Monthly Archives: November 2010

Quick, Stop All Ushahidi Deployments in Egypt!

Has the world gone crazy? There are now at least five Ushahidi deployments in Egypt. Somebody stop this proliferation before things really gets out of control. This is ridiculous, who knows what could happen!

Oh how I long for the days of  expensive, proprietary software that prevented the widespread use of commercial platforms by the unwashed masses. Life was good back then, and simple. Only external organizations with millions of dollars of funding could monitor elections. Centralized, top-down hierarchical control was such a blessing. You’d think that those using Ushahidi in Egypt would at least make their deployments password protected. But no, they have the nerve to share their data publicly. The nerve.

Someone please force these groups to use one (and only one) platform and to use a password. In fact, people should be required to apply for permission to use an Ushahidi platform by completing a 10-page form, providing 5 references along with a financial statement for the past 3 years. They should also sign a binding contract that obliges them not to share any data publicly. The golden rule should be one platform per country per year. All this needs to be controlled. Seriously, don’t people understand the consequences of democratizing tools for trans-parency and accountability?

Just look at what’s happening in Eygpt. Ushahidi was never used in the country before the lead up to the country’s Parliamentary Elections. But now, because the platform is both free and open source, no fewer than 5 different groups have decided to add more transparency to the elections. How irresponsible is that? I mean, this is only going to give people more ideas on how to hold their government accountable in the future.

Indeed, there may end up being twice as many platforms during the Presidential Elections next year as a result. And then what? This will just make each platform weaker since the data will be split across platforms. (Down with open data!). Don’t people understand that they can’t just do whatever they want? (Down with more choices!). Doesn’t anyone care about our rules anymore? The masses need to listen to us and do as we say. Oh how I do miss the good old days. Sigh.

This careless proliferation of Ushahidi platforms in Egypt will only add more data (down with more data!), which means even more monitoring of the government’s actions during the elections (down with transparency!). The first Ushahidi platform that was launched already has 351 mapped reports and the other four platforms have already mapped a total of 461 reports. This is terrible. The additional data means that triangulating some reports may be possible, either manually or by using Swift River.

This needless proliferation also means that many more issues will be monitored. At least the first Ushahidi platform that was launched didn’t have a specific category on women. But the platform launched by the Independent Coalition for Election Observation includes a category on women. And that platform is only in Arabic! Don’t people understand that election monitoring is supposed to be for English-speaking outsiders, i.e., the West?

It gets worse. The Muslim Brotherhood is also using the platform to create more transparency around the elections. As the screenshot below reveals, they even have the audacity to monitor and map assaults on journalists, observers and human rights organizations. This is worse than blogging. But don’t get me started on blogs. The fact that anyone can blog is a travesty and an assault on everything we hold holly. The printing press? Don’t even go there.

Crisis Mapper Anahi Ayala Iacucci clearly disagrees with me in her blog post on this topic. She writes that the whole point of Ushahidi is “to make it available to everybody to be able to have their voices heard, to allow for sharing of information. If people have some doubts please read the Ushahidi website: ‘Ushahidi builds tools for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories.’”

Again, has the world gone crazy? My ultimate nightmare, however, are APIs and RSS feeds. These allow data from different Ushahidi platforms to be easily shared. Just look at the screenshot below and you’ll understand my concerns. I was able to create one list of all reports simply by cutting and pasting the five website links into my Google Reader. This link will take you to a public website with one list of integrated reports from all five platforms updated in real-time. If you’d like to add this to your own Google Reader, use this Atom Feed.

And if this isn’t disturbing enough, people can actually subscribe to automated email alerts of incoming reports based on specific areas of interest. I also hear a rumor that each Ushahidi platform comes with a unique key and that swapping keys allows for the automatic sharing of data between two or more Ushahidi platforms. Networked Ushahidi platforms. The nerve. Maybe the Egyptian government will be able to crack down on these platforms and curb this proliferation of transparency. After all, the US government has already invested billions of dollars to keep this repressive regime in power.

How to Evaluate Success in Digital Resistance: Look at Guerrilla Warfare

The Iranian protests of 2009 are still framed as a failure. The same goes for the 2007 protests in Burma and other nonviolent movements that have combined digital technologies with civil resistance (digital resistance). Are these efforts really failures or are we simply looking through the wrong lens? What characterizes success in digital activism?

The international community and mainstream media seem to think that success means full-out regime change and overnight transitions to democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights. This state-centric framework is the wrong one to use if the goal is to critically assess the success of resistance movements. We should instead be looking at digital resistance through the lens of guerrilla warfare, or “little war” in Spanish.

Guerrilla warfare is characterized by small, highly mobile groups that employ military tactics to harass a larger enemy, striking and withdrawing almost immediately. Hit-and-run tactics against supply chains and disrupting communication lines is a guerrilla favorite.

Tactically, guerrillas avoid confrontation with larger enemy forces and seek instead to attack smaller, weaker groups to minimize losses and exhaust the opposition. They seek the support of local populations in the process. Their goal is to weaken the enemy and eventually to undermine the state’s ability to prosecute the war; victory by attrition.

Civil resistance movements use guerrilla warfare. Their tactics and strategies are almost identical. The majority of guerrilla actions do not use violence. Given the similarities between civil resistance and guerrilla campaigns, we should look into how the latter are evaluated. If we used today’s media frames to evaluate passed successful resistance movements, they would all be failures.

The history of nonviolent struggle shows that movements which were counted out when major repression first hit – such as Solidarity in Poland in 1981 and nonviolent South African anti-apartheid strikers and boycotters in the mid-1980’s – were, a few years later, on the winning side (1).

This means that an evaluation framework for digital resistance should include a broader time frame and have a more micro-level focus. We should be looking at a group’s ability to organize an underground movement, recruit, spread propaganda, elicit support from the local population, employ a rich mix of tactics to over time to harass, provoke and delegitimize a repressive regime, and a group’s ability to continue existing even after government crack downs.

On this latter point, for example, “a more comprehensive and accurate frame on [Iran and Burma] would have reminded us that such shows of force are used only when a regime feels threatened, that is, when it perceives itself in a position of potential weakness if opposition is permitted to gain any foothold” (2).

Weighing the Scales: The Internet’s Effect on State-Society Relations

The Chair of my dissertation committed, Professor Dan Drezner just published this piece in the Brown Journal of World Affairs that directly relates to my dissertation research. He presented an earlier version of this paper at a conference in 2005 which was instrumental in helping me frame and refine my dissertation question. I do disagree a bit with the paper’s approach, however.

Professor Drezner first reviews the usual evidence on whether the Internet empowers coercive regimes at the expense of resistance movements or vice versa. Not surprisingly, this perusal doesn’t point to a clear winner. Indeed, as is repeatedly stated in the academic discourse, “parsing out how ICT affects the tug-of-war between states and civil society activists is exceedingly difficult.”

Drezner therefore turns to a transaction costs metaphor for insight. He argues that “metaphorically, the problem is akin to the one economists faced when predicting how the communications revolution would affect the optimal size of the firm.” I’m not convinced this is an appropriate metaphor but lets proceed and summarize his reasoning on firm size in any case.

Economists argue that the size of a firm is a function of transaction costs. “If these costs of market exchange exceed those of more hierarchical governance structures—i.e., firms—then hierarchy would be the optimal choice. With the fall in communication costs, economists therefore predicted an associated decline in firm size. “There were lots of predictions about how the communications revolution would lead to an explosion in independent entrepreneurship.”

But Drezner argues that decreasing communication costs (a transaction cost) has not affected aggregate firm size: “Empirically, there has been minimal change.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t cite any literature to back this claim. Regardless, Drezner concludes that firm size has not significantly changed because “the information revolution has lowered the organizational costs of hierarchy as well” and even “increased the optimal size of the firm” in some sectors. “The implications of this [metaphor] for the internet’s effect on states and civil society should be apparent.”

The problem (even if the choice of metaphor were applicable) is that these implications provide minimal insight into the debate on liberation technologies: large organizations or institutions have the opportunity to scale thanks to the Internet; meaning that government monitoring becomes more efficient and sophisticated, making it “easier for the state to anticipate and regulate civic protests.” More specifically, “repressive regimes can monitor opposition websites, read Twitter feeds, and hack e-mails—and crack down on these services when necessary.” Yes, but this is already well known so I’m not sure what the transaction metaphor adds to the discourse.

That said, Drezner does recognize that the Internet could have a “pivotal effect” on state-society relations with respect to “authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states that wish to exploit the economic possibilities of the information society.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t really expand on this point beyond the repeating the “Dictator’s Dilemma” argument. But he does address the potential relevance of “information cascades” for the study of digital activism in non-permissive environments.

“An informational cascade takes place when individuals acting in an environment 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. Less formally, an information cascade demonstrates the power of peer pressure—many individuals will choose actions based on what they observe others doing.”

So if others are not protesting, you are unlikely to stick your neck out and start a protest yourself, particularly against a repressive state. But Drezner argues that information cascades can be reversed as a result of a shock to the system such as an election or natural disaster. These events can “trigger spontaneous acts of protest or a reverse in the cascade,” especially since “a little bit of public information can reverse a long-standing informational cascade that contributed to citizen quiescence.” In sum,  “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.”

This line of argument seems to cast aside what has been learned about civil disobedience. Drezner suggests that reverse information cascades can catalyze spontaneous protests. Perhaps, but are these “improvised” protests actually effective in achieving their stated aims? The empirical evidence from the literature on civil resistance suggests otherwise: extensive planning and strategizing is more likely to result in success then unplanned spontaneous protests. If I find out that it’s cooler in the frying pan than the fire, will I automatically jump into said pan? A little bit of additional information without prior planning on how to leverage that information into action can be dangerous and counterproductive.

For example:

“The spread of 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.”

Yes, but this means little if these groups are not adequately prepared to deliberately exploit weaknesses in authoritarian control and cash in on this window of opportunity.

“At moments when a critical mass of citizens recognizes their mutual dissatisfaction with their government, the ability of the state to repress can evaporate.”

Yes, but this rarely happens completely spontaneously. Undermining the pillars of power of a repressive state takes deliberate and calculated work with an appropriate mix of tactics and strategies to delegitimize the regime. There is a reason why civil resistance is often referred to as (nonviolent) guerrilla warfare. The latter is not random or haphazard. Guerilla campaigns are carefully thought through and successful actions are meticulously planned.

Drezner argues that, “Extremists, criminals, terrorists, and hyper-nationalists have embraced the information society just as eagerly as classical liberals.” Yes, this is already well known but the author doesn’t make the connection to training and planning on the part of extremists. As Thomas Homer-Dixon notes in his book The Upside of Down: “Extremists are often organized in coherent and well-coordinated groups that have clear goals, distinct identities, and strong internal bonds that have grown around a shared radical ideology. As a result, they can mobilize resources and power effectively.” Successful terrorists do not spontaneously terrorize! Furthermore, they create information cascades as much as they react to them.

In conclusion, Drezner criticizes the State Department’s Civil Society 2.0 Initiative. State presumes that technologies will primarily help the “good guys” and  “assumes that the biggest impediment to the flowering of digital liberalism comes from the heavy hand of the state.” (He doesn’t say what the biggest impediment is, however). Drezner ends his piece with the following: “It is certainly possible that the initiative fails because of the coercive apparatus of a repressive government. It is equally likely, however, that the initiative succeeds—in empowering illiberal forces across the globe.” This is already well known. I’m not sure that one needs a transaction metaphor or to refer to the dictator’s dilemma, information cascades, spontaneous protests and extremist groups to reach this conclusion.

Stop Crowdsourcing? Remember, Remember the Fifth of November…

… because a man can fail. He can be caught. He can be killed and forgotten.
But four hundred years later an idea can still change the world. I’ve witnessed firsthand the power of ideas. I’ve seen people kill in the name of them; and die defending them. But you cannot kiss an idea, cannot touch it or hold it.
Ideas do not bleed, it cannot feel pain, and it does not love.
- V for Vendetta, 2006

The power of crowdsourcing crisis information has little to do with the people behind Ushahidi. If individuals, communities, organizations want to crowdsource and access  information, they’ll find a way regardless of the challenges or the number of blog posts that try to stop them. Cynics warned that the  printing press and telephone would lead society to ruin. They failed to stem an idea more powerful than them. They’ll fail again. Information wants to be free, and people want the freedom to source and access this information. Increasingly, these people include grassroots activists, seasoned humanitarian professionals, students, established media groups, local organizations, volunteer networks and amateur professionals. Cynics will realize that their voices have long been drowned out by the voices of the many drawn by the power of an idea.

The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power

Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen published this piece in the November/December 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs. It was a notable step up from the “Cyberspace and Democracy” article in the same issue. In any case, Eric and Jared address the same core questions I am writing my dissertation on so here’s my take on what they had to say.

I far prefer the term “connection technologies” over “liberation technologies”. I also appreciate the authors’ emphasis on the diffusion of power via mini-rebellions as opposed to full-out regime change and overnight transitions to democracy. Any serious student or practitioner of strategic nonviolent action knows full well that power is not monolithic but defuse—even in the most autocratic regimes. Repression is driven by obedience. As Gene Sharp noted in “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”:

By themselves, rulers cannot collect taxes, enforce repressive laws and regulations, keep trains running on time, prepare national budgets, direct traffic, manage ports, print money, repair roads, keep markets supplied with food, make steel, build rockets, train the police and army, issue postage stamps or even milk a cow. People provide these services to the ruler through a variety of organizations and institutions. If people would stop providing these skills, the ruler could not rule.

This is why power is necessarily diffuse in every single society. Rulers operate thanks to just a few key pillars of support including: the police, military, civil service, educational system, organized religion, media, business and financial communities, etc. These pillars are only there because of obedience—and individuals comprising these pillars always have the power to withdraw their support. In strategic nonviolent action, obedience is regarded as the heart of political power. Indeed, if people do not obey, the decision-makers cannot implement their decisions, simple as that.

Manifestations of disobedience are most powerful when public, which is where mini-rebellions come in. These can slowly but surely erode the pillars of support temporarily propping repressive regimes. Eric and Jared write that, “taken one by one, these effects may be seen as impractical or insignificant, but together they constitute a meaningful change in the democratic process.” Ah, but there’s the rub. How does one string a series of mini-rebellions into more than just a series of mini-rebellions? Otherwise, digital activists run the risk of winning the battles but losing the war.

Here is why lessons learned and best practices from the long history of nonviolent civil resistance and guerrilla warfare are crucial. This was the crux of my response to Malcom Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker. Civil resistance takes careful planning, grand strategy to tactics and specific methods. Successful civil resistance movements are not organized spontaneously! Concerted and meticulous planning is key.

There are two principles of strategic planning:

Strategic sequencing of tactics: “The strategic selection and sequencing of a variety of nonviolent tactics is essential. Tactics should be directly linked to intermediate goals which in turn flow from the movement’s or campaign’s grand strategy. There are over 198 documented types of nonviolent tactics, and each successful movement invents new ones” (1).

Tactical capacity building: “Successful movements build up their capacity to recruit and train activists, gather material resources, and maintain a communications network and independent outlets for information, such as encrypted emails, short-text messaging, an underground press, and alternative web sites. This also involves detailed campaign and tactical planning, and efficient time management. Time is perhaps the most important resource in a struggle” (2).

This is why I disagree with Eric and Jared when they write that “in many of these cases, the only thing holding the opposition back is the lack of organizational and communications tools, which connection technologies threaten to provide cheaply and widely.” The tools themselves won’t make up for any lack of organizational or communication skills, planning, strategy, and so on.

Towards the end of their article, the authors note that, “these kinds of cat-and-mouse games will no doubt continue…” referring to the dynamic between repressive regimes and resistance movements. The point is hardly whether or not this dynamic will continue. The more serious question has to do with what drives this dynamic, what factors influence whether or not the cat has the upper hand?

If you’re interested in learning more about civil resistance and strategic disruption, I highly recommend reading these short books:

 

Democracy in Cyberspace: What Information Technology Can and Cannot Do

Stunning. How can an article like this still be published in 2010 let alone in a peer-reviewed journal? Is the study of digital activism so shallow and superficial? Have we really learned nothing? This article could have been published years ago and even then one wonders what the added value would have been.

I wrote a blog post last year called “Breaking News: Repressive Regimes use Technology to Repress” to poke fun at those who sensationalize stories about digital repression. They make these anecdotes seem surprising and stupefying: “Who would have thought?!” is the general tone. The equivalent in a car magazine would be: “Wow! Cars can be used for Drive By Shootings and Picnics in the Park.” And speaking of anecdotes, articles like this one in Foreign Affairs is why I wrote that data hell and anecdotal heaven series on digital activism a while back. But still the discourse changes little.

Check out these groundbreaking “insights” from the Foreign Affairs article:

  • “… cyberspace is a complex space, and technological advances are not substitute for human wisdom.” Go figure
  • “… the tools of modern communications satisfy as wide a range of ambitions and appetites as their 20th century ancestors did, and many of these ambitions and appetites do not have anything to do with democracy.” Are you sure?
  • “Techno-optimists appear to ignore the fact that these tools [of modern communication] are value neutral; there is nothing inherently pro-democratic about them.’ Never thought of that
  • “[These technologies] are a megaphone, and have a multiplier effect, but they serve both those who want to speed up the cross-border flow of information and those who want to divert or manipulate it.” No way, who would have thought?
  • “If technology has helped citizens pressure authoritarian governments in several countries, it is not because the technology created a demand for that change. That demand must come from public anger at authoritarian rule.” That’s ridiculous
  • “Citizens are not the only ones active in cyberspace. The state is online, too, promoting it’s own ideas and limiting what the average user can see and do. Innovations in communications technology provide people with new sources of information and new opportunities to share ideas, but they also empower governments to manipulate the conversation and to monitor what people are saying.” Since when do governments have access to the Internet?
  • “China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and other authoritarian states cannot halt the proliferation of weapons of modern communications, but they can try to monitor and manipulate them for their own purposes.” But why would they do that?

There is little depth or analytical rigor to this piece. The contribution to the literature is close to nil. Lets hope this will be the last of its kind. The study of digital activism has got to move beyond sweeping generalizations and vague truisms. We know that governments use technology to repress, enough with broken-record-publications.

What we need is more granular, data-driven analysis and mixed methods research, which is why the Global Digital Activism Dataset (GDADS) project is long overdue. Ethan Zuckerman and Clay Shirky are both advisers to this initiative because they recognize that without more empirically grounded research, articles like this one in Foreign Affairs will continue to be published.