Thursday, February 3, 2011

Portable Propaganda

There's no question that text messages are helping self-organized groups to assemble and vent their protests around the world. But as mobile phone operator Vodafone reminded the world earlier today, social media can just as easily be turned into new tools for government propaganda.

Vodafone is accusing Egyptian authorities of using its network to send pro-government text messages to its supporters, without disclosing that activity. "The current situation regarding these messages is unacceptable," Vodafone said in a press release. According to Reuters, text messages sent on February 2 announced the location and timing for a mass demonstration to support Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak amid mass protests calling for his immedite ouster. Vodafone says Egyptian authorities ordered Vodafone and two other mobile networks, Mobinil and Etisalat, to send messages to Egyptians to support the status quo, turning disabled networks back on briefly, just to be able to send them. The text messages were addressed to "Egypt's youth" and urged them to "listen to the voice of reason."

Vodaphone, trying to distance itself from Mubarak's propaganda efforts, said: "We have made it clear that all messages should be transparent and clearly attributable to the originator. These messages are not scripted by any of the mobile network operators and we do not have the ability to respond to the authorities on their content." Last week, Vodafone said in a statement that all mobile operators in Egypt had been "instructed to suspend services in parts of Egypt. Under Egyptian legislation, the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply with it."

Speaking to reporters earlier today, Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao said voice calls remain off but that data services allowing people to access the Internet are now back on. Text messaging services, however, remain disabled for the general public. Reuters is reporting that one engineer who had been working on the network to keep services running has been seriously injured and another engineer is missing. "No voice and text but mobile internet is working," Colao told Reuters. "It will be restored when we are authorized. We are in a continuous dialogue with the government on keeping our services up. But this is a country that still has a curfew in place."

For more on censorship amid Cairo's turmoil, check out this Danger Room post and also this piece that appeared January 31 in The New York Times about the viral nature of censorship. Also see "Caught in the Net: Why Dictators are Going Digital'" in The Economist online.

- Marcia Stepanek

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Anonymous Howard b\Blood said...

Thanks for this-so many like me don't really know what it really all means in depth--glad someone like you can watch it with probing understanding and write about it with such clear and intelligent sense!

February 3, 2011 at 2:28 PM  

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