition, to help separatists evade local censorship of their countries of residence, the US directly or indirectly provides funding for some companies that specialize in the production of software dedicated to this function. A typical software product of this type is the TOR software, which is developed by a company based in the State of Massachusetts, the US, and is posted on the internet for the separatists to use it free of charge. It allows internet users to express their political opinions on issues without being detected by the authorities. The US has also cooperated with Google to provide financing for larger-scale projects, such as the Commotion project to set up a wireless network with high connection speed, operating “100% independently”.
The US has established normal diplomatic relationships, good relationships and “ally” relationships with quite a few countries in the world. However, the U.S. still provides spiritual support, even financial support for individuals, who constitute opposition forces that are “pro-American” in these countries, aiming to build a “civil society” in the Western democratic model, which, basically, is “peaceful evolution”.
What happened in the “Arab Spring” not only led to a change of government in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa, but also revealed a role that cannot be underestimated that social networks play in international relations, in “peaceful evolution” activities of hostile forces and in political riots, and armed conflicts now and in the future.
Thus, it is essential to raise more awareness of the impact of websites, media and modern civil information technology on information diffusion in the context of ongoing conflicts or potential conflicts. It is very important and necessary to take resolute measures to closely manage social media, neutralize plots of hostile forces who try to take advantage of this medium as a tool to incite, and provoke conflicts, political unrest or violence to overthrow governments with foreign military intervention.
Each country needs to map out its own strategies for protecting confidentiality of sensitive activities and at the same time, work out measures to strictly manage these websites and communication media. The easier access is to information on publicly available sources and the greater effect this has, the more difficult protection of information becomes.
With a foreign policy of multi-lateralization and diversification of international relations, Vietnam advocates the establishment of good relations with all countries to create an environment of peace and stability to boost socio-economic development, strengthen national defense and security, and expand external relations. But, Vietnamese people must remain vigilant of “peaceful evolution” efforts by hostile forces.
One of the ways that the hostile forces implement the “peaceful evolution” conspiracy in Vietnam is to establish and take advantage of social networks, develop convenient services to attract people, especially the young, and then turn social networks into a channel to collect information about Vietnam. A number of elements, who are not friendly to Vietnam, will take advantage of social networks to spread false information and distortions about Vietnam, damage the prestige of the regime and negatively impact the country’s socio-economic development. With these activities, the hostile forces will promote anti-government ideology among netizens, rally forces and establish opposition organizations to lead protests and provoke riots and insurrection against local administrations in certain localities and then take it as a reason for armed intervention to overthrow the political regime.
It is increasingly evident that hostile forces are operating under the guise of promoting internet freedom, even pressing us to respect so-called “internet freedom”. The hostile forces include Vietnam in the list of “State enemies of the internet” and criticize Vietnam’s regulations on strengthening the management and operation of the internet (which require users to publicize their personal information and foreign service providers to share customer information with managers).
In fact, according to the Vietnam Internet Association’s Overview of 15 years of internet development in Vietnam, from November 19, 1997 to December 2012, Vietnam ranked 18 out of 20 countries with the world’s largest number of internet users, ranked 8th in Asia and 3rd in Southeast Asia. The number of internet users in Vietnam totaled more than 31 million, 35.49% of the population. Vietnam has made remarkable progress in infrastructure and has become the country with the best internet infrastructure in the region.
Currently, broadband internet services are available throughout the country with 99.85% of communes in urban areas and 84.46% of communes in rural areas accessing the internet. The number of households connected to the internet reached 8.2% out of the 12.6% who have computers. Internet access via desktop was 84%, laptops was 38% and mobile devices was 27%.
According to the latest survey of WeAreSocial, an organization headquartered in the UK that conducts independent research on global social media, the rate of internet users in Vietnam is 33% higher than the world average. In 2012 alone, Vietnam added 1.59 million new users. Social networks, digital devices and mobile phones in Vietnam are growing at an incredible pace, with the rate of internet users up 5% since the survey of WeAreSocial was released in late 2011.
This drastic internet development proves the complete freedom of internet in Vietnam. Like other countries in the world, Vietnam needs regulations and laws to regulate social activities, including the use of the internet in order to ensure social stability and prevent attempts to provoke violations of law, spread hatred, and incite demonstrations, riots, protests and subversion and minimize negative impacts of the internet on the community. This is one of measures to combat the “peaceful evolution” efforts of hostile forces, and ensure Vietnam’s national defense and security.
Colonel Dr Nguyễn Hồng Quân is Associate Professor and Vice Director of the National Defense Strategy Institute of the Ministry of Defense Socialist Republic of Vietnam
(1) In Libya, the rate of mobile phone owners is 134% and in the US, it is 95%.
(2) The largest market of Facebook is currently the US, but Indonesia is second with 32 million users, followed by the UK. Turkey, the Philippines, Mexico and India – four developing countries – are among the top ten users of social media.