Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Assessing the extent of the Bahrain revolt

Bahrain's government is adopting a very different strategy than Egypt did. Rather than simply trying to bring the web down, which badly backfired in Egypt, Bahrain's regime is trying to organize its support, trying to take cyberspace in the way Mubarak supporters tried to take Tahrir Square.

This is not to say that Bahrain is not likely trying to limit access of protesters. As a recent NYT article on Egypt's Internet blackout noted Bahrain's government has used Internet slowdowns in the past.

"Over the past several days, activists in Bahrain and Iran say they have seen strong evidence of severe Internet slowdowns amid protests there. Concerns over the potential for a government shutdown are particularly high in North African countries, most of which rely on a just a small number of fiber-optic lines for most of their international Internet traffic."

People presently protesting in Pearl Roundabout are tweeting about significant delays and outages.

Despite this we are seeing a flood of tweets coming from the small island nation.

Our tool is really proving its value. A small number of tweet accounts, many clearly fabricated government agents, are flooding twitter with English language posts in support of the government. Many of these are professionals who know how twitter works very well.

If you just followed Semantic content in English you might assume that Bahrain Internet community is deeply divided.

But when you look at geo-located tweeting you see a very different picture. Today there was the ongoing protest in the Roundabout. There was also government supported had a counter protests at the National Stadium.

All day we followed the two protests in real time:

What we have found is the actual population of anti-government tweeters is vastly higher than pro-government tweeters.

So what accounts for the high presence of pro-government tweets while on the ground the anti-governments tweeters are the vast majority. We conclude:

  1. That the government of Bahrain and its supporters are engaged in a deliberate effort to exaggerate their support and diminish the opposition

  2. That the government has provided agents who are skilled in using twitter to make a PR pitch to the global twitter community

  3. That they have created hundreds of false accounts to carry this out

  4. That they are especially targeting concerns about Shia Muslims in the Arab world and the West

That said there can be no question that the Bahrain government does have supporters. They are vastly outnumbered but they are well organized and they are using social networks very effectively. They are using engaging images for avatars, often showing attractive models for their avatars posing as concerned civilians. But they are also lazy. Like the regime in Egypt decades of monopoly on power has weakened them as much as strengthened them. They are making rather crude appeals to sectarian hatred.

Though the government of Bahrain is using social networks to try and stay on to power and avoid serious reforms, they still fail to understand the full nature of this protest. We believe this spreading Arab revolt comes from a new level of global understand and information distribution. The old lines of sectarian hatred are likely not going to work now.

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