The Hijacking Of Social Networks
14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 25 June 2017 – More than five years ago
social networks were roiled by the Arab Spring, while the screens of
their mobile phones lit up the faces of the young protesters. In those
years Twitter was seen as a road to freedom, but shortly afterwards the
repressors also learned how to publish in 140 characters.
With a certain initial suspicion, and later with much opportunism, the
populists have found in the internet a space to spread their promises
and capture adherents. They use the incredible loudspeaker of the
virtual world to set the snares of their demagoguery, with which they
trap thousands of internet users.
The tools that once gave voice to the citizens have been transformed
into a channel for the authoritarians to enthrone their discourses. They
assimilated that, in these post-truth times, a tweet repeated ad nauseam
is more effective than billboards along the side of the road or paying
for advertising space.
Totalitarian regimes have gone on the offensive on the web. It took them
some time to realize that they could use the same networks as their
opponents, but now they launch the information police against their
critics. And they do it with the same methodical precision with which
for years they have surveilled dissidents and controlled the civil
society of their nations.
Totalitarian regimes assimilated that, in these post-truth times, a
tweet repeated ad nauseam is more effective than billboards along the
side of the road
From the hacking of digital sites to the creation of false user
profiles, the anti-democratic governments are trying everything to help
them impose frameworks of opinion favorable to their management. They
count on the irresponsible naivety with which content is often shared in
cyberspace as a factor that works in their favor.
One of these radical about faces has been made by Turkish President
Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During the 2013 protests, when he was prime
minister, he wanted to enact several laws to restrict the use of
Facebook and Twitter. He described the network of the little blue bird
as “a permanent source of problems” and “a threat to society.”
However, during last year’s coup attempt in Turkey, Erdogan relied on
these tools to summon people to the squares and to report on his
personal situation. Since then he has dedicated himself to expanding his
power through tweets, reaffirming in the virtual world the dictatorial
drift of his regime.
Last March, Twitter administrators had to admit that several of their
accounts, some linked to institutions, organizations and personalities
around the world, had been hacked with messages of support for
Erdogan. The sultan urged his cyberhosts to make it clear that, even on
the internet, he is not playing games.
In Latin America several cases reinforce the process of appropriation
that authoritarianism has been making with the new technologies. Nicolás
Maduro has opened on Twitter one of the many fronts of a battle through
which he intends to stay in power and to quell the popular riots that
erupted since the beginning of April.
Venezuelans not only must deal with economic instability and the
violence of the police forces, but for many the internet has become a
hostile territory where the chavistas shout and threaten with total
impunity. They distort events, turn victimizers into victims and impose
their own labels as they launch the blows.
The Miraflores Palace responds to images of protesters killed by the
Bolivarian National Guard with hoaxes about an alleged international
conspiracy to destroy chavismo. The social networks have taken up
against the general prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Díaz, where Maduro’s
supporters have branded her, at the very least, as a crazy person.
With so many attempts to manipulate trends and adulterate states of
opinion on the web, Venezuelan officialdom has ended up getting caught
with its fingers in the door. Recently, more than 180 Twitter accounts,
which repeated government slogans like ventriloquists, were
cancelled. The penalty could be extended to the accounts of other
minions linked to government institutions and media.
Venezuelan Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas defined this
suspension of accounts as an “ethnic cleansing” operation and Maduro
threatened microblogging network administrators with a phrase fraught
with outdated triumphalism: “If they close 1,000 accounts, we are going
open 1,000 more.”
With his well-known verbal incontinence, Hugo Chavez’s successor was
revealing the internet strategy that his regime has followed in recent
years. That of planting users who confuse, lie and, above
all, misrepresent what is happening in the country. A strategy taught to
them by a close ally.
In Cuba, the soldiers of cyberspace have long experience in shooting
down the reputations of digital opponents, blocking critical sites and
unleashing the trolls to flood the comment areas of any posting that is
especially annoying to them. But the main weapon is to limit internet
access to their most reliable followers, and to maintain prohibitive
prices for the majority.
“We have to tame the wild colt of new technologies,” said Ramiro Valdés,
one of the Revolution’s historical commanders, when the first
independent blogs and Twitter accounts managed by opponents began to
Since then there has been a lot of water under the bridge and the Castro
regime has launched an effort to conquer those spaces with the same
intensity that it brings to its rants in international
organizations. Its objective is to recover the space that it lost when
it was suspicious of adopting new technologies. Its goal: to silence
dissident voices with its hullabaloo.
Even in the most long-standing democracies, technologies are being
hijacked to inflict deadly blows on institutions.
In the White House, a man puts his country and the world at the edge of
the abyss with every tweet he writes. Every night that Donald Trump goes
to bed without publishing on that social network, millions of human
beings breathe a sigh of relief. He has found in 140 characters a
parallel way of governing, one with no limitations.
These are not the times of that liberating network that linked
dissidents and served as the infrastructure for citizen rebellion. We
are living in times when populism and authoritarianism have understood
that new technologies can be converted into an instrument of control.
Editorial Note: This text has been previously published by the Spanish
newspaper El País in its edition of Saturday, 24 June 2017.
Source: The Hijacking Of Social Networks – Translating Cuba –