Rebellion in the Internet Age

For the past few weeks, Iran has been rocked by one of the most significant protests to take place in the country since 2009. Demonstrations began on December 28, 2017, when Iranians poured into the streets of Mashad, Iran in protest of President Hassan Rouhani and his regime.

Initial demonstrations were motivated by outrage with Iran’s floundering economy and economic inequality. However, the movement has quickly escalated into a broader campaign against the government.

To quell public outrage and discourage protestors, the Iranian government has taken steps to restrict the spread of information. Popular social media sites, such as Instagram and Telegram, were blocked on December 31st. One day later, Iranian users were unable to access foreign websites, and tools used to circumvent such restrictions (i.e. virtual private networks or VPNs) were also throttled.

This is not the first time the Iranian government has resorted to such measures. In fact, they regularly censor the domestic internet, and they’re not the only country to do so. China, Vietnam, and North Korea exercise broad restrictions over the internet, and other countries often use such practices to tamp down domestic unrest. For example, in 2016 Turkey limited access to social media sites in the wake of an attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In addition to throttling the internet, governments also flood the internet with propaganda to curry public favor. The Chinese government employs a “Fifty Cent Party” that overwhelms social media with pro-China posts, fueling nationalistic sentiments among its people. Russia has also created an army of “Internet trolls” that work to influence public opinion both domestically and abroad.

When the internet first started to spread across the globe, scholars proclaimed that it would bring about the end of authoritarian governments. The 2010 “Arab Spring”, also known as the “Twitter Revolution”, seemed to support this hypothesis, as protests that were organized on social media led to the toppling of regimes across the Arab world. However, current practices suggest that the internet is not only an effective tool for protestors, but for authoritarian regimes as well.

The way that the internet has influenced modern-day rebellions and oppression is a topic that I find incredibly fascinating. I explore this subject in my paper, Rebellion in the Internet Age, by analyzing the 2013 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. I also reassess existing models for rebellion by Timur Kuran (1989) and Joshua Epstein (2002), and I use them to develop a new model for modern-day protests, which I simulate using NetLogo.

 

Below is a synopsis of my paper:

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a municipal office in Tunisia, sparking a wave of protests that toppled governments across the Middle East. This movement, known as the “Arab Revolution,” has also been dubbed the “Twitter Revolution” due to the prominent role that social media played in the rebellions. Following these revolutions, authoritarian regimes began implementing strict information control measures to prevent this phenomenon from reoccurring. Countries such as China, Vietnam, and North Korea now limit access to certain websites, and Turkey has recently banned Facebook and Twitter in the wake of an attempted coup. These nations have also started flooding the Internet with propaganda to mitigate the threat of social media to their power. The Chinese government employs a “Fifty Cent Party” that overwhelms social media with pro-China posts, fueling nationalistic sentiments across the country. Russia has also created an army of “Internet trolls” that work to influence public opinion both domestically and abroad. Thus, rebellions have evolved dramatically in the Internet Age, as both protestors and governments have learned to leverage social media to organize action and influence opinion. Since most models of rebellion predate social media, they fail to account for the influence of online social networks. My model will help explain the role that social media can play in facilitating or suppressing rebellions.