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.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan 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.
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.
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.
With his well-known verbal incontinence, Hugo Chavez’s successor revealed the regime’s internet strategy… confuse, lie and, above all, misrepresent what is happening in the country.
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 surface.
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.
The Castro regime’s 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.