Experts believe that by 2019 there will be 2.77 billion people connected to social media, worldwide.
It is through services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat that we’re able to keep up with old friends, make new like-minded connections, and organize social events.
And creep on exes to see how miserable they are without us.
Social media has become so ingrained in our daily lives that we take it for granted. There’s a freedom in such open information and the ability to communicate so broadly. But social media is about more than just freedom. It’s a powerful tool that has destabilized oppressive governments and saved lives.
Now, imagine for a moment that all of that was suddenly taken away. Losing your right to free speech or the ability to communicate in chaotic times could isolate an entire population and threaten their lives.
Because that’s precisely what some governments around the world are looking to do by banning social media services within their borders.
While it may be difficult for the average American to wrap their mind around, there are people all over the world who have their data consumption, media, and internet access strictly monitored and censored by the government.
But how do they do this? Why? And what countries are blocking social media websites?
What the Telegram Backlash Can Teach You About Social Censorship
Telegram is the messaging platform created after Edward Snowden dropped his mixtape in 2013.
The former CIA operative released thousands of classified documents showcasing the US government’s massive espionage efforts both domestically and abroad.
After that, ‘privacy’ became cool overnight.
That’s where Telegram comes in. This service played to the public’s newly cemented distrust of governments.
While Telegram uses end-to-end encryption like most messaging apps, it allows messages to be sent anywhere in the world using an even more secure messaging-encryption protocol called MTPronto. This makes it one of the most secure and private methods of communication known to man.
It was created by Pavel Durov, a man once dubbed the Mark Zuckerberg of Russia.
Since then, many countries have come out against this service, and it was quickly banned by both Iran and China on the basis of national security. Russia blocked access to Telegram in 2018 when it refused to give the Federal Security Service backdoor access to its encryption keys. The Russian government then took its war against Telegram a step further, banning all VPN services that continued to provide access to it.
How Does a Country Block All Social Media?
The internet is everywhere. We live in a wireless world. So how do these countries actively block certain websites?
There are a few different methods most oppressive nations use to block not only social media but any site that has a position that criticizes the national governmental regime or religion.
The simplest way to block a website for an entire country is to ask the internet service providers within that nation to block them. This can come in the form of a polite request for cooperation or, in some cases, a not so veiled strong-arming attempt.
It also isn’t that difficult when the government has direct control.
When the infrastructure of the internet is government owned, as it is in many oppressive nations, it ain’t hard to coerce ISPs into doing the government’s dirty work for them. Like in Russia, where the System of Operational-Investigatory Measures requires telecommunications companies to install “security” programs on their systems. This allows the government to spy on user activity without a warrant.
In countries that have not banned VPN use, this is fairly simple to get around. Using a VPN service, users can tunnel their signal to servers in another country, hide their IP and use foreign internet connections to access blocked websites.
Governments can also block access to social sites through an autonomous system number. Each ISP has an ASN assigned to it. In order to use such a service to block access to a particular website, the government can create a smaller ASN with an IP range that includes the website it wants to block.
Routers will then go to the government’s version of that site rather than the actual website itself. The government essentially fools your router into thinking that an IP address is hosted in a different geographic area.
Technically speaking, it’s a lot easier to block social access for all than you’d think. But why? What’s the underlying motivation to hit these extremes?
Why Would a Country Censor Social Media?
Countries that censor social media websites are typically conservative authoritarian regimes.
Big surprise to no one.
Most of these nations seek to curb the voice of ‘dissenters’ who oppose their government. That includes anyone from other political parties, simple detractors, or even free press.
But another underlying issue often comes down to religion.
News flash again.
Many Islamic countries throughout the world seek to ban or censor messages that are anti-religion. Voices that rise up against the faith, or push ideals outside of its values, are silenced through blocking or censorship.
In the beginning, social media was not seen as a huge threat to these countries. That all changed when the “Arab Spring” occurred in 2010.
Between December 2010 and December 2012, a series of protests organized through social media saw young people rise up in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain. The oppressive regimes of these nations were either shaken up or completely overthrown as a result of this movement.
The rest of the world bore witness to these events and a great many similar regimes panicked. A number of them cracked down immediately on internet use in their countries, hoping to stop the spread of these “radical” youth-based ideals from spreading into their lands.
Instead of calling it what it was — control, power, and riches — they cited religious conflict. And with that polarizing threat, they were able to block the flow of information to ensure people couldn’t gather and oppose them.
Many tried to use virtual private networks to circumvent government bans on not just social media but a number of websites.
But these regimes took a play out of the Evil Dude Playbook, turning around and just banning VPNs outright. Or, forcing them to give a ‘backdoor’ to the government so they could still access their data (like in China and Russia).
When the time came to start banning websites, social media were some of the first to go. This makes sense, as it was the launching platform for the Arab Spring.
Here are seven examples of how other countries have tightened the reins on social media in the last few years.
Where else would this story begin, but with China?
The of Tiger Woods of Censorship. Just when you thought he was done…
This communist nation has a long and storied history of throwing its weight around to basically force its citizens to live in 1980.
The Great Firewall of China was created for the explicit reason to keep blacklisted websites away from the eyes of its people. This list includes most social and streaming services we’ve all come to expect. They shut down the “big three” social channels as far back as 2009, more than a year before the Arab Spring. Prescient.
China also bans VPNs, except for those that conform to wishes of the government. The idea of using a VPN that logs information to turn over to the government at a moment’s notice defeats the entire purpose of using a VPN in the first place.
The social blocking coincided with the Xinjiang riots, which were carried out by the Uyghurs, China’s Muslim minority group. What started as a protest, changed into a series of violent attacks. Much like the Arab Spring, these activists used Facebook as part of their communication network to self-organize.
After the riots were quelled, the Chinese government sought to silence the means why which citizens could communicate and spread first-hand accounts about what transpired.
Banning social media helps keep China in a metaphorical bubble, keeping a lid on all political and national events, and allowing the Chinese government to control the spin on how events are relayed to the global public.
There are some locations within China where Facebook is unblocked. It can be accessed throughout a few districts in Shanghai, for instance. It should also be noted that these services are completely unblocked in Hong Kong, which essentially governs itself.
As recently as September 2018, China has banned the Twitch game-streaming service, following a recent bump in the service’s popularity.
Turkey & Twitter go way back.
No, that’s not the name of your new favorite farm-to-table hipster hangout.
We’re talkin’ literally, dating back to a vicious feud that kicked off in 2014.
Turkey’s Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, banned the service after audio recordings were shared along the platform that incriminated his government on allegations of corruption.
Tayyip claimed that this action was undertaken by his political enemies and represented an attempt to undermine his regime. His solution?
Take his ball and go home. Completely blocking access to Twitter.
I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s President
“I don’t care what the international community says,” “Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”
Erdogan claimed that his enemies were abusing Twitter as a system and went as far as to vow to “wipe out Twitter,” during this 2014 incident. The ban only lasted for two weeks, until it was temporarily blocked again in 2015. This time, Facebook and YouTube were also shut down, too.
This was in an attempt to stop images from circulating of Mehmet Selim Kiraz, a state prosecutor who was being held hostage by far-left militants. Kiraz dies hours after the ban from bullet wounds that he received when security forces stormed the Istanbul courthouse where he was being held.
Since 2015, bans have been lifted, but Turkey continues to be a thorn in the side of Twitter. The country has submitted a large number of tweet removal requests. They had the highest number of requests in 2014, 2015, and 2016. According to Twitter, half of all tweet removal requests come out of Turkey.
The Vietnamese government is like a contestant on the Bachelor. They can’t quite decide how they feel about social media. Or any real-time, uncensored news for that matter.
It started in 2009 when the country blocked access to Facebook for one week. Though they never officially acknowledged the ban, it still took place as a way to keep citizens from criticizing the government.
Today, Vietnam continues randomly blocks access to social media sites, despite the government’s insistence that it does not censor social media. It went on to ban LinkedIn in June of 2016. The government attempted to deny the action, but this was later proven to be a lie.
The Iranian Presidential Election of 2009 kicked off a tailspin of online censorship.
The incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was running against three challengers. His closest rival was CCRF candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
Ahmadinejad was declared the victor with 62% of the tallied votes, despite only about two-thirds of the total votes cast so far.
Unsurprisingly, this didn’t sit well with a large faction of Iranians. Massive protests from millions began to sprout up all throughout the country, once more using social media as a communication tool.
In response, the government banned Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to squash out dissenting ideas.
For example, the president of Iran has a Twitter account and uses it for ‘administrative duties.’ He actually maintains two accounts, one in English and the other in Farsi where he tweets about foreign and domestic affairs.
The Iranian Grand Ayatollah is also active on social media, where he has shared more than 800 photos of himself speaking at events and meetings throughout the world. He has more than 183,000 followers.
Iran’s social media ban has since been lifted, but it uses what it calls “smart filtering” to block certain content on the Web. They censor content that they find objectionable, blocking access to anything that stands against the government or the Islamic faith.
While a permanent social media ban has not existed in Iran for some time, the government does periodically block access during periods of political upheaval. For example, they blocked access to Instagram and Telegram in 2017 and 2018 in an attempt to stop a series of protests.
In fact, they’ve gone as far as to block access to the internet completely for certain parts of the country during particularly tumultuous times, cutting off the flow of information completely.
In 2015, the Bangladesh Supreme Court decided to uphold the death sentence of two convicted war criminals.
And the outcry ‘forced’ them to completely sever internet access for everyone.
When the internet came back, following this brief outage, a number of services remained blocked. This included social media sites like Facebook and popular messaging apps like WhatsApp.
At first, the government said that it was a mistake. Except, that wasn’t true.
They eventually amended their statement, citing safety concerns as to the reasoning for the block.
Facebook access was down for over a month. Twitter and several chat apps remained banned for a much longer period of time.
6. North Korea
North Korea censors everything.
Their censorship extends far beyond the realm of social media. Most of the population is banned from using the internet at all, let alone Western social platforms like Facebook or Twitter.
Internet access is exclusively reserved for high ranking government officials, scientists, and elite students. But even these rare individuals have their access tightly monitored.
This oversight applies to North Korean officials stationed abroad, too. All internet connections that these people have access to are monitored by North Korean staff members.
The country aims to control all forms of media that its people consume, from radio to state-sponsored television, to a government-sanctioned intranet.
The government intranet can access very few websites, though. It blocks most Western sites and all South Korean sites. It is possible that there is a social media site made specifically for the North Korean people. Recent rumors would support this, but it’s impossible for us to know for sure.
Most North Koreans have no real sense of what the internet truly is and what it can do.
VPNs are outlawed as well, with the penalties for their use remaining unclear. While some say violations are met with a simple fine, others have hinted that North Koreans caught using a VPN are put to death.
A life without the internet? Unimaginable.
What’s interesting about North Korea is that the people may not know that they are being oppressed. Since they never had true internet or social media, to begin with, they have no way to know what it is that they’re missing. That’s the sad reality of North Korean life.
This African nation is testing a new fad that political analysts describe as dictatorship light.
The sitting president has been in power since 1986 but has just recently started dabbling in social media censorship.
Rather than ban these services outright, Uganda is trying to place a tax on social media apps.
Yes, you read that correctly.
The controversial tax would charge 200 Ugandan shillings (which equates to $0.05 in USD) per day for 60 different mobile apps. Among them are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp.
Critics of the tax have accused the Ugandan president of trying to stifle to the voice of the poorest citizens and take away their right to free expression.
Internet use can sometimes be for educational purposes and research. However, using the internet to access social media for chatting, recreation, malice, subversion, inciting murder, is definitely a luxury.Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s President
“The primary motivation behind the social media tax is to silence speech, to reduce the spaces where people can exchange information, and to really be able to control, with the recognition that online platforms have become the more commonly used way for sharing information,” said Joan Nyanyuki, the Amnesty International Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn, and the Great Lengths.
Uganda justified the tax when it was first announced by saying that it was meant to discourage the “spread of gossip,” and to earn some revenue from the popularity of foreign-controlled apps. The proposed tax has not been received well by the public, but the Ugandan president defended it by referring to the use of social media as a luxury item. He compared it in a blog post to beer, tobacco, and perfume.
Is Social Media a Right?
A number of countries throughout the world have taken extraordinary steps to block access of their people to social media websites.
Doing so creates a censored environment free from the eyes of the rest of the world.
But in 2018, has social media become a become a basic human right? Is it intrinsically tied to personal freedoms? Will we see a day where everyone in the world is free to tweet?
That’s the expectation. That’s the hope. And that’s what we’re trying to make possible.