Social media has far-reaching implications for U.S. diplomacy

Broadcasting board works to circumvent jamming and other censorship tactics.

Experts say that social media helped enable the Egyptian revolution. Nasser Nouri/Newscom

After being mistreated by a policewoman and ignored by municipal officials, Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire Dec. 17, 2010, in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. He died Jan. 4.

Bouazizi's act, which was videotaped and posted on Facebook, sparked the revolution that overthrew Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Alithe on Jan. 14.

"The revolution would have been impossible without Facebook," said Mohamed Al-Yahyai. The video of Bouazizi's suicide ignited rage among Tunisia's unemployed, oppressed and impoverished.

Bouazizi's friends then used Facebook to call for protests, and 10 protesters turned into 100 and then 1,000, said Al-Yahyai, a reporter for the Middle East Broadcasting Network's Alhurra Television.

A similar suicide shortly before Bouazizi's received no Internet coverage and provoked no reaction, Al-Yahyai recalled during a Feb. 15 discussion of new media and U.S. government efforts to use it to spread democracy.

Social networks also are being credited for rallying hundreds of thousands of Egyptian protesters who drove President Hosni Mubarak from power Feb. 11.

"It's hard to see how what happened in Egypt could have happened without social networks," said Rebecca MacKinnon of the New America Foundation. "Social networking didn't cause [Mubarak's ouster,] but it enabled it."

From Iran to Syria, Sudan to Myanmar, social networks -- messages sent via Facebook and Twitter, on blogs and in texts -- have fast become a communications method of choice for dissidents.

And the U.S. government's Board of Broadcasting Governors, which sponsored the discussion, is trying to keep up with the tsunami of new media.

With China, the world's largest Internet-using society, BBG plays a cat-and-mouse game to give Chinese Internet users access to websites that the Chinese government wants to block. BBG's International Broadcasting Bureau Anti-Censorship Program sets up proxy links that provide users access to sites despite Chinese government jamming.

"We play on the bureaucratic inefficiency of government," said Ken Berman, director of the anti-censorship program. As soon as the new proxy address is blocked, Berman and his crew create another one and distribute it through e-mails and social networking messages.

Agency engineers also devise ways to circumvent Chinese key word filtering software and dodge other Chinese cyber barricades.

There is a similar struggle underway in Iran, where the BBG has distributed encryption software and Internet anonymity tools to Iranian Web users, and the agency is working on ways to prevent the Iranian government from blocking text messages, Berman said.

Iran is fighting back. The regime created a "cyber army" to monitor Iranian cyberspace and track down political opposition, and it uses social media to broadcast disinformation.

Social networking is not yet an issue in North Korea, where the Internet is virtually nonexistent, said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University, Seoul, South Korea. But there is a growing black market in Chinese cell phones, and Chinese cell phone service is available along the North Korean-Chinese border.

BBG's hope is that the free exchange of information over the Internet and social networks will foster democracy, said BBG chairman Walter Isaacson. It hasn't always worked out that way. On at least one occasion, U.S.-sponsored social media were quickly dominated by Islamic fundamentalists, one BBG official conceded.