Does social networking media curb activism?

Social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr have become invaluable mobilization tools for activists in the Arab world. But authorities have stepped up regulation of these Internet tools leading some activists to reconsider how new media tools may actually hinder the work of activists in the field.
See no, hear no, speak no evil: Internet activists are increasingly finding their networking tools blocked in Arab countries. R.R.

BEIRUT, November 7, 2008 (MENASSAT) - Egyptian blogger and anti-torture activist Wael Abbas arrived in the US on November 1 to cover the presidential elections only to find his Facebook account suspended.

In effect, hundreds of photos and contact numbers suddenly became inaccessible.

Confused and set back by the incident, Abbas contacted Facebook to find out the reason behind the disabling of his account.

Nothing happened for four days. Then as quickly as it had been off-limit, Abbas's profile on Facebook reappeared.

The blogger then received a brief message from Facebook administrators, telling him that his account had been removed because he was sending “harassing messages.”

In its statement, obtained by MENASSAT, Facebook refused however to provide Abbas with information on his alleged harmful dispatches, saying they were “unable to provide further details due to technical and security reasons.”

Meanwhile, Abbas claims he has not been using Facebook for political causes but as a platform for uploading photos and videos.

On his blog Egyptian Awareness he wrote that he thinks the reason for the suspension might be a film clip he uploaded in which he is being interviewed by CNN with torture videos being shown in the background.

“They did not even give me an example of what I was doing wrong! ‘Harrasing messages’ is what they had to send me after all this," Abbas told MENASSAT in an online conversation.

The Yahoo and YouTube ordeals

Abbas often writes posts and uploads photos and videos on sensitive topics such as torture, police brutality, and sexual harassment in Egypt.

He was one of the first to post the infamous torture clip depicting a micro-bus driver being abused and sodomized with an iron stick by two Egyptian police officers.

The footage was used as evidence to convict the policemen who in November 2007 were sentenced to jail terms in a landmark court decision.

The temporary disabling of Abbas's Facebook account is however not the first time the blogger experienced trouble or was subjected to censorship on social media outlets.

In December last year, the popular photo and video sharing site YouTube pulled the plug on Abbas's account following alleged “user complaints” due to the violent nature of some of his uploaded video clips.

On his account, Abbas had posted more than 100 videos of police abuse and demonstrations occurring in Egypt over the past few years.  Much of the footage was leaked to him by anonymous senders in hopes that Abbas would report on issues Egyptian mass media chose to keep quiet about.

Around the same time, Yahoo shut down Abbas's email account, claiming he was a spammer.

"Yahoo did it to me at least four times with three different accounts," Abbas told MENASSAT, adding that Yahoo shut down the same account two times. 

Telling FOX News an “electronic war” was being fought against him, Abbas raised the question of whether the Egyptian authorities could have a hand in the affair.

The shutdown of his You Tube and Yahoo accounts was, according to Abbas, “Part of a new technique that the government is using, which is complaining about the content of some Web sites or some e-mail addresses, in order to disable them — and disable their owners — from what they are doing,” he told FOX News.

YouTube denied the suspension of Abbas's account had anything to do with the Egyptian government, emphasizing it was “an internal decision.”

"In terms of content that might highlight human rights abuses, of course we support users putting educational, historic, philosophical or documentary footage on the site — even when this may involve acts of violence. However, the graphic nature of the content needs to be put in context so that users can easily understand what they are watching," read a statement from a YouTube spokesman published on FOX News.

Following a media storm on the subject, You Tube restored Abbas' account approximately a week after the shut down.

"Sometimes these companies help dictatorships," Abbas told MENASSAT.


Another activist who has had a run-un with a new media technology site is Cairo-based blogger and activist Hossam El-Hamalawy, who moderates

He claims the leading photo-sharing site Flickr a few days ago censored a number of his photos, flagging them as “unsafe.”

El-Hamalawy said Flickr might even shut down his account as a result.

As in the case of Abbas, El-Hamalawy says he received little explanation on the incident from site administrators.

"I had noticed that some of my recent pix from Ireland, that included the Palestine and the Republican murals were not viewable to the public unless they were signed in. I emailed the Flickr Gods.

They were kind enough to respond back quickly and un-flag some of the pictures, putting them on "safe" mode, but without giving me an explanation why they were flagged in the first place," wrote El-Hamalawy in a blog post.

The blogger was also told his account had been marked as a "NIPSA" (Not in Public Search Area) with the claim that there was a considerable amount in his photo stream that he himself had not created.

El-Hamalawy who says he uploads pictures from the computers of a number of friends and photographer colleagues, responded by telling Flickr his account is the go-to place for people looking for images of Egyptian dissidents and that the action was beneficial to the “ruling Egyptian dictatorial regime.”

"Honestly, shame on sites like Flickr, Facebook, and YouTube... Facing crackdowns from the regime is one thing, but to get attacked by those companies who claim they are "socially responsible" is something else.

Social networks are the ones who are disrupting social work actually… what an irony," El-Hamalawy told MENASSAT in an email conversation.

MENASSAT attempted to contact Flickr but was unable to receive a comment.

Nora Younis, an Egyptian blogger who recently was awarded a human rights prize by US-based Human Rights First for her blogging and activism and whose use of social media networks such like Flickr and You Tube was hailed by the organization, wrote a blog post in response to El-Hamalawy's Flickr ordeal, urging activists to look to alternative means of communication.

"Free speech is now struggling on several battlefields…..Flickr is censoring Hamalawy. Instead of the growing dependency on those companies we need to develop our own Arab social networks," she wrote.

El-Hamalawy says a meeting of leading bloggers and human rights activists will take place next week, stressing a  'Flickr boycott' can be expected. 

'Twitter fuck ups' and the 'Jaiku revolution'

Micro-blogging services such as Twitter- programs that allow users to send quick status updates from mobiles, instant messaging services, and Facebook in less than 140 characters, have played a crucial role in enabling activists to spread information about their struggles and mobilizing support for their causes.

It also proved an effective tool to a detained foreign journalist in Egypt.

On April 10 this year, James Karl Buck- a graduate student from the University of California-Berkeley, was in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla in Egypt, covering workers' protests against soaring wages and rising commodity prices, when he and his translator were arrested.

En route to the police station, Buck managed to inform his friends and colleagues about his detainment, by sending an SMS from his mobile phone through Twitter.

The one-word message 'Arrested' immediately alerted his network of contacts in the US and in Egypt that he was being held.

However, in August this year Twitter suddenly announced it was no longer delivering outbound SMS messages to several countries, including Egypt.

Egyptian activists reacted to the decision with disappointment, saying Twitter did the Egyptian government a huge favor for terminating its SMS services in Egypt.

But hope still remains among micro-blogging fans in activist circles with the birth of 'Jaiku' - a program offering similar services to that of Twitter.

Many have already jumped on the Jaiku-bandwagon, including Egyptian anti-torture activists who provide subscribers to the 'Ta3zeeb' account with with up-to-date information on torture cases in Egypt.