While the stories behind the recent revolution in Tunisia are just beginning to trickle out, an article posted in The Atlantic today explains how Facebook came to realize the Tunisian government had hacked all its citizens’ accounts on the social network.
To say that this revolution was similar to the Columbian revolution against the FARC that was first started by an individual named Oscar Morales on Faceboo, would be inaccurate. By all accounts though, the social network played the most significant role of any web technology used during the revolution. While even smaller sites, like Posterous, were used during the revolution, Facebook became a central location for dispatching information about where protests were happening, where government snipers were located, video footage of what was going on in the streets, and plenty more.
Around the beginning of the year, it became increasingly clear that the Tunisian government was actively hacking into user Facebook accounts (as we posted at the time). But how were officials getting user login information? That data could be priceless because the social network was becoming a valuable resource for the protesters, like The Atlantic says:
For activists as well as everyday people, Facebook became an indispensable resource for tracking the minute-by-minute development of the situation. By January 8, Facebook says that it had several hundred thousand more users than it had ever had before in Tunisia, a country with a few more people than Michigan. Scaled up to the size to the U.S., the burst of activity was like adding 10 million users in a week. And the average time spent on the site more than doubled what it had been before.
The government was clearly aware of what was going on and was prepared to do anything it would take in order to protect the existing regime. In this case, it meant stealing every user’s Facebook password and attempting to shut down their accounts. As The Atlantic writes:
After more than ten days of intensive investigation and study, Facebook’s security team realized something very, very bad was going on. The country’s Internet service providers were running a malicious piece of code that was recording users’ login information when they went to sites like Facebook.
By January 5, it was clear that an entire country’s worth of passwords were in the process of being stolen right in the midst of the greatest political upheaval in two decades. Sullivan and his team decided they needed a country-level solution — and fast.
Facebook in turn implemented a workaround which prevented the government from hacking into user accounts. While Facebook states the decision wasn’t a politically motivated one, but rather focused on protecting users of the site, it’s clear that social media is serving as a tool for the masses to organize large movements, including revolutions. In the case of the Tunisians, social media served as a tool to support existing coordination efforts. In other words, the social network has simply become a communications tool, and all credit for a successful revolution should go to the people who carried it out, not Facebook or any other technology which was implemented at the time.
No prior political uprising has been credited as “The telephone revolution” or “The SMS revolution”, despite these technologies clearly playing a role in their execution. Moving forward, Facebook and other social media technologies will serve as yet another tool for revolutionaries to bring change to entire societies. Existing regimes may not like it, and will do everything in their power to control it, but as far as the people are concerned, they will be heard.