Tag Archives: Activism

Innovation and Counter-Innovation: Digital Resistance in Russia

Want to know what the future of digital activism looks like? Then follow the developments in Russia. I argued a few years back that the fields of digital activism and civil resistance were converging to a point I referred to as  “digital resistance.” The pace of tactical innovation and counter-innovation in Russia’s digital battlefield is stunning and rapidly converging to this notion of digital resistance.

“Crisis can be a fruitful time for innovation,” writes Gregory Asmolov. Contested elections are also ripe for innovation, which is why my dissertation case studies focused on elections. “In most cases,” says Asmolov, “innovations are created by the oppressed (the opposition, in Russia’s case), who try to challenge the existing balance of power by using new tools and technologies. But the state can also adapt and adopt some of these technologies to protect the status quo.” These innovations stem not only from the new technologies themselves but are embodied in the creative ways they are used. In other words, tactical innovation (and counter-innovation) is taking place alongside technological innovation. Indeed, “innovation can be seen not only in the new tools, but also in the new forms of protest enabled by the technology.”

Some of my favorite tactics from Russia include the YouTube video of Vladimir Putin arrested for fraud and corruption. The video was made to look like a real “breaking news” announcement on Russian television. The site got millions of viewers in just a few days. Another tactic is the use of DIY drones, mobile phone live-streaming and/or 360-degree 3D photo installations to more accurately relay the size of protests. A third tactic entails the use of a twitter username that resembles that of a well-known individual. Michael McFaul, the US Ambassador to Russia, has the twitter handle @McFaul. Activists set up the twitter handle @McFauI that appears identical but actually uses a capital “i” instead of a lower case “L” for the last letter in McFaul.

Asmolov lists a number of additional innovations in the Russian context in this excellent write-up. From coordination tools such as the “League of Voters” website, the “Street Art” group on Facebook and the car-based flashmob protests which attracted more than one thousand cars in one case, to the crowdsourced violations map “Karta Narusheniy“, the “SMS Golos” and “Svodny Protocol” platforms used to collect, analyze and/or map reports from trusted election observers (using bounded crowdsourcing).

One of my favorite tactics is the “solo protest.” According to Russian law, “a protest by one person does not require special permission. So activist Olesya Shmagun stood in from of Putin’s office with a poster that read “Putin, go and take part in public debates!” While she was questioned by the police and security service, she was not detained since one-person protests are not illegal. Even though she only caught the attention of several dozen people walking by at the time, she published the story of her protests and a few photos on her LiveJournal blog, which drew considerable attention after being shared on many blogs and media outlets. As Asmolov writes, “this story shows the power of what is known as Manuel Castell’s ‘mass self-communication’. Thanks to the presence of one camera, an offline one-person protest found a way to a [much wider] audience online.”

This innovative tactic lead to another challenge: how to turn a one-person protests into a massive number of one-person protests? So on top of this original innovation came yet another innovation, the Big White Circle action. The dedicated online tool Feb26.ru was developed specifically to coordinate many simultaneous one-person protests. The platform,

“[…] allowed people to check in at locations of their choice on the map of the Garden Ring circle, and showed what locations were already occupied. Unlike other protests, the Big White Circle did not have any organizational committee or a particular leader. The role of the leader was played by a website. The website suffered from DDoS attacks; as a result, it was closed and deleted by the provider; a day later, it was restored.  The practice of creating special dedicated websites for specific protest events is one of the most interesting innovations of the Russian protests. The initial idea belongs to Ilya Klishin, who launched the dec24.ru website (which doesn’t exist anymore) for the big opposition rally that took place in Moscow on December 24, 2011.”

The reason I like this tactic is because it takes a perfectly legal action and simply multiplies it, thus forcing the regime to potentially come up with a new set of laws that will clearly appear absurd and ridiculed by a larger segment of the population.

Citizen-based journalism played a pivotal role by “increasing transparency of the coverage of pro-government rallies.” As Asmolov notes, “Internet users were able to provide much content, including high quality YouTube reports that showed that many of those who took a part in these rallies had been forced or paid to participate, without really having any political stance.” This relates to my earlier blog post, “Wag the Dog, or Why Falsifying Crowdsourced Information Can be a Pain.”

Of course, there is plenty of “counter-innovation” coming from the Kremlin and friends. Take this case of pro-Kremlin activists producing an instructional YouTube video on how to manipulate a crowdsourced election-monitoring platform. In addition, Putin loyalists have adapted some of the same tactics as opposition activists, such as the car-based flash-mob protest. The Russian government also decided to create an online system of their own for election monitoring:

“Following an order from Putin, the state communication company Rostelecom developed a website webvybory2012.ru, which allowed people to follow the majority of the Russian polling stations (some 95,000) online on the day of the March 4 presidential election.  Every polling station was equipped with two cameras: one has to be focused on the ballot box and the other has to give the general picture of the polling station. Once the voting was over, one of the cameras broadcasted the counting of the votes. The cost of this project is at least 13 billion rubles (around $500 million). Many bloggers have criticized this system, claiming that it creates an imitation of transparency, when actually the most common election violations cannot be monitored through webcameras (more detailed analysis can be found here). Despite this, the cameras allowed to spot numerous violations (1, 2).”

From the perspective of digital resistance strategies, this is exactly the kind of reaction you want to provoke from a repressive regime. Force them to decen-tralize, spend hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of labor-hours to adopt similar “technologies of liberation” and in the process document voting irregularities on their own websites. In other words, leverage and integrate the regime’s technologies within the election-monitoring ecosystem being created, as this will spawn additional innovation. For example, one Russian activist proposed that this webcam network be complemented by a network of citizen mobile phones. In fact, a group of activists developed a smartphone app that could do just this. “The application Webnablyudatel has a classification of all the violations and makes it possible to instantly share video, photos and reports of violations.”

Putin supporters also made an innovative use of crowdsourcing during the recent elections. “What Putin has done is based on a map of Russia where anyone can submit information about Putin’s good deeds.” Just like pro-Kremlin activists can game pro-democracy crowdsourcing platforms, so can supporters of the opposition game a platform like this Putin map. In addition, activists could have easily created a Crowdmap and called it “What Putin Has Not Done” and crowdsource that map, which no doubt would be far more populated than the original good deed map.

One question that comes to mind is how the regime will deal with disinformation on crowdsourcing platforms they set up? Will they need to hire more supporters to vet the information submitted to said platform? Or will  they close up the reporting and use “bounded crowdsourcing” instead? If so, will they have a communications challenge on their hands in trying to convince that trusted reporters are indeed legitimate? Another question has to do with collective action. Pro-Kremlin activists are already innovating on their own but will this create a collective-action challenge for the Russian government? Take the example of the pro-regime “Putin Alarm Clock” (Budilnikputina.ru) tactic which backfired and even prompted Putin’s chief of elections staff to dismiss the initiative as “a provocation organized by the protestors.”

There has always been an interesting asymmetric dynamic in digital activism, with activists as first-movers innovating under oppression and regimes counter-innovating. How will this asymmetry change as digital activism and civil resistance tactics and strategies increasingly converge? Will repressive regimes be pushed to decentralize their digital resistance innovations in order to keep pace with the distributed pro-democracy innovations springing up? Does innovation require less coordination than counter-innovation? And as Gregory Asmolov concludes in his post-script, how will the future ubiquity of crowd-funding platforms and tools for micro-donations/payments online change digital resistance?

Maps, Activism and Technology: Check-In’s with a Purpose

“Having a real-time map, complete with satellite photos, of where everyone is at any one moment is almost as good as having your own helicopter overhead — maybe better, if you can distract the crew of the helicopter.”

As recently announced on the Ushahidi blog, the group is launching a check-in service a la Foursquare called “Crowdmap : Check-In’s” or just CI for short. I’m excited by the different applications that a free and open-source check-in-with-a-purpose platform can have for social impact. In this blog post, I’ll share some ideas on how activists might use CI for popular nonviolent movements when the service is launched next month at SxSW 2011. I will also highlight another very cool project called Sukey, which was just launched in the UK.

Services like Foursquare provide a location-based mobile social networking platform that allows users to check-in at different venues to earn points and connect with friends. CI will work in a similar way but will allow users to create their very own “Foursquares”. This means that CI’s can be project- or group-specific, i.e., bounded to certain networks. Users will decide themselves where and what kind of points and badges to award to members of their CI network.

This quick check-in service has obvious applications for students coordinating nonviolent protests, especially when they need to rapidly adapt to a changing situation. I this saw again recently in Egypt when pro-Mubarak thugs were swarming certain avenues of downtown Cairo. I recall seeing a picture shared on Twitter with tactical drawings suggesting where anti-Mubarak protestors should position themselves as a result. This was drawn on a screenshot taken from satellite imagery of an area in the center of Cairo. (I spent an hour trying to find the original picture again but to no avail, so if you know which one I’m referring to, please get in touch. The one below is for illustration only).

With Internet and cell phone networks back up, protesters could use a check-in service to let others know where the thugs are being sighted and to recommend different locations to retreat or advance to. This would be a like a geo-tagged status update that could also be shared on your Facebook page or Twitter feed (minding the security implications). In addition, one could have pre-designated tags like “Thugs here”, “Don’t go here”, “Evacuate” etc., to avoid having to type when checking in. Call it the Q-CI feature, quick check-in’s.

These alerts or status updates could then be embedded geographically, something like geo-caching. So if I happen to check in within a hundred meters of someone who just recently updated their CI status as “evacuate”, I would get an immediate pop-up message showing me these nearby updates. Someone helping to coordinate the protests remotely from a laptop could quickly embed areas (rather than points) as  no-go zones if one or more updates show up with the tag “evacuate” at a given venue. Integrating Ushahidi’s new geometry mapping feature would make this possible.

A related project that I really like comes from the same student group in the UK that used live tactical mapping for protest swarming last year. The team has since designed and launched their very own mobile check-in platform to facilitate tactical maneuvering during demonstrations, keep protesters safe and avoid kettling:

“Kettling, also known as containment or corralling, is a police tactic for the management of large crowds during demonstrations or protests. It involves the formation of large cordons of police officers who then move to contain a crowd within a limited area. Protesters are left only one choice of exit, determined by the police, or are completely prevented from leaving” (1).

The project, called Sukey, is an excellent example of Maptivism. The name comes from the nursery rhyme: “Polly put the kettle on, Sukey take it off again.”

All you have to do is point your smart phone browser (it doesn’t have to be an iPhone!) to http://www.sukey.org/a to access the tactical map. The screenshot above is from their entertaining and helpful tutorial which you can access here. I really like the use of their simple “safety compass” which gives you immediate situational awareness about which direction safety (and danger) lies. The compass is specific to your GPS location and is updated in real-time as new reports are submitted by activists. These reports can be shared with all the other protesters and appear in the red box below the map.

If you don’t have a smart phone, Sukey relays updates via their Twitter feed which users can subscribe to via SMS thanks to Twitter’s SMS-following service. All you need to do is text “follow @sukeysms” to 8644. What if you forgot your phone at home? One protester noted that “Everyone who was getting the Sukey updates was telling everyone who wasn’t what was happening.”

As an unhappy security analyst recently noted,

“The proliferation of highly capable handheld ‘smartphones’ now makes it easy for protest organizers to communicate by voice, text and images, even with real-time video. The protesters may have more watchers and observation points than the police, and actually outpace the police in quantity and quality of intelligence. Having this kind of information available has made it possible for disrupters to create decoy incidents to draw resources away from where they are needed most. Having a real-time map, complete with satellite photos, of where everyone is at any one moment is almost as good as having your own helicopter overhead — maybe better, if you can distract the crew of the helicopter.”

Protesters claim they successfully avoided police kettling this week by using Sukey. If you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend this excellent piece by the UK Guardian on the project. I think Ushahidi can learn a lot from this group so I will be meeting with the team in London next month. In the meantime, I’m really looking forward to SxSW and Sukey II. In a future post, I’ll describe how check-in’s-with-a-purpose platforms can also be used for humanitarian relief and disaster response.

ICTs, Democracy, Activism and Dictatorship: Comprehensive Literature Review

Building on my previous post with respect to Howard Philip’s “Origin of Dictatorship and Democracy,” I’ve completed a draft of my dissertation chapter which comprises a comprehensive literature on the impact of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on Democracy, Activism and Dictatorship. This is a 54-page document (17,000+ words)  which I believe represents the most up-to-date and in-depth review of the literature currently available. The chapter reviews both the quantitative and qualitative literature in this space.

You can download the chapter here (PDF).

I’m actively looking for feedback to make the chapter even stronger and more useful to scholars and practitioners interested in this space. So please do add any recommendations you may have in the comments section below. Thank you very much!

Impact of Technology on Democracy and Activism: Findings from Multiple Statistical Studies

Chapter 2 of my dissertation consists of a literature review on the impact of the Internet and mobile phones on democracy and activism. The first part of this literature view focuses specifically on analyzing the results from all the peer-reviewed quantitative studies that currently exist on the topic. The second part reviews more micro-level qualitative research. Part 1 is available here as a 7-page PDF. Part 2 will be available shortly.

Here is the list of studies reviewed in Part 1:

Eyck, Toby. 2001. “Does Information Matter? A research note on information technologies and political protest,” Social Science Journal, 38(2001): 147-160.

Howard, Philip. 2010. The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam. (Oxford University Press: Oxford, England).

Groshek, Jacob. 2010. “A Time-Series, Multinational Analysis of Democratic Forecasts and Internet Diffusion,” International Journal of Communication, 4(2010): 142-174.

Groshek, Jacob. 2009. “The Democratic effects of the Internet, 1994-2003: A Cross-National Inquiry of 152 countries,” The International Communication Gazette, 71(3): 115-136.

Meier, Patrick. 2011. “The Impact of the Information Revolution on Protest Frequency in Repressive Contexts,” doctoral dissertation, The Fletcher School, Tufts University.

Miard, Fabien. 2009. “Call for Power: Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism,” paper presented at the 50th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA), February 2009, New York.

I’m particularly keen on getting feedback on my draft, especially if you think I’ve missed a statistical study or find any errors in my analysis. Thank you.