Tag Archives: Censorship

Digital Activism and the Puffy Clouds of Anecdote Heaven

Evgeny replied in style to my way-too-long response to his piece in Prospect on: “Why Dictators Love the Web.” At least someone read my entire post, thanks Evgeny! As I wrote in my first response, the great thing about Evgeny is that “he’ll test your logic and poke (nay, drill) as many trenches as he can into your argument.” So if you want to see this in action, do read his concise reply.

First things first, though: his piece is accessible by subscription only. I happened to be in London and picked up a copy of Prospect at Heathrow last night, which made for pleasant reading on the flight back. But our back-and-forth won’t make much sense until you read his original piece and judge it for yourself.

Second, the following comment by Evgeny is probably the most stupefying: “For someone so obsessed with data, Patrick has produced no data at all to counter any of my arguments. I am all for data, but as long as academics like Patrick don’t produce any, we won’t be talking data any time soon.”

  • Uno: Evgeny knows full well that I’m collecting data for my dissertation research to test whether access to new media and technology challenges the balance of power between repressive regimes and resistance movements. As it happens, I’m currently writing from Stanford University where I’ll be presenting the results of my new large-N quantitative study based on a new dataset put together over the past 6 months. This new dataset includes 18 years worth of time series data for 38 repressive regimes based on 10 different variables. Uhhhhhhhhh, so if producing 684 data points is not producing any data, then  perhaps I do belong in anecdote heaven with Evgeny.
  • Due: My formal dissertation committee is in the process of reviewing my data and analysis. I also expect to get some solid feedback from professors and PhD students at Stanford this afternoon. When I’m assured that my analysis of the data is correct, I’ll blog about it and ask for feedback from iRevolution readers. I’m not about to start countering Evgeny’s anecdotes until I’m sure my data-driven analysis is sound. There’s enough hype in this field as it is, and an “anecdote for an anecdote leaves everyone confused.”
  • Tre: Evgeny also knows full well that my previous quantitative study, which included data on 22 authoritarian states, was presented at the International Studies Association (ISA) Conference in February of this year since my blog post on that presentation is why he got in touch with me in the first place. In fact, I shared a copy of my paper with him at the time along with an early copy of a quantitative study I co-authored for the Berkman Center that tested the impact of technology on indicators of governance for 180 countries and separately for autocratic states.

So, let me just say goodness gracious: how can Evgeny possibly say I have produced no data or analysis? I’m analyzing my latest dataset, and I’m doing so carefully. When I have some preliminary conclusions, then of course I’ll put all of them forward to support and/or counter some of Evgeny’s anecdotes.

Will these be conclusive or definitive? Of course not, but at least they’ll be based on some empirical data and quantitative analysis. Is the data perfect? No, no dataset is. Will the regression analysis be sufficient? Of course not, which is why this analysis only constitutes the first part of my dissertation research. The second part will draw on applied social science methodologies to carry out qualitative comparative case study analysis based on the results from the quantitative study. Oh, and by the way, I’d rather be obsessed with data than anecdotes.

Anecdotes Inside...

I hope this sets the record straight. Now, lets go back to Anecdote Heaven. Evgeny hasn’t replied to most of my criticisms because, well, my response was really long (some 3,000 words) and he probably has better things to do, like write a book on all this (can’t wait to respond to that!). So please keep this in mind since I can only reply to the points he has chosen to reply to—something called selection bias, which actually sums up the biggest problem I have with the “field” of digital activism.

1. On Analogue Activism and Torture vs. Hacking: Evgeny misses the point. What I’m countering is his selection bias of certain anecdotes to make sweeping statements like “analogue activism was pretty safe.” It’s these kind of sweeping statements based on select anecdotes that I have a problem with. Torture is nothing new. Governments have tortured individuals for centuries to get information. So now they get phone numbers. Great. Before they got lists of street addresses. Great. So what? White hat hackers and some professional activists do the same against repressive governments (more anecdote acrobatics, anyone?).  I do concede that there is a network effect, but the effect can be in both directions. I completely agree that digital activists are facing a steep learning curve; hence the need to focus on tactics, strategies and technologies in equal measure.

2. Professional Activists and Regular Internet Users: I’m glad that Evgeny makes the distinction between professional activists and amateur (?) activists. But he doubts that regular users of the Internet in places like Russia, China or Iran have ever heard of Nathan Freitias’s Guardian project or are going to use those services anytime soon. That’s because the Guardian is not available yet. Evgeny notes the power of networks from the dictator’s perspective but doesn’t seem to award the same potential to transnational activist networks vis-à-vis the spread of new technologies and tactics. I wonder whether the analogy with professional journalists and citizen journalists is appropriate here. As tools for digital activism become cheaper, easier and safer to use, amateur activists may stand to gain in important ways (note this is simply a hypothesis, not a claim!).

3. Lohmann’s 1994 paper on Information Cascades: Yes indeed, the political science paper triggered an important body of scholarship. And yes, even the great Clay drew on the paper for his popular book. So my reply here is aimed at both Evgeny and Clay: why draw on a 15-year old paper that focuses on a 20-year old case study to make a point about new media, digital technologies, and networked communications? Lohmann’s paper is an important piece (which I highly recommend reading), but it would have been more appropriate to dig into more recent papers that cite Lohmann to determine whether her arguments are indeed applicable to today’s world. As Clay notes in Here Comes Everybody, “we now have communications tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordination action that take advantage of that change.” Was this true of 1989, or even 1994?

4. The Muslim Brotherhood and Other Groups: The fact that extremist (civil society) groups are using technology to fill the vacuum left by the state is a well-known fact. These groups are going to benefit from and use technology regardless of whether or not Western governments promote “Civil Society 2.0”. The Muslim Brotherhood and such groups are typically way more advanced in their use of technology than what a “Civil Society 2.0 Marshall Plan” might offer. Goodness, basic media literacy in civil society would already be an important step forward. What I’m getting at is that we’re hardly going to teach extremists anything new by implementing digital activism programs in developing countries.

5. Russia, Estonia and Georgia: Oh good, Evgeny agrees that the state is losing control to decentralized networks.

6. The Number of Internet Users is Meaningless: Oh this is good, I’m going to keep this quote for later use. Let me just quote Clay Shirky instead:  “If you want to organize the work of even dozens of individuals, you have to manage them.  As organizations grow into the hundreds or thousands, you also have to manage the managers, and eventually to manage the managers’ managers.  Simply to exist at that size, an organization has to take on the costs of all that management.” Evgeny argues that the regular folk won’t be using censorship circumvention tactics and technologies “and it’s the regular folk which [sic] matters most when you need to build a mass movement.” Like I said in my reply, the number of Internet users in China (and, by the way, Tor users as well) is increasing, not decreasing. Access to technology, even in places like Burma, is increasing, not decreasing (apologies for the anecdote droppings). Technology is becoming simpler, not more difficult to use; cheaper, not more expensive. Perhaps states are losing control to decentralized networks in part because these networks are expanding and including more regular folk?

7. Guess we won’t be continuing that conversation then.

8. FOSS and Ushahidi: Seems like I did misunderstand Evgeny’s point here, which actually is “that donors have no good ways of identifying/supporting talented new media entrepreneurs without ruining their incentives to innovate.” This is a new field, we’re learning as we go along, so of course we don’t have all the answers, nor do we claim to. But I’d love to get Evgeny’s thoughts on how donors can improve on this front. On a related note, Evgeny challenges me to go visit the offices of NGOs working in New Media in Eastern Europe to see how much they benefit from the “culture of innovation” unleashed by FOSS. I’d love to, Evgeny, any chance you could hook me up with some funding? And, for the purposes of countering selection bias, could I also visit other places like Kenya, India, etc.?

Patrick Philippe Meier

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

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Remarks by Global Internet Freedom

My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. Here are the highlights from the Global Internet Freedom (GIF) Consortium’s  opening remarks along with my critiques:

  • The Internet censorship firewalls have become the 21st century Berlin Walls that separate our world. Amid the darkness of the Internet censorship in closed societies, a thread of light still remains.  It is the Internet life lines offered by the anti-censorship systems like that of [GIF], which has been providing millions in closed societies for free access to the Internet for years.
  • It is our firm belief that free flow of information is the most effective and powerful way to peacefully transform a closed society and promote human rights and civil liberties.
  • During the Saffron Revolution in Burma, in late August 2007, we experienced the three-fold increase in average daily traffic from Burma.  Many Burmese use our system to post photos and videos of the crackdown to the outside blogs and Websites.  The Burmese government had to entirely shut down Internet to stop the outflow of information about the oppression.
  • Perhaps, the best example of the role of GIF software was during the Iranian election this past June, when our traffic from Iran increased by nearly 600 percent in one week. On the Saturday of June the 20th, an estimated 1 million Iranians used our system to visit previously censored Web sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google. The Iranian users posted videos, photos and messages about the bloody crackdown.
  • Internet freedom has the potential of transforming the closed societies in a peaceful but powerful way that must not be underestimated. The operation of our system is very efficient. It only needs a few dollars to support a user in closed societies for an entire year. Moreover, for every dollar we spent, China and other censors will need to spend hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars to block us. The information warfare over the Internet has now boiled down to the battle of resources. We have technology and the commitment.

Me: This is spot on. I have often described the situation as an “Information Race” with dynamics that hark back to the arms race of the Cold War. So the conclusion that it all boils down to the battle of resources is fascinating—especially since one of Reagan’s strategies was to bankrupt the Soviet Union with the arms race.

What the panelist should have added is that time is money. And the issue of time is central to the field of nonviolent action. Each side, citizens and repressive regimes have equal amounts of hours available to them. But regimes are by definition composed of elites, i.e., a minority, whereas citizens will always form the majority. This suggests that citizens have an inherent advantage if they know how to manage their time and remain on the offensive.

  • With a modest amount of resources, there is capacity to tear down the 21st-century Berlin walls. When Congress passed the Internet Freedom Provision in the fiscal year 2008 appropriation act, it declared that, quote, “ensuring the freedom of Internet communication in dictatorships and autocracies throughout the world is a high and critical national interest priority of the United States,” end quote.
  • And I really like the idea of using citizen observers and giving them the tools and technology to sort of go out there and report things on election day, but –and I know that they’re– the missions do go out there and observe any sort of foul play beforehand, but is there planning to do any activities or any ongoing activities right now to sort of utilize the same sort of strategy before the elections?

Me: This is an important question and one that I and colleagues are right now addressing vis-à-vis several upcoming elections.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Remarks by Evgeny Morozov

My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. Here are the highlights from Evgeny Morozov‘s opening remarks along with my critiques:

  • I’m increasingly concerned with both how well some of the societies  have themselves managed to adapt to the Internet threat and how poorly some of  the digital activists, journalists and even some policymakers understand the  risks of trying to promote democracy via the Internet.

Me: This is exactly the point I make in my blog posts on Digital Resistance, Human Rights and Technology and why I wrote this Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments. This is also why the work by groups like DigiActive and Digital Democracy is so important.

  • [N]ew media will power all political forces, not just the forces we  like.  Many of the recent Western funding and media development efforts have  been aimed at creating what’s known as, new digital public spaces, on the  assumption that these new digital spaces would enable the nascent actors or  civil society to flourish on blogs, Twitter and social networks.
  • So in a  sense, promoting this new digital spaces entails similar risks to promoting  free elections.  It’s quite possible we may not like the guys who win.
  • We have to  realize that authoritarian governments themselves have developed extremely  sophisticated strategies to control cyberspace and often those go beyond  censorship.  It’s a mistake to believe that these governments wouldn’t be able  to manipulate these new public spaces with their own propaganda or use them to  their own advantage.
  • Many authoritarian governments are already paying  bloggers and Internet commentators to spin the political discussions that they  do not like.  It varies from the Russian approach, where the government is cooperating with  several commercial start-ups which are creating ideological, social networking  and blogging sites that support the pro-Kremlin ideology.
  • To the Chinese  approach, where the party has created a decentralized network of what’s come to  be known as 50 Cent Party, which is almost 300,000 people who are being paid to  leave comments on sites and blogs that the government doesn’t like and thus,  try to spin those discussions. Even the Iranian clerics have been running blogging workshops, particularly  aimed at controlling religious discourse targeting women.  And they’ve been  doing it, actually, since 2006, much before we began talking about the Twitter  revolution.
  • [A]uthoritarian governments are increasingly eager to build  short-term alliances with digital groups that sometimes their goals.  For  example, one of the reasons why Russia has emerged as the most feared player in the field of cyber warfare is because it always acts indirectly, usually by  relying on numerous, nimble, underground gangs of cyber criminals.
  • [W]e do not fully understand how new media affects civic engagement.  And we  don’t have to pretend that we do.  We still assume that established unfettered  access to information is going to push people to learn the truths about human rights abuses or the crimes of the governments and thus make them more likely  to become dissidents.

Me: Evgeny and I discussed this very point the last time we met to discuss my dissertation research (he is one of my informal dissertation committee members). Agreed, we do not fully understand the impact of media on civic engagement, but we do understand some! There has been considerable academic research in this area. I do agree, however, that organizations like USAID, for example, still assume that full access to information will spur civil disobedience. See my blog post on this very issue here.

  • Most likely, lifting the censorship lid, at least in the short term, would  result in people using this opportunity to fill in other gaps in their  information vacuum.  Those may have to do with religion, culture, socializing  and so forth but not necessarily with political dissent.  Political activism  and active citizenship would probably only come last in this pyramid of cyber  needs, if you will.
  • The creators of tools like Psyphon and Tor which do allow anonymized access  to the Web, often report that many users in authoritarian states actually use  those tools to download pornography and access sites which that government  doesn’t want them to access – not necessarily political ones.  In fact, there is a growing risk that hundreds and thousands of this digital  natives in these countries would actually be sucked into this endless cycle of  entertainment, rather than have their political commitment increase and full  political life.
  • Finally, what I should mention is that current U.S. government  restrictions on the export of technology to sanctioned countries often actually  thwart and impede the adoption of new media technologies. I would like to point out that the current sanctions against governments like  Cuba, Iran, North Korea and several others make it significantly difficult for  other ordinary citizens, as well as well established activists and NGOs, to  take full advantage of the opportunities that the Internet and social media  offers.

Me: Leave it to Evgeny to make that last point at a US Congressional Briefing. The point he makes, however, is really critical and spot on. US policy makers need to know that some embargoes are self-defeating vis-a-vis democratization.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Remarks by Freedom House

My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. Here are the highlights from Daniel Calingaert’s opening remarks on behalf of Freedom House along with my critiques:

  • New media has created significant  opportunities for advancing freedom in countries ruled by authoritarian  regimes.  It has expanded the space for free expression and facilitated civic activism.  But authoritarian regimes have pushed back.
  • While new media plays an important role in expanding free expression and  facilitating citizen engagement, it does not drive political change.  New media  alone cannot undermine authoritarian regimes.  Authoritarian regimes in the  former Soviet republics and elsewhere continue to repress their citizens, and  this repression extends to digital media.

Me: Absolutely, which is why I keep repeating the following point: we need to cross-fertilize the fields of digital activism and civil resistance. Lessons learned and best practices need to be exchanged. See my post on Digital Resistance: Between Digital Activism and Civil Resistance, which I wrote back in December 2008.

  • In Belarus, authorities conduct surveillance on Internet users, and they  require cyber cafés to register each user’s browsing history.
  • Authoritarian regimes use a variety of methods  to limit online freedom of expression.  The United States therefore has to  respond in multiple ways.
  • The Internet is a medium for communication.  Its impact in authoritarian regimes ultimately depends less on the medium itself than on the messages it  conveys and on the messengers who use it to drive progress towards democracy.

Me: I really wouldn’t frame the issue in such a dichotomous way. The Internet is a new and different type of medium for communication. One that is radically different from previous communication typologies of one-to-many broadcasting. The medium, message and actors are all important.

  • We should not only invest in anti-censorship technology, but also  support the creation and distribution of pro-democracy content and back the  courageous and creative activists in repressive environments who are struggling  to bring about political change.

Me: This last point is especially important and the reason why I wrote this blog post on Content for Digital Activism and Civil Resistance three months ago. I had been advising a large scale digital activism project and was increasingly concerned by the lack of importance placed on content.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Summary of Congressional Briefing

My colleague Chris Doten sent me the following email on September 25th:

Hey Patrick-

I’m currently working for the US Helsinki Commission, which as you probably know is a semi-congressional human rights watchdog. They’ve asked me to put a briefing together on the role of new media technology in democratization – very exciting opportunity for me, and I hope to do it justice. I thought you might have thoughts on experts to whom I could talk in the field, or potential panelists we should call.

Thoughts? Hope you’re doing well!

Thanks,
Chris

Needless to say, I couldn’t have been more excited to learn that the topic of my dissertation research and consulting work would be the subject of a Congressional Briefing. I emailed Chris right back for more details. He put it simply:

“If you were in the driver’s seat for such a panel,
where would you go?”

What a treat. I’ve been studying the role of new media and digital technology in authoritarian regimes for a while now, and I’m on the Board of Advisors of DigiActive and Digital Democracy. I’ve also served as New Media Advisor on a major USAID project that seeks to foster peaceful transition to democratic rule in a certain authoritarian state.

So I suggested to Chris that he contact my colleagues Evgeny Morozov (Georgetown), Nathan Freitas (NYU), Rob Farris (Berkman Center), Emily Jacobi and Mark Belinsky (Digital Democracy), and Mary Joyce (DigiActive). While Rob’s schedule didn’t allow him to be a the Congressional Briefing last Thursday, my other colleagues were indeed there. Chris Spence (NDI), Daniel Calingaert (Freedom House) Chiy Zhou (GIF) were also present.

Both DigiActive and Digital Democracy also submitted written remarks for the record here and here. Here is a copy of the full 30 page transcript of the Congressional Briefing. Since reading through 30 pages can be quite time consuming, I have summarized the briefing using annotated excerpts of the most important points made by panelists. You’ll note that while I agree with some of the comments made by the panelists, I clearly disagree with others.

Opening Remarks & My Critique

Q/A Session & My Critique

Patrick Philippe Meier

Transitions 2.0: Internet, Political Culture and Autocracy in Central Asia

I recently presented my dissertation research at the American Political Science Association (APSA) convention and attended a related panel entitled: “Internet: Collective Action, Social Mobilization, and Civic Engagement.” Eric McGlinchey, one of the professors on the panel, presented his research paper (PDF) on “Transitions 2.0: Internet, Political Culture and Autocracy in Central Asia.”

Eric notes that the theories and prescriptions of the transitions literature have not borne fruit in Central Asia. Indeed, “the region today is more autocratic than it was eighteen years ago at the time of the Soviet collapse.”

Eric thus seeks to understand why “Transitions 1.0″ failed and to “investigate the potential for a Transitions 2.0” by exploring three autocracies Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

As Eric notes, “new information communication technologies (ICTs) are emerging in Central Asia and, as survey research demonstrates, these new ICTs hold the potential to transform the region’s political culture from one that abides authoritarian rule to a culture that embraces political reform.”

I very much appreciate Eric’s balanced approach to technology and demographic change. As he writes,

[T]he current class of political elites is graying while the youth population of Central Asian society is growing larger.  And whereas the hierarchical Communist Party carefully controlled the political milieu in which the current political elite was acculturated, today new ICTs have broken the government’s information monopoly, laid bare the inequities of patronage politics and are in the process of changing the mental maps with which this growing younger generation views national governance.

Institutional path dependency, as Paul Pierson explains, is sustained by—learning effects‖ and—adaptive expectations. New ICTs have simultaneously transformed what youth in Central Asia learn and what they expect—and it is this transformation [...] that may ultimately undermine the cost calculations that have thus far sustained autocratic patronage in the region.

Whether access to ICTs can be shown to have a successful track record in promoting liberalization and democratization is still an open debate which requires more empirical research to shed compelling insights on the question.

Eric cites the work by David Hill and Khrishna Sen (2000) who “illustrate how the Internet enabled Indonesian oppositionists not only to break Suharto’s media monopoly, but to break this monopoly using conversational, dialogic, (and) non-hierarchical” forms of communication.”

That said, Hill, Krishna and several other scholars emphasize that the “political environment within which oppositionists marshal technologies like the Internet, can dampen the transformative effects of new ICTs.” To be sure,

Just as autocracies can control printing presses, radio and television, so too can savvy authoritarian governments monitor and exert control over new telecoms and Internet service providers.  Moreover, even absent such control, new ICTs need not be liberalizing.

Peter Chroust, for example, demonstrates how illiberal groups—neo-Nazis in Germany and the Taliban in Afghanistan—can equally use new ICTs to facilitate communication and mobilization.

Benjamin Barber suggests that fears that new ICTs force people—into one commercially homogeneous global network: one McWorld tied together by technology motivate actors to fight for the opposite, for the construction of even more differentiated local identities. As such, Barber predicts, new ICTs will result in more, not less ethnic, racial, tribal, or religious violence.

Eric’s research is informative because there is still very little research on the impact of ICTs on populations in Central Asia. The results of his empirical survey suggests that “although the causal effects of new ICTs are mixed and highly dependent on structural context, the use of new ICTs nevertheless does appear to have a liberalizing effect on political culture.”

More specifically, where state filtering of the Internet is less pronounced—in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan—survey results suggest that Internet users do exhibit greater inclinations toward political reform and civic engagement.  Conversely, where state filtering of the Internet is extensive, as it is in Uzbekistan, inclinations toward political reform and civic engagement differ little between Internet users non-users.

Eric concludes as follows:

Will Transitions 2.0 succeed where Transitions 1.0 failed?  To a large degree the answer to this question rests in the ability of Central Asian governments to continue effective filtering of the Internet and of global communications broadly, something that may get progressively more difficult as Internet access shifts from what now are readily controlled public areas (work, Internet cafes and libraries) to the comparative privacy of smart phones and home computers.

No less consequential is whether ICT-induced changes in political culture translate to societal changes in political engagement.  This study suggests that the retreat of Soviet institutions of political acculturation and the arrival of new ICTs will likely produce a political culture that is less trusting of autocratic rule and more open to outsiders and civic engagement.

Whether Central Asians will assume the daunting risks that undoubtedly are required to transform their governments so as to more closely reflect these changed political values, however, remains an open question.

Patrick Philippe Meier