The Economics of Diplomatic Secrecy

Writing about the recent WikiLeaks release of 250,000 State Department cables, Simon Jenkins of the Guardian noted:

Clearly, there is no longer such a thing as a safe electronic archive, whatever computing’s snake-oil salesmen claim. No organisation can treat digitised communication as confidential. An electronic secret is a contradiction in terms.

Given the global reach and lightening pace of politics in the 21st century, it is unlikely that the digital collection and transmission of diplomatic communication will cease. By revealing and exploiting inherent security weaknesses in digital communication, Wikileaks clearly hopes that this increase in transparency will lead to an increase in accountability. But how will diplomats and heads of state react?

Economics tells us that, in most cases, as the price of a commodity increases, demand for it decreases. Remember, price is not only counted in dollars, but also in transaction costs. Even if governments are willing to invest millions of dollars in more secure digital communications systems (multistage encryption, decryption keys changed every 24 hours) this also means decreased efficiency.

Some secrets may be so important that the government will seek to conceal them at any price, but overall, demand for secrecy is likely to fall. For many day-to-day interactions, diplomats may accept the risks of using quicker and less secure methods of communication (ie, the ones they have used thus far). They may accept the possibility of being brought to account for their words and actions.

By raisng the price of secrecy, Wikileaks is pushing for a new and more open default in international relations. The effects of this new default are as yet unknown.

“Digital Activism Decoded” in Kenya

When she went to Nairobi, nonprofit tech guru Beth Kanter brought along some of her favorite books to donate to the iHub community library, including The Networked Nonprofit, Charlene Li’s Open Leadership, Jennifer Aaker’s DragonFly Effect, Carol Cone’s Breakthrough Nonprofit Branding and the Meta-Activism Project’s Digital Activism Decoded. Thanks Beth, we couldn’t ask for a better ambassador.

Is Pepsi Refresh Digital Activism?

Is Pepsi Refresh – the marketing campaign which leverages social media to give grants to non-profit projects – an example of digital activism? The campaign is certainly digital. Grant ideas are submitted through a web site,, which is also where supporters come to vote on which ideas will win funds. Pepsi Refresh is also heavily promoting itself on Twitter, where is has 46,000 followers, and on Facebook, where it has 2.2 million fans. And will this project make a positive change in the world? By transferring the millions of dollars in its grants budget to individuals and organizations supporting the environment, education, neighborhoods, and other causes, it hard to argue that it will not have a positive impact.

Still, I wouldn’t call it activism. Activism implies a change in the status quo of power and in the United States, where corporations have such a powerful role in society, a project that brings the private sector closer to civil society is unlikely to challenge that power dynamic since it benefits an already-power entity, a corporation (see schematic at left). Civil society organizations – nonprofits – are already beholden to the private sector for much of their funding, whether directly from companies through corporate social responsibility programs, from personal donations from middle class employees of those companies, or from private foundations set up with the fortunes made by the private sector’s most successful managers and entrepreneurs. The campaign is also not a threat to the power of the state, in which the private sector already holds great sway over elected officials and has significant influence over government interests through lobbying and political donations.

So a campaign that transfers resources from the private sector to civil society groups is not activism. Tell that to Mikhail Khodorkovsky (left), the Russian oil magnate currently sentenced to eight years in prison for fraud in circumstances that the Council of Europes says “epitomises this authoritarian abuse of the system”. Khodorkovsky, former owner of Yukos Oil, was also a philanthropist, whose causes included funding internet-training centers for teacher, a forum for the discussion by journalists of reform and democracy, archaeological digs, summer camps for children, and a boarding school for orphans. He also funded opposition political parties. This attempt to translate his financial power into political power made him a threat to the state.

In Russia, unlike in the United States, the power of the state is overwhelming. According to Freedom House, which keeps track of such things:

Russia’s movement toward democracy and the rule of law has been halting at best…. Indeed, by 2005, having endured significant rollbacks of electoral rights, Russia could no longer be considered a democracy at all according to most metrics…. The nascent political party system of the 1990s has been replaced by a set of political organizations loyal primarily to the president…. In the past two years in particular, civil society and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been stifled….

In this alternative scenario, where power lies strongly with the state and the power of the private sector and civil society is stifled, a “Yukos Refresh” campaign (see schematic at left), which would have brought together the two alternative poles of power and challenged the power of the state would have been activism. The lesson here is that activism can be defined only as it affects the balance of power of a specific society. A simple corporate social responsibility campaign in the US can be a radical and threatening action in a state where the power of civil society and corporations is limited.

Chinese Censorship and the Philosophy of Language

Chinese censors are probably not familiar with the “AAA framework,” but they should be. AAA, which stands for “Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas”, is a theory of linguistic meaning that states that “‘meaning is a relationship between two sorts of things: signs and the… things they mean.” The Great Firewall of China is very good at tracking and blocking signs (words), but is getting worse and worse as tracking and blocking meaning. This is because Chinese dissidents and politically-motivated pranksters are getting better and better as creating new signs – new words and images – for critiquing the government that bypass machine-based censoring programs.

In her talk on networked authoritarianism for the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes last month, scholar of the Chinese Internet Rebecca MacKinnon reported that, when she tried to post a comment on imprisoned Nobel prize recipient Liu Xiaobo on three local Chinese sites, including Baidu and Sina, she was blocked from posting with a moderation message. On the micro-blogging site Sohu the name Liu Xiaobo was removed from the post when it was published.

Yet she might have might have been able to post about Liu Xiabo using Latin letters or a homonym. The creation of alternative signs allows dissident to freely express a censored meaning. Reports the Economist:

News on October 8th that an imprisoned activist, Liu Xiaobo, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize spread quickly through domestic microblogs despite the authorities’ best efforts to block it. Users wrote homonyms for Mr Liu’s name, or abbreviations in Latin characters.

These alternative signs are the new proxies, routing meaning around censors. As the graphic below shows, by creating alternative signs for a censored meaning, dissidents can post – and thus communicate – ideas the censors are trying to repress. Examples abound, from images of Green Dam Girl and Grass Mud Horse to discussion of “harmonized” blogs.

Just as the Internet does not solve the free speech problem of activist, automated censorship software does not solve the massive censorship problem of user-generated content. In the end, in a massive system like China’s Internet censorship regime, it is the developers vs. the dissidents.

Unfortunately, for censors there is an extra step – updating the software. Users can iterate new signs in a matter of seconds, whereas it takes hours or days to update censoring software to block new signs. Because it is easier to create new signs than find and block them across an entire system, I believe censors will always be playing catch-up with the Internet’s creative linguistic activists.

New Evidence that Slacktivism Matters

In recent months, referring to much of online activism as ineffectual “slacktivism” has become increasingly popular. According the slacktivist blog (yes, there is one), the word was actually born in the mid-nineties on Usenet and didn’t appear again until 2000 in a discussion about people “whose idea of activism is clicking the ‘forward’ button in their e-mail.” Though the applications have evolved past email – greening a Twitter icon, joining a Facebook cause group – the idea remains the same. As columnist Nancy Lublin wrote in the May issue of Fast Company:

It’s not hard to see where the word comes from (slacker + activism = slacktivism), and obviously, it’s usually not meant as a compliment. Basically, it refers to doing good without having to do much at all. It’s inch-deep activism that you can do from the comfort of your own couch, whether that’s clicking for good or texting to save the world.

Yet, more and more, people are pushing back against the term, arguing that slackitivists are just people taking their first steps into activism. Slacktivism is the shallow end of the digital activism pool. Effective organizers can motivate these newbies into the deep end, and into gradually increasing levels of commitment and action. This was our goal at the Obama campaign with much of Obama’s social media presence: start with an account on MyBarackObama or by joining One Million Strong for Barack Obama on Facebook, then tell a friend, then make a donation, then volunteer for door-to-door canvassing.

It is true that actions in the “shallow end” rarely bring about the desired change, but ignoring these actions and the people who take reflects a misunderstanding of their value. In a post on Mashable, Geoff Livingston of the social media consulting firm Zoetica quotes Randy Paynter, CEO and Founder of the community portal Care2:

What the world needs now is far more engagement by individual citizens, not less, and simple steps such as signing petitions or even sharing opinions/tweeting are steps in the right direction…. Because small steps can lead to bigger steps, being critical of small steps serves no good. It simply disenfranchises folks.

The “slacktivism matters” crowd got a new piece of supporting evidence today from Facebook, where analysis revealed that the simple act of friending a politician was a meaningful measure of their intent to vote for that person:

An early sample of some of the hottest House and Senate races bodes well for the world’s largest social networking site. The Facebook political team’s initial snapshot of 98 House races shows that 74% of candidates with the most Facebook fans won their contests. In the Senate, our initial snapshot of 19 races shows that 81% of candidates with the most Facebook fans won their contests.

This indicates not only that a user who friends a political prefers that person, which is self evident, but also that friending indicates intent to take action based on that preference. In the case of an election, this means that joining a politician’s Facebook group meant that the person cared enough to get out and vote for that candidate.

In the cases of truly dead-end slacktivism, like American Twitter users greening their avatars in support of the post-election protesters in Iran last year, the problem may not have been with the initial action itself, but that there was no clear or credible next step for those concerned people to take to truly influence the outcome they cared about.

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