Social media helped turn protests into revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt. However, unlike its neighboring nation, Libya's leader, Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi, gave notice that he would not surrender nor cede power, despite worldwide calls for him to do so. In an effort to quiet the groundswell of opposition and protests from the Libyan people, Gaddafi's regime blocked social networking and news sites before deciding to cut the Internet off completely.
As North Africans struggle with spotty Internet connections so they can share what is happening in their country, Libyans here in the U.S. are rushing to fill the online void. A group of Libyan exiles and immigrants who gathered in D.C. to protest outside of the White House are using laptops, mobile phones, and social media to do what comes naturally: employ technology to amplify their message. And it's working. Arabic speaking Libyan-Americans are helping to translate reports and information from Libya into English for the American press, linking top journalists with protesters who are willing to share their eye-witness accounts.
We caught up with Khaled M., a Libyan-American rapper who is part of the group and helped start the website Libyan protest site Feb17.info. He spoke to us about his role in spreading the message, the group's website, how Google Voice helps the people of Libya feel at ease, and why fear is never an option.
Complex: In the Middle East and North Africa, music, especially rap music, has been used to voice the discontent of the people. As an artist, what are your thoughts?
Khaled M.: In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya the whole message was anti-establishment. When you are going against the establishment it is hard to have your voice be hard by traditional media. The people learned how to gather, organize, and get information out using social media to circumvent the system. Music especially throughout North Africa has always been popular and accepted by the people because they are used to dealing with oppressive regimes. There are other artist like, Ibn Thabit, whose identity is unknown. He never shows his face in videos for security purposes, but he sends out strong messages about what’s going on in Libya. I think hip-hop is an avenue to inform people who normally would not be in tune with the situation.
Complex: Talk to us about how your team helps people in Libya get their voice and stories out.
Khaled M.: We are finding these people and finding ways for them to get their voices heard through bigger organizations. We had to find ways around working with the type of communications provided in Libya because most of the time the Internet is down. Gaddaffi kicked down the cell-phone towers, we’ve had to be really creative. Before the Internet was shutdown certain websites were shutdown like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, so we taught them how to use proxies so that they will be able to get on those sites because in Libya, one city will be protesting and having uprising, but they would not be aware of it in surrounding cities.
Complex: Then there's the technology you guys are using to help spread their message. Tell me about the different digital platforms that you are using.
Khaled M.: We've used a variety of social networking sites and forms of technology including Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Google Voice, and Audioboo. People with cell phone footage, images, audio, or whatever they have, we would screen and put it on [Feb17.info]. We were able to spread this information using Facebook and Twitter.
Complex: So how effective is Google Voice?
Khaled M.: Google Voice allows people to feel confident that their safety will not be compromised when they are speaking to us. When we use Google Voice, it comes up as a different number and when the Government tries to trace the number it comes up as a local Libyan number. It is the most effective avenue under those circumstances.
Complex: Makes sense. Explain the significance of your site, Feb17.info.
Khaled M.: February 17 is a symbolic date. Country-wide protests were scheduled to begin on this date and actually ended up starting earlier, after Gaddafi announced he would schedule a "pro-Gaddafi" rally on the 16th, and it has other significant meanings historically. The site was created to offer people worldwide a chronological log of events in Libya provided by eye-witness accounts from credible and legitimate sources. The Feb17 team works around the clock to translate information and aggregate data.
Complex: You must feel good about the work you're doing.
Khaled M.: It’s beautiful. At least 100 to 150 Libyans in America created Twitter accounts, who have never used Twitter, just in the past few days, to help us really bombard news agencies and spread the word about what’s going on inside of Libya. I tell you what, we are making a difference. I put a message out on my Facebook page on how people can get involved. A guy from Japan translated everything I said into Japanese and he distributed the message through different social media sites.
Complex: Amazing! So for Complex readers who might not be following the minute-by-minute updates on the uprising in Libya, can you provide a rundown of what's happening?
Khaled M.: Currently, there is a large massacre and human slaughter going on in Libya. The people of Libya have decided to stand up after 42 years of an oppressive brutal regime. They decided to stand up and speak out. Peaceful protesters are getting shot at in the street. Gaddafi has hired mercenaries from various countries to come into Libya to kill anyone protesting. The situation is getting worst every day. They are going into hospitals killing doctors and intimidating other doctors so that they will not be able to treat patients. It is really a global humanitarian crisis. There’s already hundreds of people that are uncounted for and missing. We want the world to know about this before it turns into Rwanda.
Complex: Are you afraid?
Khaled M.: We have no fear. We are doing everything that we can do online to help out our brothers and sisters of Libya. Over there, people are dying by the hundreds. I have no excuse to be scared and just like the unarmed civilians that are facing airplanes shooting down on them, fear cannot be a factor. The determination of our people getting free overrides any other type of emotion.