Breaking News: Repressive States Use Technologies to Repress!

I kid you not: repressive regimes actually have the nerve to use technologies to repress! Who would’ve guessed?! Nobody could possibly have seen this one coming. I mean, this shocking development is completely unprecedented in the history of state repression. Goodness, how did these repressive regimes even come up with the idea?!

Yes, that was sarcasm. But I never cease to be amazed by the incredible hullabaloo generated by the media every time a new anecdote pops up on a repressive regime caught red handed with digital technology. Just stunning. It’s as if world history started yesterday.

I hate to state what should be obvious but repressive states also used technology to repress in 2009, and in 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001 … You get the point. Hint: tech-based repression doesn’t start in 1984 either, try a little earlier. As Brafman and Beckstrom point out,

All phone calls were routed through Moscow [during the time of the Soviet Union]. Why? The Kremlin wanted to keep tabs on what you were talking about–whether plotting to overthrow the government or locating spare parts for your tractor. The Soviets weren’t the first, or the last, to keep central control of communication lines. Even the Roman empire, though spread around the world, maintained a highly centralized transportation system, giving rise to the expression ‘All roads lead to Rome’ (52).

Why the media continues to treat digital repression as a surprise is beyond me. Repressive states have used technologies for hundreds of years. So someone please tell me why repressive regimes wouldn’t use new technologies as well? Because they’re new? No, that’s probably not it. Wait, because they’re cheap? Or effective? Darn, I don’t know, what’s the answer? Is this a trick question?

As Evgeny Morozov notes,

There is, of course, nothing surprising about it: why wouldn’t governments be doing this? After all, there are many smart techies working for the governments as well – and sometimes they even believe in and like what they are doing.

But you still come across the typical comment “I told you so!” on Twitter, blogs, etc., “I told you that repressive states would use technology to repress!” And so the anecdotes keep flying and the “oooh’s” and “aaah’s” keep coming. The media freaks out, everyone gets excited. And the next day is exactly the same since the media thrives on repetitive soundbites, especially very catchy (preferably one-word) soundbites, which explains why I increasingly feel like I’m stuck in digital groundhog day.

If I had more time, I’d write a blog post entitled “10 Easy Steps to Writing the Best Anecdote on Digital Repression Ever” along the lines of Evgeny’s fun post on “10 Easy Steps to Writing the Scariest Cyberwarfare Article Ever.” But my post would be a lot shorter:

1) Find an anecdote in the mainstream media;
2) Formulate a blockbuster title ending with an exclamation mark;
3) Preface your post with a note that no one but you anticipated this to happen;
4) Quote at least one full paragraph on the anecdote from another source;
5) For extra credit, create your own new one-word soundbite;
6) Conclude with a few snarky lines about how this clearly refutes all the dumb hype on digital technologies.

Some applaud the media’s focus on digital repression. They are grateful to the media for countering the Utopian hype. Fair enough, but this refrain is quickly becoming an excuse to spew out more anecdotes instead of contributing solid analysis. Moreover, the media is largely responsible for promoting the techno-Utopian hype to begin with. This inevitably triggers an arms race of anecdotes, which only leads to mutually assured confusion. But don’t panic, we’ve always got our catchy one-word soundbites to clear things up!

So here’s a practical thought: why doesn’t someone aggregate and code all these anecdotes to analyze them and look for trends? I realize that’s a little harder than writing up daily blog posts on the latest anecdotes so why not do this together? Lets set up an open spreadsheet to keep track of digital repression event-data. Then, when we have 6 months or more of event-data for a particular country, lets analyze this data so we can actually say something more informative about the dynamics of digital repression.

Come to think of it, Global Voices Advocacy, Herdict and the OpenNet Initiative are already doing a lot of this information collection, and very well. Still, it would be great if they could turn this information into event-data and expand beyond the Internet to include mobile phones and other digital technologies. Something along these lines, perhaps.

This won’t answer all our questions, but it would give us the underlying event-data to study digital repression at the tactical level over time. (Would asking daily data updates be too much?).

The next step would be to do the same for “digital liberation”, i.e., capturing event-data on how/when/where civil society groups evade digital repression. Analyzing both datasets would allow us to get a grasp on the cat-and-mouse dynamics that may characterize the race between digital activists and repressive states. I think the analysis would show that states are more often than not reactive. But who knows. Such is life in data hell.

Patrick Philippe Meier

13 responses to “Breaking News: Repressive States Use Technologies to Repress!

  1. Both ideas sound great. I hope that between netizen activists in countries like China and Iran and organizations able to fund them to do this kind of work, something along these lines will be done.

  2. Someone should ask any journalist who tries to write such a story these two questions about European history:

    1. For how many centuries was the right to carry a sword conferred by one’s rank in society? and

    2. For how many of those centuries were the lightly-armed or entirely-unarmed people whom we now call “citizens” called “subjects?”

    “Breaking news,” indeed. If only there was an HTML tag to read aloud the necessary sarcasm with an Alan Rickman sneer…

  3. Thanks for the post. I agree about the need of data, and, data visualization tools to get out tis cloud of hype surrounding the field of digital activism “business”.
    At Global Voices Advocacy we already started to work on that. Our most recent attempt was with Threatened Voices, a collaborative mapping project to build a database of bloggers who have been threatened, arrested or killed for speaking out online and to draw attention to the campaigns to free them.
    Like the early and very basic Access Denied Map, they both try to provide a way to analyze/vizualise data of actions taken by both parties of this cat-and-mouse dynamics : repressive governments and grassroots activists.

    more to come

    • Thanks very much for your comments, Sami, really appreciate it. Global Voices has definitely done some great work in this space. I agree that data visualization tools are important but so is making the underlying data publicly available. Also, I believe time series analysis of digital repression/liberation events is more important than the geo-spatial analysis of said events in order to understand the cat-and-mouse dynamics. Maps cannot provide time series analysis, which is why access to the underlying raw data is so important. Any thoughts on making your datasets public?

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  5. I see in your research Patrick that you are using Virtual Research Associates, Inc. and Reuters to gather data on protest events etc. and correlating those events with access to digital tech etc in 4 countries

    I expect you are familiar with below but if not their tools might be useful

    the researchers at Carnegie Mellon Casos eg Kathleen Carley have have developed Automap and ORAGIS

    http://www.casos.cs.cmu.edu/publications/papers/diesner_2004_usingnetworktext.pdf

    above paper is about Automap it breaks down people’s texts from eg Twitter and then works out common ideas (cognitive mapping) of a set of people and determines the network structure of those people ..it works out who is in the know, who is influential etc

    Ora GIS :
    “With our data now available in relational, temporal, and spatial forms, we can apply all of our
    tools to investigating questions.”

    from http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA486288&Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf

    you could analyse a twitter stream etc from and about your four countries of interest and correllate messages and people with geographically based protest events using Automap and ORA GIS and use the VRA data

    hmm just read the new thread on Twitter in Iran and its links …..but if everyone is using Tor etc to disguise their origin you won’t know who is really in Iran, but as I only discovered Tor a couple of days ago maybe not such a big problem..but then I dont have any great need to hide my location.

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