Why Dictators Love the Web or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Say So What?!

Prospect Magazine‘s latest issue figures an excellent piece by my witty colleague Evgeny Morozov. Entitled “Why Dictators Love the Web,” the article is as an important contribution to the study of digital activism.

As many in this field know, Evgeny is one of the lone analog voices countering the digital “Internet = Democracy” hype that pervades the mainstream media and much of digital activism. To this end, Evgeny’s latest tour de force is also invaluable for my dissertation research, in which I study the role of new media and technology in popular resistance against authoritarian regimes.

I had lunch with Evgeny last week and I must say he is without doubt one of my favorite colleagues to discuss these issues with. Why? Because he simply won’t let you get away with anything less than a very carefully crafted argument. And even then, he’ll still test your logic and poke (nay, drill) as many trenches as he can into your argument. He doesn’t hold back and I love it. Plus, he doesn’t make it personal. You can tell he truly enjoys the intellectual debate. So do I, which is why I already look forward to our next lunch.

In the meantime, I thought I’d dig a few digital trenches of my own around his really enjoyable piece in *Prospect which, just to be cheeky, might well have been titled “Why Evgeny Loves It that Dictators Love the Web.” Jokes aside, here’s the main point I want to elaborate on below: We need to move beyond the repetitive statements that dictators also use the Web. This is old news! The question that really needs answering is: “So what?”

Nobody I know in the field of digital activism is kidding herself or himself here. This cyber game of cat-and-mouse is a dangerous one. But this is hardly breaking news either though. Scholars like Dan Drezner, the Chair of my Dissertation Committee and a blogger on Foreign Policy, have long warned that repressive states are becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to use the Internet to further their own ends. In a 2005 conference paper, Drezner cites Garry Rodan’s conclusion from his 1998 study on Internet and Political Control,

“When the political will to obstruct certain information and views is coupled with such variables as an efficient and technically competent bureaucracy, an established regime of political intimidation and surveillance, and embedded corporatist structures facilitating cooperation between state officials and administrators across the public and private sectors, you have a formidable mix.”

Rodan’s argument is well put, but again, the real question is, “So what?” Is this formidable mix enough to smoke out digital activist networks in authoritarian states? “The result,” opines Evgeny, “is a cat-and-mouse game in which protestors try to hide from the authorities by caring out unconventional niches.” So is Tom-the-cyber-cat going to finally do away with cyber-mouse-Jerry? Perhaps we should go back and watch a bit more Tom & Jerry: being small and agile has distinct, asymmetric advantages.

And so it is that I take issue with Evgeny’s use of counter-anecdotes and his general line of argument. Let me be more specific and relate my concerns directly to some of his comments in Prospect. Take, for example, his notion that “Analogue activism was pretty safe: if one node in a protest network got busted, the rest of the group was probably OK.”

What happened to Evgeny’s earlier comment in this recent Congressional Briefing that torture is much cheaper than hacking?” Is “traditional activism” necessarily safer? Can we make such a sweeping statement from one or two anecdotes?

It is also misleading to focus exclusively on technology. Tactics and strategies on how to apply these technologies are crucial, as I have repeatedly argued on this blog. There are several ways to make it more difficult for repressive regimes to compromise your network. Deleting your address book on your mobile phone is just one example.

In terms of technology, Nathan Freitas is developing the Guardian to make it even safer for activists to communicate. For more tactics and strategies on the application of technologies for digital activism, please see my Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments. Evgeny might well retort that the Guardian makes it safer for regimes to communicate as well but governments for the most part already have secure communication channels. The point is to level the playing field.

Evgeny drops numerous anecdotes or digital mousetraps in his piece. Take the one about China (and other authoritarian states) hiring a data mining company to help them identify digital activists. So what? Chinese activists spent $0 countering that technology overnight by using a simple tactic that would make Leonardo da Vinci proud: they wrote backwards. See my previous blog post on this. In the field of security studies, we call this an asymmetric, tactical advantage.

Later in the article, Evgeny acknowledges that the Internet can serve pro-democracy groups. He cites three popular reasons: (1) the internet can give dissidents secure and cheap tools of communication; (2) new technology makes bloody crackdowns against activists riskier as repressive action can be caught on camera; (3) technology reduces the marginal cost of protest. Interestingly, he doesn’t expand on the first two (or how they might influence number 3), but he takes issue instead with the third point.

According to proponents of popular reason number 3, technology will act as a compelling recruitment mechanism. Evgeny summarizes the point below.

“[C]itizens will turn to the Internet to see how unpopular the regime has become. Discovering others of like mind, they will see protests and, if the regime hasn’t responded with violence, join to create a ‘snowball’ capable of crushing the most rigid authoritarian states. Social scientists have named these snowballs “information cascades.”

Evgeny cites a political science paper published in 1994 (yes, that’s 15 years ago) to counter the snowball argument. Not only that, this 1994 piece by Susanne Lohmann draws on the 1989 “Monday demonstrations” in East Germany as a case study. So Evgeny draws on a 15-year old article that cites a case study from 20-years ago to argue that “information cascades” driven by new media and technologies are a myth. Hmmm. In any case, Evgeny argues that in Belarus, “most fence-sitters watched the state’s response and, acting rationally, went searching for higher fences.” Again, “So what?”

Let me expand on this notion of “information cascades” by drawing on Drezner’s 2005 piece entitled “Weighing the Scales: The Internet’s Effect on State-Society Relations.” Here is Drezner’s take on:

“An information cascade takes place when individuals acting in conditions of uncertainty strongly condition their choices on what others have done previously. More formally, an information cascade is a situation in which every actor, based on the observations of others, makes the same choice independent of his/her private information signal.

In repressive societies, information cascades often lead citizens to acquiesce to government coercion, even if a broad swath of the public would prefer coordinated action. Citizen coordination and mobilization is highly unlikely among risk-averse actors unless there is some assurance that others will behave similarly. At the same time, however, an exogenous shock that triggers spontaneous acts of protest can also trigger a reverse in the cascade.

This explains why repressive societies often appear stable and yet without warning can face a massive scaling up of protests and civic action. A little bit of public information can reverse a long-standing informational cascade that contributed to citizen quiescence. Even if people may have previously chosen one action, seemingly little information can induce the same people to choose the exact opposite action in response to a slight increase in information.

The spread information technology increases the fragility of information cascades that sustain the appearance of authoritarian control. This effect creates windows of opportunity for civil society groups. While governments may be able to censor Internet content and repress activists during normal times, that ability may not remain constant over time.”

So there is more to “information cascades” than Evgeny perhaps realizes. At the same time, however, whether the spread of technology increases the fragility of “information cascades” remains needs to be studied more closely (hence my dissertation). This is an important area of research because we need to understand what factors influence information- and reverse-information cascades for policy purposes.

While Evgeny is correct when he notes that, “information cascades often fail to translate into crowds, even without state fear-mongering,” we know that already. What we don’t know is why some don’t fail and whether/how success can be replicated. Hence the raison d’être of DigiActive and the modest Research@Digitactive initiative I started with Mary Joyce and colleagues. In sum, we need more analysis (and not just anecdotes) in the field of digital activism.

But it’s far more pleasant to be in anecdote heaven. Evgeny writes that extremist groups use the Web, which means that “the seemingly benign infrastructure [of the Internet] can backfire on Western governments.” Again, I wouldn’t call this breaking news. There have been plenty of previous studies by RAND and others that have documented the effective use of communication technology by groups like Al Qaeda.

This leads me to my next question vis-à-vis Evgeny’s stroll through anecdote heaven. Yes, the Internet is being used by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbullah, criminal gangs in Mexico, ultra-loyalist groups in Thailand, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Saudia Arabia, etc.: So what? Surely this simply shows that technology can be a very effective political tool.

Evgeny also cites one of his favorite anecdotes, the one about Russian hackers putting up instructions on how to carry out cyber attacks against Georgian websites. But at least in this case he acknowledges that, “the results of the attacks were unclear.” I’d like to know what the results of the above examples (e.g., Iranian Revolutionary Guard) were. What impact did they have? This is where I find myself being repetitive: Get the Data, Then Talk.

So this is part of the problem, you see. It’s all fine and well to mine an article with anecdotes but we don’t even know for sure what the individual or collective impact of these anecdotes is. Which, coming to think of it, isn’t much different from the hype created by some digital activists and journalists around the promises of democracy by Internet.

I want to react to a few more points in Evgeny’s article before I wrap up. Evgeny acknowledges that Chinese attempts at censorship (“The Great Firewall”) no longer works: “They might stop the man on the street, but a half-determined activists can find a way around.” Yes, of course, surely this obvious, right?

But there’s a finer point here that is oft overlooked: censorship technologies are becoming easier and easier to use which, by definition, means that these tools are increasingly accessible to the man (and woman!!) on the street.

Let me take Evgeny’s following anecdote to demonstrate—one that the mainstream media loves to bring up: “China pays 280,000 commentators to spin sensitive [online] discussions;” the famous 50 Cent Party.

You guessed it: “So what?”

There are 738,257,230 Internet users in China, 149,515,326 with broadband access (source). These individuals don’t need to get paid to write content. And they don’t need to be half-determined if all they have to do is click on the “Secure Browing icon brought to you by the Global Internet Freedom Consortium (GIF). Orders of magnitude differences still matter, even in the digital age! Oh, and by the way, the number of Internet users in China is increasing, not decreasing.

But Evgeny laments the fact that most people, when given unfettered access to information, will browse for pornography, conspiracy theories gossip, i.e., Ethan Zuckerman’s “Cute Cat Theory.” Again, no breaking news there either. Still, Evgeny cites the fact that 70% of all content swapped by Saudi teenagers via Bluetooth is pornographic. So what?

I don’t know any digital activists who disagree with Evgeny on this: “providing unfettered access to information is not by itself going to push citizens of authoritarian states to learn about their government’s crimes.” Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard this kind of thinking coming out of the US State Department, USAID and most recently this Congressional Briefing on Twitter vs Tyrants.

In this sense, we do need more Evgeny’s to rain anecdotes on policymaker parades. But we also need to pierce through the puffy clouds of anecdote heaven.

In any case, if people need censorship circumvention to access porn sites, then all the better! They’ll learn how to use censorship tools. So if “an exogenous shock that triggers spontaneous acts of protest” triggers “a reverse in the cascade,” these same individuals may very well be driven to use these same tools to find out what really happened. And lets not kid ourselves here, dictators, police officers, soldiers, etc, are equally likely to be watching porn! The name Kim Jong Il comes to mind.

I’m almost finished, I promise. But I have to take issue Evgeny’s comment that NGOs “toil away on lengthy, expensive and unnecessary [technology] projects instead of ditching them when it becomes apparent they won’t work […].” This over-generalization may still be true but there’s a notable shift thanks to the free and open source movement.

With the financial crisis hitting NGOs hard, you can bet they’ll be the first to collaborate and adopt free and open source software (FOSS). Furthermore, I think it is fair to say that the FOSS movement has generated a lot of innovation in this space. Take Ushahidi, for example.

I also disagree with Evgeny’s recommendation that Western governments and NGOs should “invest in tools that help make digital civic spaces less susceptible to government spin.” Ok, I don’t entirely disagree, but I do take issue with this single focus on tools, tools, tools. Technology on its own is not the answer. We need to leverage the rich tactics and strategies that have been honed in the field of nonviolent civil resistance. See my previous blog post on this topic.

Evgeny writes that a Russian think tank has set up a “Kremlin School of Blogging” while the communications ministry is soliciting proposals to “advance Russian interests on social networks.” He also notes that the Kremlin has “increased its spending on the online-only-state-owned media by 75 per cent.” Meanwhile, in Iran, Basij forces plan to launch another 10,000 blogs and clerics in Qom have offered blogging workshops to shape online discourse. In addition, Evgeny writes that pro-government Twitter messages increased exponentially within 12 hours of the elections.

My take? Yup, “So what?”

These examples seem to indicate that repressive regimes are playing catch up, and are in a big hurry to do so. I think Tom-the-cyber-cat is feeling the heat. To put a spin on the common proverb, “When the cat is away from cyberspace, the cyber mice will come out and play.” The above examples cited by Evgeny simply suggest that repressive regimes are simply doing what they need to do to manage the digital playing field. No surprises there, folks.

So what happens next? Are we witnessing the early stages of an “arms race” of sorts—an information race? Will closed regimes be able to keep up with the rapid pace of open technological innovation? Does their survival depend on it? If it didn’t, why would the regimes in Russia, Iran, China, etc., invest more and more resources to maintaining information blockades?

As an aside, note that Evgeny tends to swing between anecdotes of (counter) digital activism and cyber warfare. I think we need to be a bit clearer about the conceptual distinction between the two. In my opinion, digital activism and cyber warfare lie on a spectrum much like the one that characterizes conflict—from nonviolent conflict to armed conflict. Understanding both forms of conflict and digital action is critical but I do think that each needs to be evaluated on it’s own terms. Mixing it up runs the risk of confusing mice for cats.

I disagree with Evgeny’s recommendation that the West should be prepared to step in and help the dissenting voices, providing free and prompt assistance to get back online as soon as possible. I’m not a big fan of external, top down intervention models. They don’t work in the field of conflict early warning and conflict prevention. In fact, they fail abysmally.

I would rather take a people-centered approach, local-training-of-local-trainers, something I have referred to elsewhere as a bottom-bottom approach. In other words, lets help foster more resilient digital communities by helping to build internal capacity that minimizes the need for external intervention and maximizes self-learning.

This is why I’d recommend watching a little more Tom & Jerry. Jerry often finds himself trapped in his little mouse hideout because Tom has a gazillion mousetraps set up right outside. If Tom also starts censoring the Internet and blocks the use of mobile phones as well, then Jerry needs to draw on more than just technology to get out of this tight spot. External intervention is hardly possible in some circumstances but if Jerry is somewhat conversant in nonviolent civil resistance, he’ll have a few creative tactics up his sleeve to get him through to the next episode.

In case it seems like I disagree with Evgeny on every point, let me say that I agree with his following remarks:

  • “Reaching out to offline but effective networks will yield more value than trying to badger bloggers to take up political activities.” See my blog post on this very issue.
  • “Western embassies working on the ground in authoritarian states often excel at identifying and empowering such networks and new media literacy should become part of diplomatic training.” That said, local activists who are connected to foreign embassies often run great risks, see this blog post of mine for more on this.
  • “We shouldn’t kid ourselves. Nobody knows who to create sustainable digital public spheres capable of promoting democracy.” And just one dissertation on this topic won’t cut it either.

I’m not ready to place my bets on either Tom or Jerry. I’d rather be up front and say, I don’t know. It depends. But I intend to tip-toe around the many anecdote droppings to find out whether one can take a more data-driven approach to answer the question, “So what?”

Patrick Philippe Meier

16 responses to “Why Dictators Love the Web or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Say So What?!

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  5. well said, well thought out. thanks

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