Twitter and other services create cracks in Gadhafi's media fortress

Moammar Gadhafi speaks to followers on state television, which labeled the scene "Live from Green Square." New media have undercut his past success at controlling Libyans' information.
Moammar Gadhafi speaks to followers on state television, which labeled the scene "Live from Green Square." New media have undercut his past success at controlling Libyans' information.
Posted: February 28, 2011

The popular uprising in Libya is two struggles in one.

First is the flesh-and-blood battle fought at horrific cost on the streets of Tripoli and throughout the North African nation.

The second, just as grim and no less dramatic, is the battle between Libyans and the government of Moammar Gadhafi over access to media and information.

For almost 42 years, Gadhafi has proved a genius in "erecting a seemingly impenetrable fortress, a very complex architecture to assure complete loyalty and unanimity in all messages having to do with Libya," according to Adel Iskandar of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

The assault on that fortress has been joined by the "Libyan diaspora" - expats as well as family and friends of those struggling back home. In little more than a week, the international Libyan community has pulled together into a focused, urgent media world unto itself.

The diaspora workers funnel text messages, photographs, and e-mail between Libya and the outside world, to support and guide the struggle back home.

Dina Duella, a freelance media professional in Irvine, Calif., is part of that sudden, vast network, relaying political and family news via Twitter, Facebook, and the good ol' telephone. And she's tired.

"I haven't slept since last week," she said Thursday by phone, "and I know lots of others in the same situation. It's tense, conflicting, chaotic."

"It's an incredibly vibrant, indispensable community," said Iskandar, "literally blossoming all of a sudden, overcoming a very steep learning curve, and becoming radicalized, all in one week. It became a cyberactivist community with remarkable speed."

Libya is not much like its neighbor to the east, Egypt.

"You can't use the Egypt model in Libya," said Duella, "because it would never work." Only six million people live in Libya, compared with Egypt's 80 million-plus. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak may have been an autocrat, but he seems mild next to Gadhafi and his iron choke hold since 1969 on society, the economy, and information. Gadhafi has always banned the sale of foreign newspapers. There is next to no tourism and no privately held TV or radio.

"Compared to other parts of the Arab world," Iskandar said, "there is less use of Internet, less use of Twitter and Facebook, partly out of fear, partly because there just isn't the access." He estimated there were 320,000 regular Internet users there, scant next to the 16 million in Egypt.

"Libya has nothing like Egypt's generation of young, radical, educated, Web-savvy, frustrated youth," said Eliza Griswold, author of The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. Gadhafi, she said, has made sure such a generation has not arisen.

But an amazing thing happened. Duella said Libyan diaspora groups around the world had begun to coalesce around the Jan. 25 "Day of Rage" in Egypt, "because we had a sense a day like that might happen in Libya." Feb. 17 was set as Libya's "Day of Rage." Facebook pages and websites such as Feb17.info and Libyafeb17.com publicized events and coordinated support.

Libyans, "in a very brief period of time," took to social media in greater numbers, Iskandar said. "The number of people signing up to Twitter has gone up exponentially in the last 48 hours," he said Thursday. They are showing creativity and bravery, crossing borders to smuggle CDs of photographs or use Internet cafes in Egypt or Algeria.

Facebook pages such as B.R.Q News Network (brq is Arabic for "lightning bolt") have arisen to inform expat Libyans about relatives, coordinate relief efforts and safety information, and send news back and forth.

When the Libyan government blocked the Internet, Libyans learned how to use work-arounds such as "Tweet to Speak Libya," a Google service that let Libyans make ordinary landline calls to special numbers, where their messages were transcribed and tweeted to the world. Savvy Libyan undergrounders used web-radio tech to create "Free Benghazi Radio."

A clever Twitter user named Arasmus assembled a "mash-up map" of Libya showing the location of anonymous tweeters. Users could click on icons for each region and get information about police activity and protests.

"Twitter is playing a huge role," Griswold said, "with people getting images of violence out to the outside world. Its main value has been to bear witness."

Shoring up the diaspora media community is the irresistible force of cable TV news: Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, and others that carry news and images once forbidden. Cable news is much-watched throughout the Arab world, including Libya.

"Gadhafi can't hope to control this now," said Iskandar. As soon as an image of oppression leaves Libya, he said, "it circulates worldwide, and within minutes you can see it on Al-Jazeera. When that happens, it's the beginning of the end."

Short of confiscating every satellite dish in Libya, Gadhafi can't do much to block that information. Duella said that when cable TV carried speeches by Gadhafi and his son Seif al-Islam, it might have backfired because "people suddenly saw them for what they really were."

"I call it the first satellite revolution," said Iskandar. "The fact that all this is getting out means that the fortress is crumbling."


Contact staff writer John Timpane at jt@phillynews.com, 215-854-4406, or twitter.com/jtimpane.

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