Twitterphobia in Bahrain

By arresting four young men for "misuse of social media" the Bahraini authorities have embarked on a battle that ultimately they are bound to lose.

The four have been charged (in the words of the interior ministry) with "defaming public figures" – an apparent use of the royal pluralsince, as the Reuters version of the story makes clear, they are accused of "insulting his majesty the king on their personal accounts on Twitter".

They will now be kept in jail for seven days awaiting what the public prosecutor says will be "an urgent trial".

The most sensible thing the authorities can do is drop the charges and release them forthwith. A prosecution can only bring more bad publicity for the regime, and it is certainly not going to stop people saying rude things about the king on Twitter.

The Bahraini regime (and others like it) needs to understand that social media have given people a voice they never had before. The old order is crumbling across the Middle East and Arabs, more and more, are demanding that their rulers be accountable. The rulers may not like it but they had better get used to it.

They would also be well advised to familiarise themselves with a phenomenon known as the Streisand Effect.

This relates to a court case in 2003 when American diva Barbra Streisand tried to suppress a photograph of her Malibu home which had been posted on a website about coastal erosion.

As a result of the lawsuit, 420,000 people visited the website in the space of a month, whereas previously only a handful had bothered to look at the picture.

The basic principle of the Streisand Effect is that heavy-handed attempts to suppress things tend to have the opposite effect, spreading the suppressed item more widely – especially where the internet is involved.

In fact, there was another example in Bahrain only yesterday. Following the imprisonment of activist Zainab al-Khawaja who had torn a picture of the king, a group of protesters gathered last night to shred pictures of the king and recorded the event on YouTube (see below) for all the world to see.

The mockery has also continued on Twitter under a hashtag #KingsTornPics – which ought to give the authorities second thoughts about the wisdom of prosecuting Khawaja in the first place.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 October 2012.