Next stop for the Twitter Revolution: China. But where the revolution goes, the crackdowns follow. The Chinese government attempted to disable Twitter across most of mainland China as ethnic violence erupted in Xinjiang province over the past few days, and now reports coming out of that country say Facebook has also been shut down. Even so, several photos have managed to leak out via Twitter in recent days, some quite gruesome, reminiscent of those used to galvanize support for opposition protesters in Iran recently.
At least 140 people have been killed and more than 800 injured as ethnic Uighurs in China’s westernmost province have clashed with state forces in recent days. The state cut mobile phone service and attempted to sever Internet access there, fearing protesters might use social networking tools to organize, much as protesters did in Iran after the recent disputed election there. The viral videotaped demise of Neda Soltan, a young woman shot by Iranian security forces while attending a protest rally in Tehran, shocked the Western world and became a symbol for the opposition’s cause. China wants no such symbol to emerge in the Uighur uprising.
China’s knee-jerk reaction to immediately sever mobile communications and Internet access at the first sign of unrest speaks to the threat, or at least perceived threat, that social media poses to authoritarian regimes. Political developments in Moldova and Iran have annointed Twitter and Facebook the social networks of choice for revolutionary political movements, allowing like-minded people to organize virtually before taking to the streets.
Can social networking ultimately open up the flow of free information to the point authoritarianism is unsustainable? Some have suggested it will, though Iran was eventually able to curb communication among protesters, and China has put the kibosh on social networking for the time being (though there are many ways for tech-savvy citizens to circumvent state controls). But clearly these regimes are feeling the heat from the likes of Twitter and Facebook. Whether social networks were helping rioters organize (and it’s unclear that they were), the fact the state cracked down on those sites so quickly is a testament to the power they wield and a sign the “Twitter Revolution” lives. To that, we say “vive la resistance.”