Tag Archives: Civil resistance

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:

 

Where I Stand on Digital Activism

Journalists, activists, students, donors and most recently a millionaire investment banker have all recently asked me where I stand on Digital Activism. More precisely, the popular question is: Who is going to win? And by that, they refer to the cat-and-mouse dynamics that characterize the digital battle between repressive regimes and civil resistance movements.

My personal opinion (a.k.a. untested hunch) is that this cat-and-mouse game is bound to continue for some time. That said, I ultimately think that repressive regimes will eventually lag behind the adoption and application of innovative methods and technologies. I also think that resistance movements that employ digital technologies will continue to have a first-mover advantage, even if that advantage is short-lived.

Why? Because of Organizational Theory 101. It is well known in the study of complex systems and network dynamics that organizational typologies for command and control structures do not adapt very well to rapidly changing environments. On the other hand, relatively decentralized forms of organization are typically more nimble and adaptable. Decentralized networks are often first movers, which give them a temporary albeit important advantage. They have more feedback loops.

As I wrote in 2006 conference paper (citing Bazerman and Watkins 2004),

Feedback mechanisms enable an organization to manage the complexity of their internal and external environments in four important ways. They allow an organization to: (1) scan the environment and collect sufficient information; (2) integrate and analyze information from multiple sources; (3) respond in a timely manner and observe the results; and (4) reflect on what happened and incorporate lessons-learned into the “institutional memory” of the organization, in order to avoid repetition of past mistakes.

In contrast, hierarchical structures require the executive to rely on others to scan information. Excellent communication “between floors” is therefore critical. In the process of communication, however, “organizational members filter information as it rises through hierarchies” and “those at the top inevitably receive incomplete and distorted data [and] overload may prevent them from keeping up-to-date with incoming information.” This limits the organization’s ability to adapt and change, and “any organization that is not changing is a battlefield monument.”

Furthermore, as Brafman and Beckstrom have shown in The Starfish and the Spider, “when attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized.” This means that government crackdowns against resistance movements tend to make the latter more decentralized and harder to track down.

I often use the cat-and-mouse game analogy but perhaps a better analogy is the spider and the starfish. Even if an arm of the starfish is cut off, it will regenerate. Not so with the spider, which has a centralized nervous system. As Brafman and Beckstrom write, “A starfish is a neural network–basically a network of cells. Instead of having a head, like a spider, the starfish functions as a decentralized network.” Of course, resistance movements are not completely decentralized; they need only be more decentralized relatively to repressive regimes.

Notice that I have not referred to technology a single time in this blog post about Digital Activism. That’s because my take on the competition between the spider and starfish ultimately rests on organizational dynamics, not technology.

Organization is a formidable force in social systems and natural systems. The only difference between a water droplet and solid ice is organization—the way the molecules are organized. Asymmetric warfare is possible because of organizational differences. I highly recommend reading this book by my colleagues Shultz and Dew (2006): Insurgents, Territories, Militias: Warriors of Contemporary Combat to understand the power of organization.

So this is ultimately where I stand on Digital Activism and what I wrote over a year ago in my dissertation proposal. We can go on all we want with anecdotal acrobatics but I personally think that doing so is simply barking up the wrong tree and missing the forest for the trees.

Patrick Philippe Meier

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 and Iran: First Get the Data, Then Talk

I just attended a panel at Harvard University on “The Impact of Social Media in the Middle East” which is part of a 3-day conference on the Middle East and North Africa. My colleagues Rob Faris from the Berkman Center and Evgeny Morozov now at Georgetown were both on the panel in addition to Iranian-American activist Lily Mazahery and Kuwaiti blogger Ziad Al-Duaij.

The panelists engaged in rapid-fire debate on the role of Twitter in Iran after their presentations. The typical laundry list of anecdotes were thrown around to win the hearts and minds of the audience.  The summary: Yes, Twitter had a significant impact; No Twitter had no significant impact.

Maybe it’s because I hadn’t eaten all day, but I found this all quite annoying. This is precisely the kind of anecdotal acrobatics that prompted me—two years ago—to pursue a dissertation on The Role of New Media and Technology in Popular Resistance Against Repressive Rule.

If you look close enough, you’ll find that many of the debates in the “field” of digital activism are based on strings of anecdotes. The preponderance of these would have us believe that new media and digital technology spell certain democracy. Yet an increasing number of anecdotes reveal (surprise, surprise) that repressive regimes are making use of new media and technology to forward their own agendas.

So where exactly does this leave us?

In anecdotal heaven or data scarcity hell, depending on your own agenda. I chose to pursue a dissertation in this area because I want to get beyond anecdotal ping pong. Yes, we have more and more anecdotes. And that’s great. But what do all these anecdotes add up to? Are we starting to see a trend emerge? Who is winning this digital—albeit dangerous—game of cat-and-mouse?

I don’t mind being in anecdotal heaven since I realize that hard data is rather hard to come by. But I wish the panelists had been upfront and just said: “Right, given the general lack of quantitative data and rigorous qualitative case study analysis, we have to resort anecdotes, so bear with us as we warm up for our anecdotal ping pong tournament.”

Don’t get me wrong, all the panelists have a wealth of experience and insights to draw on that I simply don’t have. So all I can do is emphasize the need for more data collection and a mixed methods approach to answer the question on everyone’s mind:

Does access to new media and digital technology
change the balance of power

between repressive regimes and resistance movements?

This is what I’m trying to get at with my dissertation. Of course, the answer will be: “It depends”. But at least I’ll be able to draw on data and comparative case study analysis to make an informed judgment on what “it” depends on. How do I plan to get there? See this blog post for the quantitative model and this blog post where I propose an analytical qualitative framework to understand the impact of new media and technology on repressive rule and civil resistance.

But I do not claim that my research design is perfect, which is why I’d be grateful for any feedback iRevolution readers may have.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Education and Security

My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. I blogged about the opening remarks of each panelist here. But the key issues really came to fore during the Q/A session.

These issues addressed Ushahidi and data validation, security and education. This blog post addresses the issues raised on the latter. The text below includes my comments on some key points by panelists.

Education

Nathan Freitas (NYU)

  • Now, I’m fortunate to be teaching at NYU’s Interactive Tele- communications Program, the course titled:  “Social Activism using Mobile Technology.” This is a one of the first of its time courses and I believe more education opportunities like this should be given to students to understand the alternative opportunities they have coming out of school.
  • [W]e need to have more opportunities to educate students that they can have  a career in using technology to support a variety of causes, and not just focus  on Wall Street or going to work at Google.  So I’m working on that, and I hope some of you will as well.

Me: I couldn’t agree more. This is why my colleague Joshua Goldstein and I co-taught a full-semester undergraduate course on Digital Democracy last semester. All the courseware is open and available here.

Security

Evgeny Morozov (Georgetown)

  • I think that reaching out to Twitter was the most terrible thing that the State  Department could have done at that point, in part because it did confirm the  thesis of David Inoshoradis (ph) that Twitter is being used as a platform for fomenting the next revolution.
  • I think we see, now, looking at the trials happening in Tehran, that the authorities do perceive the information technology as a threat.  Whether it is actually a threat or not doesn’t really matter […]
  • [T]here will always be the human factor involved here, and you would never, no matter how secure your technology is and no matter how many trainings you run, you still run into basic problems, particularly in authoritarian regimes, where torture is much cheaper than hacking.

Me: I completely agree, which is why my Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments addresses both technology tactics and non-technology tactics. Lets also not forget that successful civil resistance movements existed before Twitter.

Chris Spence (NDI)

  • In a lot of ways, the Internet tools that we’re talking about are black boxes to a lot of people.  They don’t know if, okay, I’ve got this image on a phone or got this video on a phone, what am I going to do now?  […] Is it safe for me to transfer it? Is it safe for me to put it up on YouTube?
  • All of those decisions have to be made on a very personal level and I think that’s one part of the discussion that gets a little bit missed, when you think about these people using these tools.

Me: I share Chris’s concern and agree that this discussion is at times overlooked. Groups like DigiActive and Digital Democracy, Tactical Tech specifically focus training individuals on how to use new media and digital technology in secure ways. See also my *Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments.

Nathan Freitas (NYU)

  • I’ve learned an important lesson in working with the Tibetan independence movement and others: It’s that we can’t presume what people are willing – are or are not willing to do for their own freedom and liberty and democracy.

Me: I completely agree.

Chiyu Zhou (GIF)

  • [A]n any-day user has no computer knowledge at all, even.  As long as he knows how to get Internet, then he can use the little tool and double-click it, and then he can penetrate the firewall. So that’s the very, very challenging work.

Me: Fully agreed, again. I’m relying on tech savvy activists like Chiyu to make censorship circumvention tools that are as easy as just surfing the web. The importance of achieving this goal cannot possibly be over-stated.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Remarks by NDI

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 Chris Spence’s opening remarks along with my critiques:

  • [T]he introduction of new media and other technologies should not be seen as a  panacea for democratic development nor goal in and of itself. These technologies, paired with effective methodologies, can help organizations make significant contributions toward advancing democratic process in authoritarian states.
  • Activists and civic groups have demonstrated remarkable ability to adapt new technologies and when combined with traditional organizing principles, can create moments of opportunity for democratic gains and enhanced channels for political engagement in authoritarian states.
  • The key is not only to employ effective technologies but to pair the technologies with strategies and approaches that are developed for the political environment in which the technologies are being used. This approach can help activists get out ahead of authoritarian regimes and make relative gains and even game-changing democratic gains when periods are identified where such innovations can rapidly be put to use.

Me: I’ve been advocating for this two-pronged approach, nonviolent action and digital activism, for a while now. Indeed, my dissertation research is founded on the premise that a combined strategy is imperative if activists are to gain the upper hand in authoritarian states. See also this blog post on Digital Resistance: Between Digital Activism and Civil Resistance.

  • While regimes make quickly catch up or clamp down by employing technologies and other techniques to bolster their regimes, gains made during the gap between early adoption and governmental response can have long-term, positive consequences for democratic activists. The strengths of the early uses of new media for activism have been in communication and in sharing information about political developments.

Me: This hypothesis is identical to one that I have advanced in my dissertation research. One needs to accelerate activists’ learning curve and early adoption of new technologies and tactics. Hence the importance of DigiActive’s mission and my Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Regimes.

  • However, […] the tools have been less effectively utilized for the organizing required that can lead to constructive political outcomes.  In some situations, information has been produced by citizens using innovative new media tools that initiate the process of change, but the process is stalled due to a lack of the organizations or institutions in the country required to capture the interests and channel the process toward purposeful, strategic and peaceful direct action.  Assisting organizations in these countries to build this capacity is an important component in leveraging new media tools toward political reform.

Me: This is precisely why nonviolent tactics and strategies need to inform digital activism. More about this here.

  • One set of institutions that are particularly well-suited to this role but are often overlooked in international circles are political parties. Relatively little attention is paid to the important role that parties play in aggregating citizen interests and channeling them into constructive and peaceful means toward democratic reform.
  • One area of opportunity, with tremendous potential in countries where NDI works, is to provide more new media technology assistance to political parties, especially in autocratic states where the regime often has access to considerable state resources and controls the organs of state communication.
  • [W]e believe our partners have made contributions that have prevented post-election violence or identified and raised important concerns about the electoral process that have led to more democratic and peaceful outcomes.
  • The field of domestic election monitoring has improved significantly in the last several years, partly due to improved methods and strategies and certainly enabled by these new technologies and replicated by the role of international organizations.
  • Citizen reporting is another method by which citizens have been able to communicate various aspects of their Election Day experiences using new media tools, usually text messages and Tweets. The information reported by citizens is typically collected and made accessible to the public on a Web site or online map in raw form. The value of this approach is to increase citizen participation in the election process. But to date, the challenge has been putting the information to good use.

Me: Ushahidi is probably the most well known example of citizen-based election monitoring. Full disclosure: I am Director of Crisis Mapping and Strategic Partnerships at Ushahidi. The value of this approach is more than to increase citizen participation. The approach can also increase pressure for transparency and accountability in a way that has not been possible previously.

In terms of putting the information to good use, the challenge is simply due to the fact that Ushahidi is still new to many activists. As Chris himself noted above, “The strengths of the early uses of new media for activism have been in communication and in sharing information about political developments.” First comes communication and sharing. Second comes strategizing and action.

Another important point that often gets overlooked is that the various groups that have deployed Ushahidi for the election monitoring have usually done so “at the last minute”, i.e., with just weeks prior to election day. This is  starting to change now, with groups taking an advanced-planning approach to deploying Ushahidi. Indeed, I am in touch with several partners who are already planning for elections taking place more than half-a-year from now.

  • Tools are being developed to evaluate the authenticity and filter this incoming information so that organizations can then be prepared to put this powerful crowd-sourcing methodology to work during election periods. However, even as the tools and methods improve, citizen reporting promises to be a useful tool towards some electoral goals but won’t be a substitute for election monitoring in situations where assessing the overall legitimacy of an election is required.

Me: One example of a tool being developed to validate crowdsourced information is Swift River. Again, full disclosure: Swift River is one of my priority projects at Ushahidi. In terms of the promises of citizen reporting, I find Chris’s comment surprising. I have never heard anyone suggest that citizen-based election monitoring is a substitute for election monitoring.

  • The challenges faced by activists in autocratic nations are immense.  And these challenges are not only technical in nature but also legal and political.
  • [W]indows of opportunities for political reform can be created by the use of new media in authoritarian states with a combination of good technology tools, effective strategies and methodologies – put into use  by organizations or institutions that can channel the energy of the public and  the information they produce toward construct and peaceful political activities.

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 Nathan Freitas

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 Nathan Freitas‘s opening remarks along with my critiques:

  • A bit of history on Twitter – the roots of this new media technology wave and  specifically, Twitter, began in 2004 with an open source Web service called  TXTmob. [...] So Twitter was born out of an activist movement,  so it’s no surprise that it’s come full circle and is being used that way again.
  • During the Second World War and the Cold War, inventors, mathematicians used  the first digital computers to play a critical role in the Allies’ efforts to  stay in front of the Axis.  During the Civil Rights movement the use of telephones, telegraphs and  traditional social networks in churches and universities created a foundation  to mobilize supporters throughout the South.  And in recent years, hackers,  nerds and geeks like myself have gravitated towards the social justice,  environmental and human rights movements.
  • So the idea of two guys in a garage in Silicon Valley has translated into teams  of activists around the world using Skype, Facebook and Twitter to innovate and  develop new systems to use the same grassroots organizing and non-violence  techniques that have come from Gandhi, but in a new era.
  • The fascinating  thing about what happened in Burma in 2007 was the emergence of the video  journalist.  Someone with a very cheap digital camera broadcasting their  message using the Internet:  instant messaging, FTP file transfer – and ending  up on the BBC.  [...]  The idea that they could do that to cover  their movement and even though the Saffron Revolution wasn’t  successful, the impact they left in the world of activism about the possibility was very successful.
  • The power  of the moving image is unavoidable.
  • In many cases, authoritarian states’ powers prove too formidable for new media  technology.  We saw this with Tibet in the uprisings last March.  The only view  that the world had of the uprising was from the Chinese state media.  Internet  was cut off, phone was cut off, reporters from around the world were blocked  from accessing an area the size of Texas.
  • However, the use of these tools brings  serious risk to the user, their friends, family and broader movement. [...] So we need to spend more time focusing on protecting activists, protecting  these generations that take 20 years to rebuild if they’re decimated.

Me: Just one comment on this last point, the issue of risk and protection is why I wrote up this Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments.

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