My experiences in being targeted by the Iranian and Libyan security services in retaliation for my Facebook activism on behalf of the cause of freedom in Iran and Libya make me skeptical of the value of the Internet as a means of social change. The harassment that I faced from the Iranian security services was psychologically terrifying. Beginning in late 2009, I was followed by a regime agent on Facebook, a person which my Iranian friends warned me about but which I did not pick up until several months later.
One reason I was harassed and targeted by the Iranian regime agents is that my closest Facebook friend inside Iran was a political activist and determined opponent of the regime. I was followed by a series of regime sympathizers on Facebook throughout my 2010 activism on behalf of Iranian freedom. After her arrest, I was immediately subjected to complex forms of psychological warfare by this regime, which sadly achieved their objective of weakening my credibility in the eyes of the Iranian exiled opposition. Essentially these regime agents had an extensive amount of information about me and my personal habits and core beliefs because I shared too much personal information about myself online, and they used it against me very skillfully.
A very talented regime agent first gained my trust by giving me two pieces of correct information in advance so that I grew to believe him. They also knew that I am an observant Jew who keeps the Sabbath. They ruined my Sabbath by telling me one hour before the Sabbath that my friend in Iran - who was a verified political prisoner, was being severely tortured. I later realized this information was false, but by then it was too late. By making me inwardly distressed through an act of deliberate deception, they moved me to take actions that I wouldn't have committed under normal conditions.
At the same time as they told me my friend in Iran was under torture, they also introduced many facebook 'friends' to me who are probably also regime sympathizers. And those persons pretended to comfort me about my friend's arrest and torture - and thus to mislead me further. They induced me to make what turned out to be a grave mistake. This mistake was to introduce my 'friends' into my network of Iranian exiled opposition leaders, thus compromising their security. As soon as I realized my mistake, I compounded the problem by sending out a group email informing my real friends among the Iranian dissidents abroad that explained I had mistakenly introduced a possible regime agent into their ranks.
At this point all hell broke loose for me. Feeling endangered by me, my closest friend among Iranian exiles publicly attacked me and abandoned me. And also three other people came out of the woodwork as rather obvious regime sympathizers. One was an American who probably lived in Iran as a child and was clearly fluent in Persian. One was an Arab woman who harbored deeply anti-Jewish views and attacked me personally and professionally in very vicious ways. And finally the crowning blow for me was when a 'friend' falsely told me that I was not under attack by regime agents when it was so painfully obvious even to me that I was facing a very orchestrated and organized assault by regime agents or sympathizers.
After this experience, I stopped using Facebook for my Iranian activism. I permanently ceased all communication with Iranians inside Iran because I realized I cannot tell the difference between regime agents and opposition leaders when talking to Iranians inside Iran. I also took down my Iranian blog for about a month or two. When I put my Iranian blog back up, I did it anonymously. I spread my blog among a limited number of trusted Iranians in exile and also Western analysts of Iran who support Iranian freedom.
I had another chilling experience with my support of the Libyan freedom uprising. I posted a number of comments on facebook in support of the Libyan uprising and calling for regime change, Western military intervention in Libya, and the fall of the Qaddafi regime. Out of caution I did not attempt to contact any Libyan dissidents inside or outside Libya even though I am familiar with at least one Libyan exiled democratic dissident group based in Washington, D.C. So the Libyan regime went after my mother - sending her a threatening email that purported to be from one of Qaddafi's sons. I stopped speaking up for Libyan freedom on facebook after this.
This experience is a cautionary tale for those who harbour a utopian faith in the power of the Internet to achieve social change. The lessons from this experience include the following. Totalitarian regimes including Iran, Libya, Russia, and China are very skilled at using the Internet to collect information about internal dissidents and their Western supporters. These regimes know how to use the Internet and other technologies against their democratic opponents, and their lack of moral scruples means they have virtually no constraints in their use of technology as a weapon against democratic internal dissidents and their foreign allies. Western supporters of the cause of freedom in the Middle East like me are particularly vulnerable to attacks by regime agents and sympathizers because in most cases we cannot tell the difference between regime agents and opposition figures.
I learned from these experiences and have adjusted my tactics in my support of the Syrian freedom uprising. I do not post comments or share my analytical articles about Syria on Facebook. I maintain a blog which is now focused on Syria where I post my analytical articles about the Syrian freedom struggle. I am in regular email contact with an exiled Syrian opposition leader, Farid Ghadry, and I share my articles with him and wth a handful of Western and Muslim experts on the Middle East who share my support of the Syrian freedom cause. I have gotten one article published so far about Syria on Mr. Ghadry's Reform Party of Syria (RPS) web site. In my research on Syria, I have extensively used Internet sources including the wonderful blog of exiled Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid at http://syrianrevolutiondigest.blogspot.com/, the RPS web site at http://www.reformsyria.org/ , the Internet version of the New York Times, http://www.cyberdissidents.org/, and the following YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/thesyrianinterpreter. I think the Internet is a useful means for increasing communication and sharing information and analysis among Arab and Muslim dissidents and their Western supporters - but it is not a panacea for overcoming totalitarian regimes.