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February 10, 2011

The new agents of change


The case of Wael Ghonim is an instructive example of just how much internet-savvy democracy activists are putting on the line for change. Ghonim, the Google engineer who helped organize some of the first mass-protests in Egypt via Facebook, was arrested by the police and detained for 12 days, forced to stay in a solitary cell blind folded for the duration. Fortunately, he managed to survive his ordeal and was released a couple of days ago.  And though he seems to be a very humble guy and would probably shun the description, he has emerged as a perfect example of an effective, 21st century democracy advocate. The kind of person who can match technical know-how with a passion for doing what’s right.

Shortly after the demonstrations erupted in Tunisia and Egypt, a lot of people started wondering about people living under other repressive regimes and how they might be reacting to the events in north Africa. Since we’re publishing a book this spring by internationally beloved Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez (Havana Real: One Woman Fight to Tell the Truth about Cuba Today), I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Cuba.

As if on cue, last week the following video surfaced of a cybernetic specialist in counterintelligence in Cuba warning about counter-revolutionary bloggers, taking great pains to convey a special sort of disdain for Yoani (FYI: it’s long and in Spanish with no subtitles).

La ciber policia en Cuba from Coral Negro on Vimeo.

In the video, he lays out an elaborate conspiracy in which the US government is secretly supplying Cuban bloggers and democracy advocates with money and technical support to foment a counter revolution. In his speech–which has been translated by the blog Translating Cuba and can be found herehe gives a pretty hilarious explanation of what Twitter is and singles out Yoani as a particular threat:

This is what I am showing you—I won’t ask you to understand it, but to inform yourselves on how Twitter works, if you have the access—these are the profiles of four people on Twitter. Twitter is a network for short messages, 140 characters, and there we find Yoani. Twitter works in such a way that I follow You, and You follow Me. That is: I follow people, people follow me.

Whatever people I follow reach me, and the people that follow me, whatever I write reaches them. According to Yoani’s profile on Twitter—this is from today at 1:30 PM—she has 52,946 people following her on Twitter. Each time Yoani says anything, at least 52,000 people in the world get the message.

But to each of these 52,000 followers that she has, the message will reach them, and it’s like a spider that threads a web, and sometimes we say: Why is it anything Yoani says, someone who is nobody here, the whole world knows about it?…

…What are we talking about here? The same thing I was explaining a while ago in Iran. To say “Tweeters, rise, let’s do it, let’s go… let’s meet at…” and so that is how she is going to set off the spark to start a conflict.

With her perceptive eye and typically biting wit, Yoani responded thusly:

Are you one of those who fabricates the lies? Or one of those who believes them? I would like to ask this question of the speaker who deploys a complicated conspiracy theory in this video. If it’s someone who is just sending a message, then the answer is simple: the falsehood is concocted higher up and he is just the messenger. But I fear that part of what he is expounding in front of those grim soldiers — with a constellation of stars on their uniforms — is  his own production, cooked up by himself. His lengthy presentation, punctuated with words such as “enemy,” “operative,” and “the evils,” shows me what can happen when one talks about the most modern of technologies using old-fashioned language. He doesn’t seem to understand the affinities and ties that link sites like Facebook and Twitter, but applies a prism of his own making to them, rather than recognize that individuals make their own decisions to join them and — horrors! — jump the ideological barriers. Although he might be a brilliant computer scientist, this young man failed social sciences.