How Twitter Can Help Overthrow Dictatorships

After risking imprisonment in Cuba last week for writing about their political system directly from Havana via Twitter, I have a few thoughts on how Twitter can be used to bring democracy to non free countries such as Cuba.

Firstly, if you’d like to see why I was in Cuba, visit here:

You can also see my Cuban twitterings here:

I’ll have just a couple more posts about Cuba, then things will be back to normal, I promise.  🙂

What it was like to use Twitter from Cuba

My visit to Cuba was a holiday, but also to learn about the country and how it works.  I decided to try to get Twitter working, a service for publishing phone text messages via the web and rebroadcasting both via instant messenger and also to other cellphones.  I was a bit nervous about it, since the Cuban government is very controlling about speech made from within the country.   From the Fodors guidebook about Cuba:

“Open criticism of the government or Fidel Castro is a major taboo.  Don’t do it, especially in open public places.  Thought police, community revolutionary brigades and reprisals for vocal dissent are an ongoing legacy of Cuba’s political reality.”

And, given Cuba’s worldwide political isolation, if the decided to hold you, they would not have to be in a hurry to let you go.  If that was not enough, this trip carried some risk for my returning to the USA, since the US is not entirely favourable about people visiting Cuba.  But I felt strongly enough about this trip that I decided I had to do it.

I was fortunate to get Twitter working via cellphone text messaging.  Unfortunately inbound communication to Cuba via text messaging didn’t work, so I wasn’t able to participate in the 2-way communication that normally goes on via Twitter.  Given that internet access was also difficult, I had no feedback to see if my twittering worked properly or if anyone was reading it.

I basically used Twitter as a mechanism to capture my notes.  Prior to using Twitter I was keeping notes in my Treo.  Once I started using Twitter I found it was easier enough to store what was happening there.

Since I came back I found that I had at least 30 people following along.  Its not a huge number, but given that this just happened on the fly and I had never used Twitter before, I thought it was a pretty good start.   Afterwards, one of my friends, Wes Trochlil wrote to me:

“Just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed your twitter from Cuba. It was actually kinda fun to get information in bite-size morsels.”

It turned out that while I had relatively few twitter friends, others were reading my posts via RSS and the twitter website directly.

The messages themselves cost $1 each to send.  I sent about 5 messages/day, totaling about 40 messages.  The cellphone cost $3/day to have the prepaid GSM chip activated.  So I spent about $60 to broadcast from Havana via Twitter for a week.

While you read this online from a free country, twittering simple thoughts from Cuba to a small group may not seem like much.  But when you’re living in a police state day by day, posting on the public internet, where there is no free speech, and people routinely vanish, its another story.

One of the hardest moments was when I visited the Museum of the Cuban Revolution.  Much of the exhibitions in the museum were incredibly dishonest.  Many of the problems that the Cuban revolution was trying to solve are still as bad as before, and many are worse.  While Fidel Castro has had good intentions, the actual results on people have been devastating. 

Anyways, after I left the museum, I wanted to post some strong commentary about what I thought on Twitter.  But I had to hold back.  This was quite a shock to someone raised in Australia and having spent many years in the USA.

So how can Twitter help free a country like Cuba?

The exciting thing about twittering was that I could do it from anywhere and it was relatively anonymous.  I didn’t tell people in Cuba about what I was doing, all they saw was me using my cellphone.  None of them knew I was posting on the internet in the USA with a worldwide audience.

I was free to move around, and post in real time.  So this is clearly a great way for people to communicate that are spread around the country.  While international text messages didn’t work, I’m sure that with some more testing, that could be solved. This would enable groups of Cubans to work together, to broadcast together in groups via twitter, and also receive input from outside the country.

Clearly government monitoring will be an issue – it is difficult to get any cellphone, let alone an anonymous cellphone in Cuba at the moment.  However this should change over time, and it should not be a difficult to program an encryption system for text messaging.

Why not just blog?

Blogging is a great approach for communication, especially for communicating thoughts in more detail – Twitter only allows 140 characters per message.  However blogging isn’t as mobile, and it isn’t as flexible.  With Twitter you can be completely anonymous and posting what you want online, and share that information with small groups. 

Twittering at $1/message is not very cost effective in a country like Cuba where the typical monthly income is $20/month.  However as with all technology adoption, this will drop over time.  The other major advantage to Twitter is that much of the third world is jumping directly to cellphones, skipping landlines.  Therefore the adoption of a service like Twitter will be much faster for cellphone users, and more likely to be adopted quickly.

Based on this, I believe that Twitter could one day be the killer application which helps free the remaining non-free countries left in the world.  Lets hope it happens soon.