Egypt Mubarak
Capturing an anti-Mubarak demonstration at Tahrir Square on Feb. 1, 2011. (Photo by Dan Hodgson/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Why Travellers Need to Second-Guess Social Media Habits Abroad

It has long been said that you should never talk religion or politics in polite company. Travellers in precarious countries should apply that to social media, too.

By Simon Vaughan

We all have opinions, and though not all of us are willing to share them with just anyone, others are more than happy to tell the world their thoughts on everything. 

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But when travelling, sharing opinions on certain issues can get you in some very serious trouble.

A few weeks ago, Canadian expat Robert Penner was given two days to leave Nepal after posting tweets that were deemed critical of the government, and which could “cause public unrest.” Penner, a software engineer, had been living in Nepal since 2012 and had become very interested in local politics and human rights, regularly using social media to voice his thoughts. 

While such opinions are the backbone and lifeblood of most democratic countries, there are plenty of nations around the world that aren’t so welcoming of criticism, creative or otherwise. As I've written before, politics and tourism are a potentially dangerous mix

Living in Canada, where we can say almost anything we like about our politics and politicians as long as we don’t personally threaten them, incite violence or engage in libel or slander, it can sometimes be easy to forget that not everyone—or every country—has the same freedom of speech. 

Although Penner might not think himself lucky for having been forced to leave the country he had called home for the past four years, there are plenty of other social media pundits who’ve found themselves tortured, imprisoned or worse in places such as Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Vietnam and even Singapore.

Living in Canada, where we can say almost anything we like about our politics and politicians as long as we don’t personally threaten them, incite violence or engage in libel or slander, it can sometimes be easy to forget that not everyone—or every country—has the same freedom of speech. 

When travelling, it can be easy to believe that our Facebook page, Twitter feed and other social media outlets are beyond the reach or beyond the view of local authorities; but being Canadian and using a U.S.-based online social networking service is no protection from local laws while overseas. Indeed, even government travel warnings don't mean you'll be bailed out in times of trouble

I find it hard to visit anywhere and not want to learn what life is really like there, beyond the glossy tourist-board brochures, the government news agencies and the tourist enclaves. But when in countries not known for their freedom of speech, I tread very carefully and hope to gain that insight through casual conversation, not pointed questions that could get my new acquaintance—or even me—into serious trouble. 

But the reality of pre–Arab Spring Egypt quickly became apparent: most of those guns were actually there to keep Mubarak and his close circle of family and friends in power. With an active secret police monitoring the media and listening for the slightest hint of dissent, only particularly brave Egyptians would dare to voice their real thoughts on their government. 

Such was the case in Hosni Mubarak’s pre–Arab Spring Egypt. After just a few days in the country, it became quite obvious to me that it was a police state. The heavy security was ostensibly there to protect tourists and government institutions from the very real threat of terrorism. 

But the reality quickly became apparent that most of those guns were actually there to keep Mubarak and his close circle of family and friends in power. With an active secret police monitoring the media and listening for the slightest hint of dissent, only particularly brave Egyptians would dare to voice their real thoughts on their government. 

After a week, one of my new acquaintances began to open up and share all the little stories about Mubarak, his son and the actions of the government of which every Egyptian was well aware but rarely spoke. He even showed me some of the enormous houses in which they lived, though quickly advising me not to take any photos or even to show much interest as we passed by. 

It was a side of Egypt that, while certainly not unknown, was only minimally covered in the Western press at the time, and provided me with a glimpse of the realities of life in that strategically important Middle East nation.

My travel there was pre-social media, and I didn't have the same opportunity to share my discoveries with a wider audience; but even if there had been, I would have been very careful in publicly airing my thoughts once home. Not out of concern for my own safety once back in Canada, of course, but of concern for my new friends who were still in Egypt, and who could easily have become victims of their country’s state-security organizations.

Of course, if during your travels you feel sufficiently compelled to share the plight of a marginalized or targeted people, to call out a particularly nasty government or to highlight human rights abuses or rampant corruption, that is your decision—and you should go for it, as Penner did. 

Social media reporting can make a difference in the world, but only when used sensibly. Before posting anything abroad that's critical of a government, a religion, a culture or even an entire country, be sure to thoroughly think through any possible outcomes. 

But don’t expect your Canadian passport or a Canadian IP address to protect you from local repercussions.

However, regardless of how you expose yourself, don’t ever endanger the safety or wellbeing of those who’ve shared their lives with you. To you it may just be a great tweet or an exciting blog post, but it can be their jobs at best, their lives at worst. 

And that doesn’t just mean not publishing their real name in any article or post. It also extends to covering their tracks sufficiently so their anonymity—and their very life—is safe.

Social media reporting can make a difference in the world, but only when used sensibly. Before posting anything abroad that's critical of a government, a religion, a culture or even an entire country, be sure to thoroughly think through any possible outcomes. 

Not just against yourself—being expelled, deported, imprisoned or banned from that country for life—but against anyone you may quote or describe in your writing. Their life could depend on it.


Simon Vaughan is a senior editor & special travel advisor for Outpost. You can find his column "Excess Baggage" in each issue of Outpost Magazine, and his online archive here


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