Perhaps one day world dictators will be effective in using social media to be persuasive. That didn’t happen today. Even as rumors swirled that Gaddafi has been shot, the Libyan government sent out a mass text message threatening protesters they would face soldiers armed with “real bullets” if they showed up for demonstrations today. They came anyway and the death toll is rising.
More benign government text messages asked workers to open stores and return to their jobs, and called on parents to keep children out of protests. All reports indicate those messages were not persuasive. Other pro-government messages promised phone credits to users who forwarded them.
As in Egypt, barring the foreign media was ineffective at stopping information. A smart phone comes in and out of view as this camera records citizen attacks:
Mashable’s Chris Taylor points out that while revolutionaries long have been successful without technology, information has always been power. Placing information technology in the hands of people means Thomas Hobbes had it right: even the mighty can be overturned. A 58-year-old Libyan man with a cell phone was able to give eye-witness accounts in one of the most incredible interviews NPR ever produced. Link and listen.
A threat to the credibility of such interviews is their anonymity. No matter how compelling the story or how necessary anonymity may be, unnamed sources still pose the same threats to truth as in old media. Last summer, news reports circulated widely that North Korea created its own Facebook page, after launching YouTube and Twitter accounts. Forbes sent the Dear Leader a fax asking if the sites belonged to his government. A very polite response came: No, we don’t do that sort of thing. In fact, such sites are banned. Supporters outside the country created the accounts. So, North Korea did not spread international propaganda; the assumption just was that if propaganda was spread then it must be come from the government.
The check and balance to internet anonymity is internet accessibility. Lies and misattributions tend to surface in a free and open environment, even if that environment is a very thin wire.