While social media was praised in helping the Arab Spring movement, the new availability of Twitter in Yemen has changed who gets to control the public narrative about violence:
The result: AQAP and the Yemeni public have left the government far behind in an information war made possible by the spread of the Internet in the Arab world’s poorest nation. Authorities can no longer shape the narrative of counterinsurgency, particularly when it comes to controversial drone strikes…But the number of Internet users in the country increased nearly tenfold between 2010 and 2012, according to government figures, although even with that rapid expansion, less than a quarter of Yemenis have regular internet access.
Most drone strikes, which are believed to be US operations, target the most impoverished and isolated parts of Yemen where AQAP operates. The region’s remoteness plays into the group’s hands; it also makes it easy for the government to suppress any negative information, including civilian casualties from drone strikes and other aerial attacks.
But now Yemenis can easily, quickly share on-the-ground information. Last December, an airstrike targeted a wedding convoy, killing roughly a dozen civilians. The government initially identified the casualties as militants, but locals soon began posting photos of the dead on Facebook and tweeting the names of victims, directly challenging the government’s obfuscation.
Sounds like quite a change in a short amount of time. The availability of the Internet and social media threaten all sorts of traditional institutions that have relied on controlling information. All of the sudden, alternative viewpoints are available and regular citizens can pick and choose which to follow, believe, and propagate.
What does this do for American foreign policy? We generally disapprove of regimes that crack down on Internet availability (think China) but this is usually because we want to get our messages through. What happens when the same technologies are used to counter American narratives?