Gladwell and Straw Men

The failure of the Green Revolution in Iran to dislodge the regime continues to spark a bonfire of Twitter-hating. The latest prominent figure to throw logs on the blaze is the essayist Malcolm Gladwell, in The New Yorker. The piece merits an essay-length response, but I will confine myself to three brief points.

1. Gladwell argues, to summarize, that social media cannot create or sustain “high-risk” activism because they magnify weak ties rather than strong ones. Undoubtedly this is true. But Gladwell’s argument proceeds from the idea that only strong ties influence our decision-making processes, a contention for which he produces one piece of evidence, from which his entire argument is drawn. It seems eminently more likely that our decisions are guided not just by strong ties but by information in our local “neighborhoods” – those sectors of the real world with which we have regular contact, and that these neighborhoods include both strong and weak ties. Both are likely to affect our willingness to participate in risky collective action. By providing more complete information about our social neighborhoods, social media vastly increase the likelihood that individuals have accurate information about the preferences of others. This is particularly important in authoritarian contexts (unlike the United States in 1960).

2. Gladwell uses as an example of the low-commitment nature of digital activism the case of registering bone marrow donors. He argues that even though the Sameer Bhatia campaign was enormously successful, it is of little importance because it succeeded by “not asking too much of them.” His anecdote makes me wonder if Gladwell has ever actually looked into the process of donating bone marrow. I have a close friend who needs a transplant, and registering as a donor is a huge pain in the ass, not least because the costs are borne by the donor. You have to pay to donate. If social media can help overcome these very substantial barriers to bone-marrow donation, we should be sitting up and taking notice. A larger point would be that Gladwell is reducing the phenomenon of digital activism to whether or not social media can overthrow governments. Not even the most assiduous promoters of social media will argue that overthrowing an authoritarian government is easy. It is, on the contrary, nothing but a persistent straw man.

3. Gladwell repeats, rather uncritically, Anne Applebaum’s conspiratorial contention that the 2009 election protests in Moldava were in fact organized by the government itself. As evidence of this Applebaum produces a single blog post. She also argues that there weren’t enough Twitter users in Moldova at the time to support the role that was being attributed to it. But if you follow Applebaum’s sources to the end you would discover that the dispute is not whether social media (i.e. the whole universe of blogs, SMS, Twitter, Facebook) were used to organize the protests, but whether Twitter itself was the key application. And even the source Applebaum cites on the number of Moldovan Twitter users does not actually have any hard data. So to summarize – the 2009 protests in Moldova were indeed organized by social media and did in fact result in arrests for the demonstrators. And they would’ve gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for those darned kids – what Applebaum and Gladwell fail to mention is that the communist government was brought down in August 2009, just months after the Twitter Revolution they say never happened.

Overall it’s very disappointing to see the author of The Tipping Point not even mention or think about the possibility that social media might diffuse dissent as an idea, through weak ties, and thus change the calculus of collective action itself, by changing our perceptions of the attendant risks. It’s particularly disappointing to see digital activism reduced to the revolution/no revolution dichotomy, because there are so many more interesting things going on here than regime change, which despite the merciful retreat of the Bush years into the realm of memory, remains the only thing anyone seems to care about.

Three Questions on Gladwell

In the current issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell applies his network critique to digital activism and takes the skeptic’s side (article link). I encourage you to read the original article, which is thought-provoking. However, I have some questions about the absolute distinctions he draws between online and offline activism.

  1. Gladwell draws an absolute distinction between the strong ties of offline activism (example of the civil rights movement) and the weak ties of online activism (examples of Darfur Facebook groups). Is this an accurate distinction?
  2. Gladwell reiterates the observation that offline activism is hierarchical while online activism is decentralized. Does this distinction doom online activism to failure or just indicate a new mechanics of activism?
  3. Gladwell argues that centralized and hierarchical protest movements, like the civil rights movement, which “help us persevere in the face of danger” and “promote strategic and disciplined activity” are unequivocally more effective than decentralized and networked movements. Might this statement not be true under repressive regimes?

What do you think?

Meanwhile, in Budapest…

This past week Google hosted the first Internet at Liberty Conference in Budapest on “the promise and peril of online free expression”. The event brought together some of the smartest commentators and practitioners working on this issue around the world. Two of the participants, Jillian York and Leila Nachawati Rego, were kind enough to liveblog some of the sessions. Links to their posts are below. You can also search the Twitter back channel for the event at #IAL2010 and see some photos from participants Charles Mok and Claudio Ruiz here.

Online Free Expression and the Cat and Mouse Game Between Bloggers and Governments


  • Cynthia Wong, Center for Democracy and Technology
  • Esra’a Rashid, Egyptian blogger
  • Ivan Sigal, Global Voices

Are We Compromising National Security by Increasing Access to Information Online?


  • Monroe Price, Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Smari McCarthy, Digital Freedoms Society
  • Michael Semple, Harvard Kennedy School of Government
  • Heather Brooke, freedom of information activist

Transparency and Accountability Tools


  • Colin Maclay, Berkman Center on Internet and Society
  • Matt Braithwaite, Google
  • Karl Kathuria, BBC
  • Jillian C York, Berkman Center for Internet and Society
  • Anas Qtiesh, Technology for Transparency Network

Online Free Expression: Values, Progress and Complexities


  • Darius Cuplinskas, Open Society Institute
  • Dunja Mijatovic, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Merve Alici, Turkish Young Civilians
  • Eva Simon, Hungarian Civil Liberties

image: Charles Mok/Flickr

The Best Essay Yet on Digital Activism Research

Though the title is a bit silly, “Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics” (PDF), published by the United States Institute of Peace, is the best analysis I’ve read so far on digital activism research. It takes a broad view, correctly diagnosing the current state of the field and making astute recommendations about methodology that can move the field forward.

Rather than making an argument about the role of new media in contentious politics, the authors, who hale from George Washington Univeristy, the Berkman Center, and Morningside Analytics, acknowledge the dearth of knowledge about this phenomenon.

Despite the prominence of “Twitter revolutions,” “color revolutions,” and the like in public debate, policymakers and scholars know very little about whether and how new media affect contentious politics. Journalistic accounts are inevitably based on anecdotes rather than rigorously designed research.

… To this point, little research has sought to estimate the causal effects of new media in a methodologically rigorous fashion, or to gather the rich data needed to establish causal influence. Without rigorous research designs or rich data, partisans of all viewpoints turn to anecdotal evidence and intuition.

Our Global Digital Activism Data Set (GDADS) project was started precisely to provide that “rich data” which could be the subject of new and “rigorous research” and end the current trend in which “all viewpoints turn to anecdotal evidence and intuition”. It was tremendously gratifying to read those ideas echoed back from experts.

The essay also makes some really excellent methodological points about the hurdles to creating causal links between new media (digital technology) and certain political outcomes. The authors identify four key elements of research design:

Case selection. The effects of new media cannot be understood by focusing only on their apparent successes….To understand the impact (if any) of blogs and Facebook, both successes and failures must be understood.

Counterfactuals. Similarly, policymakers, activists, journalists, and scholars must ask whether episodes of contentious politics would have emerged without new media. For example, in 2005, Egypt’s elections, as well as American pressure to liberalize, might have created openings for protest with or without blogs and Facebook.

Hidden variables. Focusing on new media may divert analysts from the real causes. A battle between elite actors (say, between the military and business interests) may be the real drivers of a political conflict, even if they are only dimly perceived through the lens of new media….

Causal mechanisms. …It may be impossible to determine whether Internet access leads to democracy, but it may be possible to test whether access to the Internet increases individual propensity to take risky political action or lowers the transaction costs for organizing a political protest. This could also be useful for policy, since research focused on causal mechanisms can better predict the likely effects of manipulating a single variable….

System effects. Changes at one level of analysis, as described below, may be mutually reinforcing, but they may also work at cross-purposes with changes at another….. For instance, new media may lower transaction costs for organizing protests, which would presumably make contentious politics more likely, but may also lead to greater elite awareness of and responsiveness to public complaints, thereby preempting protests…..

New media outlet selection. …Seeing the bigger picture—which includes the political impact of actors who are not online—and capturing the full spectrum of online participants will make for more robust analysis.

Strategic interaction. Many accounts focus on the citizen protesters and ignore rivals as they take countermeasures. States can respond to the perceived success of activism and prevent its replication….

The above analysis provides a critical check-list for anyone seeking to demonstrate the effects of digital activism empirically. The current difficulty in addressing all these factors means we have not yet reached the point where we can make empirical and statistically significant statements about the effect of digital activism as a global phenomenon. And anyone who tells you he has figured it out is guessing.

The final element of this essay, which I found incredibly helpful, was a suggestion of where to measure the effects of digital activism:

Individual Transformation. Some individuals may develop new competencies through their exposure to or participation in new media, allowing them to participate more readily or effectively in real-world politics or to process information differently

Intergroup Relations. New media may reshape discussions and debates within and across groups in a society, changing intergroup relationships and attitudes. Optimists see the Internet as generating positive connections, spreading information, and proliferating points of contact across political, sectarian, or geographic divides. Pessimists, such as Cass Sunstein, fear its ability to polarize, as people seek out congenial relationships and bias-confirming information.

Collective Action. New media may also affect the potential for individuals and groups to organize, protest, or take other forms of collective action. For example, both the Iranian protests and the ethnic violence after the 2008 Kenyan election involved collective action, and both are cited, rightly or wrongly, as having been driven by new media.

External Attention. New media may garner attention from outside actors, mobilizing political sympathy or hostility and creating new opportunities to generate power internally. The Iranian Twitterers, for instance, framed the confrontations around images and actions that attracted Western attention.

The paper also suggests digital activism research methodologies (link analysis, content analysis, and meme tracking) and includes a lengthy case study of the 2009 post-elections protests in Iran. However, to me the real meat of the paper is above. I could make criticisms – counter-factuals open the door to opinion and intuition, intergroup relations is a part of the collective action category, case study analysis is left out of the research methodologies – but overall I am so happy with this essay, I really don’t want to criticize it. I just want more.

I recommend you read the full essay:

“Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics”
by Sean Aday, Henry Farrell, Marc Lynch, and John Sides of George Washington University
John Kelly of Morningside Analytics
Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Center.
Link: (United States Institute of Politics: August, 2010)

We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Finance You

I wanted to piggy-back onto Mary’s response to Sami’s article, particularly as someone whose research was financed by an arm of the U.S. government and who has engaged directly with many of the sentiments expressed by Sami and his commenters.

The debate about U.S. funding is an old one, and one that has never been resolved, particularly in my field. I’ve had senior scholars tell me never, ever take the money, and I’ve had other senior scholars say “hey why not.” The problem in academia is typically approached from the perspective of the academic and the academic’s ethical culpability and responsibility to his or her research subjects. So Sami’s post is a very welcome, open articulation of sentiments I heard expressed to me again and again when I was in the Middle East, and a reminder that we need to think of this problem not in terms of our self-interests (as scholars, donors, think-tankers) but in terms of what’s best for the activists themselves. To simplify, many activists would say to me, simply, tell the U.S. Government (hereafter USG in the parlance of our day) to stay out of it. Their assistance is unneeded and when rendered, counterproductive. The other was, if you’re going to help us, give us the actual tools and don’t implicate us in schemes of power and policy with which we are likely to disagree.

I don’t know Sami, but I know some of the commenters on this post, including someone that refused to talk with me whenI was in Cairo. I was after all, in Egypt on Department of Education money (the Foreign Language Area Studies Scholarship, or FLAS). I was open about this to anyone that asked. I didn’t blame activists for ignoring me or being careful about doing interviews and taking money from outsiders. There is no way for anyone in the Middle East to know what your motives are, and honestly just doing fieldwork in Egypt for 9 months, I met multiple innocuous-seeming people who were almost certainly working for intelligence community. This is a problem not just of USG-funded initiatives but of anything coming out of the West at all, and that includes NGOs, think tanks, academic studies. You start out with a deficit of credibility and trust that you have to build from ground zero back up, and believe me it’s hard. Activists in the Middle East also surely know that even academics who agree with the broad critique of US foreign policy often go to DC and get paid to share their thoughts on a whole range of issues. There are very few academic Middle East specialists who have not gotten themselves tangled in this web at one point or another. I assume the same is true in the policy community.

I want to address some of Sami’s arguments head-on. First I’ve always thought that some of the people I study and interview operate with what strikes me as an insane disregard for the consequences of their own actions. I closed my dissertation with a call to carefully consider the ethics of involving 18-22-year-old college kids in international dissidence networks, because just as young people in the U.S. don’t always understand the privacy implications of the new digital universe, a lot of these activists I think don’t fully understand what they are getting themselves into. This is doubly true for activists traveling quite openly out of authoritarian states to conferences sponsored by the USG (but this is true for the “independently-funded” activists groups too. from the regimes’ perspective the problem isn’t USG it’s the activism). When I was publishing articles on my findings, I would often change the names of activists even if they didn’t ask me too, because I was concerned about any publicity that might result from my publications. If I used someone’s name, it was only someone who quite explicitly gave me permission, uses their name in public in other digital venues. So in that sense I fully agree with Sami, that activists should be careful accepting these invitations, and that donors and organizations need to take risk into consideration when issuing invitations and publishing proceedings. Some people understand the risk and will want to do it anyway. Is it right to proceed? I don’t know.

Second, yes obviously the Internet Freedom stuff is entirely at cross-purposes with the US grand strategy of realpolitik that Obama has openly re-endorsed. But I think some nuance is needed here. First of all, the neocon right has been at war with the State Department, quite open war, for the better part of two decades. Their bible is Robert Kaplan’s The Arabists. A lot of the people at State would love nothing more than to cut off funding for corrupt dictators and hand power to democratic oppositions, even if that means rolling the dice with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I’m not saying it should make any difference to the activists putting their safety at risk, but the USG is not a monolith, but rather a set of interlocking institutions that are often at policy odds with one another. Deep into the ranks of rank-and-file analysts at both State, CIA, NSA, you name it, are people who are very critical of US grand strategy in the region. This policy deadlock between many of the analysts and official US policy goes back to another decades-old debate, what I’ll call the “One Person, One Vote, One Time” problem, to borrow the phrase invented by Edward Djerejian after the Islamic Salvation Front debacle in Algeria. The U.S. has cast its lot with authoritarian governments like Mubarak’s because they don’t believe Islamist oppositions will really commit to a genuine democratic process that involves alternation of power. Most academics believe that this position is absurd, or at least not based on much evidence, whereas those pulling the levers of policy clearly believe Mubarak when he says, basically, it’s me or the crazy terrorists.

Now I’m as open a critic of US Mideast policy as anyone, but it’s probably not going to change anytime soon and we all know that. The maelstrom of Iraq backed everyone away from the “autocracy is the problem” camp back into “better the devil we know” territory. So this raises interesting questions. First, what the hell is the State Department doing here? I don’t think it’s quite as simple as blindly advancing imperialism. Another cold reality – even those in the policy community who would throw a party to celebrate the end of Mubarakism in Egypt and elsewhere are still committed to the idea that we can turn power over to liberal democrats instead of the Muslim Brothers. So most likely this is a well-intentioned effort to empower secular, liberal, democratic oppositions in the Middle East. This is a strategy that’s destined to backfire, for the simple reason that the liberals have very little support in comparison to the Brotherhood and its analogs elsewhere in the region. But we should at least entertain the notion that the State Department’s initiative is genuine and not an arm of U.S. grand strategy.

Which brings me generally to the problem with the absolutist, no-USG position. By saying no to this money under any circumstances, you are essentially leaving the field open to and other foundations constructed with explicit or implicit funding from the neocon right. I mean yes, I would be very suspicious of anything remotely connected to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The point is this: the USG even in the middle of the recession, has a great deal of resources at its disposal and like it or not it’s going to throw that money around and wave its findings in the air and give speeches and bluster and support the right people and the wrong people at the same time, because the US is this enormous blunderbus that crushes everything in its path. The question for me is do you just get out of the way or do we get on board and try to help steer it? It’s certainly possible that the answer is just to say no – everyone would be better off without U.S. assistance, particularly in a region where grand strategy is so clearly at odds with espoused core principles of freedom. My caution is that into that vacuum will step individuals and organizations who are not well-intentioned at all, who actually do agree with US grand strategy, and who may do even more harm.

The Ethics of American Money in Digital Activism

Sami Ben Gharbia, the Director of Global Voices Advocacy and creator of the Threatened Voices project, has just written a scathing and important essay about the destructive effect of U.S. government interference in digital activism in the Middle East. The essay not only challenges the role of U.S. government funding of digital activism activities and research, but also sets a new ethical standard that casts this money as a contagion that compromises the legitimacy of all it touches. The essay is over 10,000 words long, a rarity in our sound-bite era. Here, in my opinion, are the key arguments.

  • Motive: U.S. support for Internet freedom (Secretary of State Clinton’s prominent speech on the issue, $1.5 million in U.S. government funding for circumvention technology, and increased funding for digital activism training) is not really motivated by concern for freedom of expression, but is “a new geostrategic battle that is hijacking the online free speech field to push for U.S strategic interests.”

The fact that the U.S. government is motivated by its own national strategic interests is beyond debate. As a nation-state its actions are motivated by increasing its own power, prosperity, and security. This has been true since before the term realpolitick was even invented. The question here is whether U.S. government interests and the interests on Middle Eastern digital activists are complementary. Sami clearly believes this is not the case. His strongest argument on this count is the following, which he quotes from Rami G. Khouri, the Director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut:

  • Credibility: “One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.”

The reference here is to America’s long-standing and well-documented financial support of Middle Eastern tyrants and autocrats, the most dramatic examples being Egypt (about $1.3 billion in military aid annually), whose president, Hosni Mubarak, has held that office since 1981 and whose administration has been merciless is harassing, imprisoning, and torturing activists. The actions of the U.S. government, which supports digital activists with a few million dollars and opposes them with billions, is indeed hard to defend.

Yet, even if America does support dictators, this does not mean that the money they give to activists does not to some extent offset those bad acts. Sami makes the argument that activities funded by the U.S. government are less effective than independent grassroots efforts. However, this is hard to prove. His best argument against U.S. funding to activists is as follows:

  • Delegitimization: “Foreign money delegitimizes political and social activism. And once delegitimized, activism cannot influence social and political changes and cannot be supported by the rest of the society.”

In this way, rather than helping activists, American money neutralizes them by destroying their legitimacy. Sami goes on to argue that America money will not only create a negative perception of the aid recipient, but will also damage the quality of the work funded. “As more foreign money flows, native digital activism will innovate less or will innovate to only impress Western attention and not to have a real impact on the grassroots level”.

Sami ends with a call to action. He quotes the Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fatah in saying that Americans need to support a “free neutral decentralized Internet” and that American companies like Google should make greater efforts to make sure their tools are safe and accessible to people living under repressive regimes. However, Sami’s strongest call to action is a broader one:

  • Call to Action: “At the present time, we urgently need to resist every governmental attempt to hijack or politicize our space, publicly denounce it and make sure that we are making informed decisions, rather than naively accepting ideologically tinted Internet Freedom funding and support.”

Sami’s challenge that activists, academic institutions, and NGOs need to “resist” and “publicly denounce” American funding, at least in the context of the Middle East, raises the bar on the ethics of those who support and implement digital activism. The “zero tolerance” rule for interactions with the U.S. government is unforgiving and it is understandable that Ethan Zuckerman, founder of Global Voices and fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which has taken U.S. government money, has challenged how far the “contagion” of U.S. funding goes.

Though other commenters on Sami’s post suggested transparency as an antidote to the contagion of American funds, I believe that Sami would not accept that as a sufficient. This puts myself and many others in the field in a difficult position. I benefited from U.S. government money when I attended a State Department-funded conference on women and technology in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year and I helped identify people to invite to Secretary Clinton’s initial Internet freedom speech in January. Sami has laid out a clear “zero tolerance” ethical standard for organizations in this field and there are implications here for all of us.

Reflecting on Tech for Transparency

Technology for Transparency is a Global Voices project to map and evaluate technology projects that promote transparency, accountability,and civic engagement around the world. Recently the project’s co-directors, Rebekah Heacock and Renata Avila, wrote a post about lessons learned from the 37 case studies they’vepublished so far. It’s a commentary not only on tech for transparency, but also on the study of digital activism.

Rebekah and Renata begin by categorizing the way that technology can be used for transparency. This meshes very well with our own efforts at MAP to create a typology for the cases in the Global Digital Activism Data Set. (Here’s a post with some of our early thinking on this issue.) Rebekah and Renata have identified two ways that tech helps transparency projects: data collection and data navigation/comprehension.

I agree with them, but I think that there are several more ways that tech can help transparency projects, especially when one thinks of tech not only as revealing and processing information, butas a tooltocampaign for accountability based on that revealed information.

Our current digital activism typology, still a work in progress, includes two types of functions: “information dynamics,” in whichcontent is the object of action and”group dynamics,” in whichpeople are the object of action.

  • Information Dynamics:record (collecting data), reveal, protect, co-create, process (navigating data), aggregate
  • GroupDynamics: recruitment, networking, mobilization

I think most of these would apply to tech for transparency cases specifically as well as digital activism cases generally.I look forward toreading their next batch of case studies and thankRebekah and Renatafor the contribution their work has made to the empirical study of digital activism.

Haystack: Time to Focus on Iranian Users

In the past few days a debate has raged over Haystack, the circumvention tool aimed at helping Iranians evade Internet censorship. A range of posts that have been written, critiquing the project. The actions of the project’s creators have legitimated these critiques: the project’s founder, Austin Heap, turned off Haystack on Friday in acknowledgment of security concerns and the project’s technical director and board of advisers have resigned.

In a previous post I reviewed the debate on Haystack and, yesterday, that was the story. However, earlier today Danny O’Brien, who has been intimately involved in the review of Haystack’s security issues, wrote a post that revealed that usage of Haystack is not limited to official testers, but that there are rogue (pirated) copies of the software being used by activists. (Danny’s post did not reveal how many, or even if the number is known.) Because of security concerns (which have not been enumerated publicly) this mean that, rather than being overly-hyped vaporware, Haystack is actively putting people in danger. Danny writes:

Last Friday, [circumvention expert] Jacob Appelbaum approached me with some preliminary concerns about the security of the Haystack system. I brokered a conversation between him, Austin Heap, Haystack developer Dan Colascione and the CEO of CRC, Babak Siavoshy. Concerned by what Jacob had deduced about the system, Austin announced that he was shutting down Haystack’s central servers, and would keep Haystack down until the problems were resolved.

Shortly after, Jacob obtained a Haystack client binary. On Sunday evening, Jacob was able to conclusively demonstrate to me that he could still use Haystack using this client via Austin’s servers.

When I confronted Austin with proof of this act, on the phone, he denied it was possible. He repeated his statement that Haystack was shut down. He also said that Jacob’s client had been “permanently disabled”. This was all said as I watched Jacob using Haystack, with his supposedly “disabled” client, using the same Haystack servers Austin claimed were no longer operational

Rogue clients; no apparent control. This is why I and others decided to make a big noise on Monday: it was not a matter of letting just CRC’s official Haystack testers quietly know of problems; we feared there was a potentially wider and vulnerable pool of users who were background users of Haystack that none of us, including CRC, knew how to directly reach.

For those who are interested in the Haystack issue, I would encourage a change of focus to those most affected: Iranian users. I propose the following course of action:

  1. The technicians who understand the security risks of the software (Danny, Jacob, Austin, Dan, others?) should write a short document that will convince Iranian users to stop using it. It would need to provide just enough information to be convincing, but not enough to help the Iranian government crack Haystack.
  2. Translate the document into Farsi for an Iranian audience.
  3. Disseminate the document as widely as possible, starting with contacts in the Iranian blogosphere.

It’s time to change our focus to those most effected by recent revelations about Haystack: the Iranian activists who currently are using it.

A Children’s Treasury of Haystack Commentary (Updated)

A couple of weeks ago, Evgeny Morozov wrote a critical post on Haystack, a circumvention tool created to help users in Iran evade Internet censorship. While repeatedly stating that he had nothing against the tool’s creator, Austin Heap, the post made several criticisms of the software’s efficacy and Heap’s method of promoting and testing it. Evgeny closes with:

Once again: I’ve got nothing against Haystack or Austin Heap per se. What irks me is the way in which the limitations of the current discourse on Internet freedom — and the bizarre, completely non-transparent policies it conceals — end up conferring unneeded legitimacy to Haystack’s flawed (for my taste, anyway) approach to fighting censorship. Some things, perhaps, are better left unfought — especially if the fight makes everyone but the fighters considerably worse off.

This post brought a lot of ire from Austin’s allies and from Austin himself, on private listservs and in public posts. Heap’s response was withering and clearly angry: it was titled “Brain Dead Journalism”. In the post, which Austin also sent to Evgeny as an email, he responds to all of Evgeny’s points, with the basic response that the bulk of Evgeny’s post was untrue and that Evgeny should have asked Austin about Haystack before writing about it. Here’s a taste:

[Evgeny’s Post] So, in essence, the outside public – including Iranians – are asked to believe that a) Haystacksoftware exists b) Haystack software works c) Haystack software rocks d) the Iraniangovernment doesn’t yet have a copy of it, nor do they know that Haystack rocks & works.

[Austin’s Response] (a) I’ll gladly meet you in person and prove it. (b) See A. (c) No one said that — can you source it? Haystack is an *alternative* to Tor, Freegate, Ultrasurf, Psiphon, etc. (d) We would never expect Haystack to *not* fall in the hands of the Iranian regime. That would be stupid.

A week after his initial post, Evgeny responded with a detailed follow-up post, backing up his initial criticisms of Haystack, with extra attention to being nice. It was good journalism: summaries of key points, multiple interviews with testers and experts, detailed analysis, input from Austin, and – in Evgeny’s own words – “few snarky remarks.” His main points were:

  • Questions of Efficacy: “Nothing about what Haystack/Austin Heap has disclosed so far could convince me that Haystack is a safe product that can be used in a highly sensitive context like Iran.”
  • Misrepresentation of Product Status: “The fact that Haystack is still in beta is not widely publicized and not reflected in most media reports about them. While this ambiguity probably works in their favor at this point – at least in terms of raising money and generating the public profile – the ethics of this are dubious.”
  • Critique of Media Coverage of Haystack: “Is it because the journalists are so caught up in the cyber-utopian myths around Iran’s Twitter Revolution that they refuse to critically examine its proponents? Or is it because the subject matter is too complex for them to scrutinize the claims made by technologists? I don’t know. Most likely, both have played a role.”
  • Ambiguity in US Government’s Technology Export Review Process: “The way the US government reviews what circumvention/encryption technologies are allowed to be exported to Iran is nontransparent and ambiguous…. The more I learn about this bureaucratic process, the more I come to realize that all that the US government really vetted in Haystack’s case was not its ability to do what it claims – i.e. circumvent censorship and do so securely – but only its potential to compromise American interests….”
  • Critique of US State Department as Visible Supporter of Haystack: “Hillary Clinton did mention Haystack – if only in passing – in one of her speeches, as I already pointed out. The Newsweek piece about Haystack specifically mentioned that the State Department was also supportive of Haystack….even if the US government does love Haystack so much, why on Earth make its love so public? Won’t it put Haystack’s users at even greater risks?”

As other digital Iran-watchers chimed in, it became clear that the criticisms of Haystack are probably warranted. Jillian York of the Berkman Center wrote a detailed content analysis post on inaccurate media coverage of Haystack and in Austin’s ambiguous role in the perpetration of misconceptions about Haystack:

In a Guardian interview following the awards, in which the interviewer states that Haystack was “pretty important in opening up the Iranian Internet” in the aftermath of the 2009 elections (a statement we’ve established was patently false), Heap stated of the tool:

“It’s basically a piece of software that a user in Iran would run on their computer that does two primary things: the first thing is it encrypts all of the data, and the second thing is that it hides all of that data in what looks like normal traffic…like you’re visiting completely innocuous sites…”

Later in the interview, the interviewer says to Heap:

“What Haystack did in practice when it did find its way onto people’s computers was that it allowed them to load Twitter and Facebook and these blacklisted sites”

Heap then makes no attempt to correct the interviewer (who quite clearly stated Haystack as being used in 2009 post-elections).

There is also a prediction in Jillian’s post of forthcoming analysis of Haystack from Danny O’Brien of the Committee to Protect Journalists and Internet circumvention specialist Jacob Appelbaum, who has worked on the well-respected open source circumvention tool Tor.

Though the debate is likely not over, a certain conclusion was reached when Austin Heap decided to turn off Haystack last Friday, “until there is a solid published threat model, a solid peer reviewed design, and a real security review of the Haystack implementation.”

UPDATE #1: Danny O’Brien has written a post which includes information about pirated copies of Haystack being used in Iran and the fact that the service – and its compromised security – was still functional despite the servers being disabled. This means that, rather than being overly-hyped vaporware, Haystack was actively putting people in danger, a much more serious charge. There is a fair amount of technical jargon, as this is Danny’s area of expertise:

Last Friday, Jacob Appelbaum approached me with some preliminary concerns about the security of the Haystack system. I brokered a conversation between him, Austin Heap, Haystack developer Dan Colascione and the CEO of CRC, Babak Siavoshy. Concerned by what Jacob had deduced about the system, Austin announced that he was shutting down Haystack’s central servers, and would keep Haystack down until the problems were resolved.

Shortly after, Jacob obtained a Haystack client binary. On Sunday evening, Jacob was able to conclusively demonstrate to me that he could still use Haystack using this client via Austin’s servers.

When I confronted Austin with proof of this act, on the phone, he denied it was possible. He repeated his statement that Haystack was shut down. He also said that Jacob’s client had been “permanently disabled”. This was all said as I watched Jacob using Haystack, with his supposedly “disabled” client, using the same Haystack servers Austin claimed were no longer operational…. Rogue clients; no apparent control.

Others have critiqued the role of the media and Internet intellectuals in their lack of due diligence in uncovering the problems with Haystack. Danny calls upon his fellow technologists:

Coders and architects need to realize (as most do) that you simply can’t build a safe, secure, reliable system without consulting with other people in the field, especially when your real adversary is a powerful and resourceful state-sized actor, and this is your first major project. The Haystack designers lived in deliberate isolation from a large community that repeatedly reached out to try and help them. That too is a very bad idea.

UPDATE #2: Daniel Colascione, the technical director and main developer of Haystack resigned on September 14th and described his decision in this message on the LibTech listserv. Here is the key bit:

What I am resigning over is the inability of my organization to operate effectively, maturely, and responsibly. We have been disgraced. I am resigning over dismissing pointed criticism as nonsense. I am resigning over hype trumping security. I am resigning over being misled, and over others being misled in my name….Nobody can argue that we didn’t begin with the best of intentions. The hype and imprudence squandered that original goodwill.

Now for some meta-analysis. In the end, I would say that the good of the end user in Iran was well-served because the questionable efficacy of the tool was brought to light and appropriate action was taken: Austin shut down the tool and plans to hire professional testers. (UPDATE #3: As of September 14th, the entire Haystack project appears to be defunct.)

However, I wonder if there could have been a better way for this discourse to occur. There was a fair amount of vitriol and simple ad hominem name-calling, including “brain-dead journalist” (Austin to Evgeny), “media whore” (Jillian to Austin) and the admittedly-mild “naive” (Evgeny to Austin). One part of me is really disheartened by all this nastiness, but another part of me realizes that without Evgeny’s self-described snarkyness, the weaknesses of Haystack might not have been addressed. Jillian writes that “a number of people attempted to contact the tool’s creator, Austin Heap, to clarify some of the statements made in media reports. As far as I’m aware, until very recently, he remained mostly unresponsive to such questions.” I hope our digital activism discourse can become more civil…but there I go again, always the cockeyed optimist!

Image: Foxypar4/Flickr

Political vs. Apolitical Swarms

Gaurav Mishra has a very interesting response to my post on the seemingly low level of “bad” activism despite the admitted value-neutral nature of digital technology. He writes:

Even as we celebrate swarm behavior on the social web (and what is digital activism if not “good” swarm behavior), we should remember that self-organized swarms can quickly turn into unruly mobs.

White the Western media focuses on China’s human flesh search engines as an example of online mob behavior, such behavior seems to be at the heart of American internet culture. Spend some time going through the guest list at ROFL Con, browsing through examples of viral web memesat Know Your Meme, Internet Famous and You Should Have Seen This, reading through comments on 4Chan‘s anonymous board /b/, or following Twitter’s trending topics and you’ll be amazed at the human capacity to celebrate the trivial and the distasteful.

I agree that these are valid examples of malicious swarm behavior, but they are not examples of bad digital activism. The swarms Gaurav refers to are apolitical. Their actions are taken for the entertainment of the members of the swarm with little thought or care to the social effects of their actions. A political swarm of digital activists, by contrast, takes action in order to achieve a goal of society-wide change at the local, national, or international level.

The existence of malicious apolitical swarms of meme fans and bullies should not be used to prove the prevalence of malicious digital activism tactics like anti-goverment DDoS attacks or the organized intimidation of a religious group. They are two separate phenomena.

Image: wildxplorer/Flickr

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