Semantic Censorship Evasion: Example from Libya

As Gaddafi’s scope of influence shrinks to the capital, news out of Libya is that the regime is still not giving in. A video of the dictator’s son has emerged, beating the drums of war and saying to supporters “I am bringing you reinforcements, resources, food, weapons, everything you need. We are doing well.” The violence is likely to continue.

So far, digital technology has not played the prominent role it played in Egypt’s revolution, but at least one interesting digital activism case study has emerged: using online dating sites for activist networking. ABC news reports:

“We used to call it the digital black hole,” said Nasser Wedaddy, a civil rights outreach director for the American Islamic Congress and longtime cyber activist who has worked on cyber outreach efforts in the Middle East for years. “It’s not that they don’t use the Internet. They’re very afraid.”

Activists in Tunisia and Egypt adopted social media on a mass scale, but “for all intents and purposes, in Libya, there isn’t much cyber activism going on,” Wedaddy said….

To avoid detection by Libyan secret police, who monitor Facebook and Twitter, Mahmoudi, the leader of the Ekhtalef (“Difference”) Movement, used what’s considered the of the Middle East to send coded love letters to rally the revolution.

It was “for the freedom, not for the marriage,” he told ABC News.

Not only are Libyan activists showing their flexibility in switching platforms, they are displaying the same “semantic work-arounds” to censorship that have previously been more visible in China, where images of the cartoon green dam girl were used to critique new censorship software and the terms “grass mud horse” and “river crab” are used to poke fun at online filters to freedom of speech.

In Libya we are now seeing the same innovation in co-opting apolitical words to discuss political topics undetected, including switching genders to allow male-to-male messaging and using codewords like “Jasmine” to refer to the revolution in Tunisia, and “love” for liberty. Once a connection is made, activists can continue their conversations on less public channels like SMS and Yahoo Messenger.

The conservative [dating site Mawada] doesn’t allow men to communicate with other men, so other revolutionaries posed as women to contact him, assuming aliases like “Sweet Butterfly,” “Opener of the Mountain,” “Girl of the Desert” and “Melody of Torture.”

….They also communicated in code the number of their comrades supporting the revolution. The five Ls in the phrase “I LLLLLove you,” for example, meant they had five people with them. If a supporter wrote, “”My lady, how I want to climb this wall of silence. I want to tell the story of a million hurts. … But I am lost in a labyrinth. … Maybe we can meet on Yahoo messenger,” it told the writer to migrate the chat to Yahoo Messenger so as not to raise the suspicion of the monitors, Mahmoudi said.

In the language of social movements, this is a classic example of “tactical innovation,” responding the an opponent’s counter-measures with a creative alternative.

(hat-tip to Patrick Meier for tweeting the ABC article)

“Net Delusion” Review: Debunking Digital Activism

NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of posts reviewing the book “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom” by Evgeny Morozov. Here are the links to the first post , second post and third post. This post was updated on March 26th, 2011.

Warning: this will be one of my more critical reviews of The Net Delusion. The reason is simple: in the chapter I’ll be addressing in this post Morozov attempts to debunk the value of digital activism. This is a false premise and easily refuted. I’ll do so vigorously. Let’s begin.

What Digital Activism Proponents Really Believe

Morozov is back to his old rhetorical tricks, defining his opponent’s argument in its weakest form so he can more easily defeat it. He writes:

Alas, those charmed by the promise of digital activism often have a hard time distinguishing it from “slacktivism,” it’s more dangerous digital sibling – a mad shopping binge on the online identity supermarket that is Facebook – that makes online activists feel useful and important while having precious little political impact.

If people do have difficulty distinguishing between the two, it’s a result of rhetoric like Morozov’s. So let’s take a moment to clarify. Slacktivism is to digital activism as advertising jingles are to music: the former is the most superficial and inane incarnation of the latter.

Another clarification: Digital activism is the use of digital technology in activism, but does not imply that activists should use only digital technology. Perhaps in the late-nineties hay-day of e-petitions people (though not serious activists) thought this, but last I checked the institutions of political power exist in the real world, so activists too must make that leap.

People like myself, who are optimistic about digital activism, are interested in the way activists can use these technologies as part of their overall strategy. We’re not advocating use of digital technologies to the exclusion of other tactics and tools, especially when this technology does not serve the strategic goals of the campaign, which is often the case. Perhaps the term should be “activism with digital integration” or “digitally-enhanced activism” to clarify that digital technology use is only part of successful campaigning.

To claim that proponents of digital activism are promoting the exclusive use of digital technology in activism is just another one of Morozov’s straw men.

Yes, Virginia, There is a Continuum

Setting up a binary distinction in the social sciences is the sure sign of a flawed argument. Almost any complex phenomenon, from human sexuality to democracy, exists along a continuum. In this chapter Morozov presents two binary dichotomieson slacktivism (his proxy for all of digital activism): the effectiveness dichotomy and the activist authenticity dichotomy.

Inpresenting the effectivenessdichotomy Morozov, the great fan of anecdotes, gives only four examples of digital activism campaigns, two of which (One Million Voices Against the FARC and the Free Monem campaign) could be counted as successes. Yet the one he harps onis a Facebook group called “Saving the Children of Africa”, chosen because its message is very appealing (hence high membership)and its ability to achieve its goal is lofty goal is quite obviously low (hence a good example of ineffectiveness). Morozov points out that though the group has 1.7 million members, it has raised only $12,000 (fundraising is not the mark of a successful campaign, but I digress).

He has successfully identified an unsuccessful example of digital activism. This is not that hardbecause, as Clay Shirky has pointed out,startinga group onlineis vanishingly easy and this low bar to participant in digital activism means there is a lot of unstrategic dross. Just because some – even most – digital campaigns are unsuccessful does not mean that digital activism itself is valueless. Just as the scads of Auto-Tuned pop songs do not signify that music is valueless, the existence of a million ineffectual Facebook groups does not mean that digital activism is valueless. If one Facebook group like We are All Khaled Said was critical in mobilizing a successful revolution in Egypt, then the phenomenon is worth looking into.

Also, most instances of digital activism fall somewhere between useless and revolutionary on a continuum of effectiveness. There are Mozart and Ke$ha equivalents in digital activism, but also some Coldplay, some Common, some Josh Grobin: campaigns that have some measure of success, albeit at a less world-changing scale. Even Facebook activism exists along a continuum.

Morozov’s affinity for binary arguments continues onto his characterization of digital activists themselves in his activist authenticity dichotomy:

It’s one thing for existing and committed activists who are risking their lives on a daily basis in opposition to the regime to embrace Facebook and Twitter and use those platforms to further their existing ends…. It’s a completely different thing thing when individuals who may have only cursory interest in a given issue (or, for that matter, have no interest at all and support a particular cause only out of peer pressure) come together and start campaigning to save the world.

In Morozov’s Manichaean (he would say Kierkegaardian) worldview, a digital activist is either committed to the death or foolish, superficial, and useless. An experienced organizerwould explain that this is not the case. If political change only occurred because of the actions of those willing to die for their cause, change would not happen. Successful activism is most often about persuading the interested to become active and the active to become passionately dedicated. This is a process called the “ladder of engagement.”

Digital activism often fails to move people to the next rung of the ladder, the classic example being the person who indicates interest in a cause by joining a Facebook group but never takes further action. Clearly successful tactics for the digital ladder of engagement have not yet been perfected. Facebook itself launched in 2004 and Facebook activism is an even more recent occurrence. Tactics for Facebook mobilization will likely improve as well. Though there will likely always be inactive “Saving the Children of Africa” groups, there will likely also be groups that determine a course of action (even if it is simple successful fundraising) that achieves its goal.

Tilting at Windmills While the Winds Changes

Like Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote the blurb on the cover of his book, Morozov seems to have the oddly Luddite opinion that while old methods of activism were effective, new methods cannot be. This focus on the past makes him blind to the “great potential” of digital activism that optimists are so keen to. Just as optimists are sometimes blind to the lessons of the past, pessimist/skeptics like Morozov can be blind to the future. As if speaking of an unalterable truth he writes:

Revolutions prize centralization and require fully committed leaders, strict discipline, absolute dedication, and strong relationships based on trust.

In fact, this seems like a reasonable summary of the elements of successful activism, but digital technology is challenging and changing all of them, especially in the recent democratic revolution in Egypt. Though these events occurred after Morozov’s book was published, they are evidence of Morozov’s blindness toincipient changesin digital activism, and thus inability topredict theirturn from “great potential” to reality.

  • Revolutions (need not) prize centralization: While activists do need a shared agenda in order to achieve collective action, centralization does not seem to be as important as it used to be. What is important is to reach consensus on actions to be taken, and while centralized and hierarchical decision-making used to be the only way to to it, the rapid mass deliberations on platforms like Facebook make other methods of decision-making possible as well. Wael Ghonim, the most well-know admin of the Khaled Said Facebook group, stated that all important decisions that the group made were reached by survey. Though the center did broadcast these decisions, they had been reach in a networked manner.

  • … require fully committed leaders (participants) : Another extremely interesting aspect of the Egypt case was that it was leaderless. Those who appointed themselves to negotiate on behalf of the protesters, like the Muslim Brotherhood, were not seen as legitimate by those in the streets and the person who came to represent the movement, Wael Ghonim, repeatedly declared himself neither a leader nor hero. The implications of leaderless revolutions which, because of their “headless” capacity, would be harder to co-opt or incapacitate, has yet to be fully developed.

  • …strict (peer-enforced) discipline: Discipline is still necessary in digital revolutions, but it looks different. It is not top-down but peer-driven. The discipline with which each protester decided to remain non-violent was decisive, yet it was not a hierarchical discipline. Just as protesters coordinated to keep Tahrir Square clean without being told to, they keep each other non-violent, voicing their commitments repeatedly and chastising protesters who brought weapons to the square.

  • absolute dedication (of the initiators): Certainly Wael Ghonim and the members of the April 6th Youth Movement had absolute dedication to the cause of democracy, yet many of the millions who poured into the streets of Cairo during the final days of the protestsdid not. (If there really had been millions of die-hard activists in the Egyptian population, Mubarack would hav been ousted long before.) Instead, ordinary Egyptians moved up the ladder of engagement, encouraged to join by what they saw around them, leading to a cascade that drew in the passionately political and finally the merely dissatisfied. This is the same pattern of information cascades that occurred in Leipzig at the end of the Cold War, only at greater, digitally-enhanced velocity.

  • …and strong(and networked) relationships based on trust: This is one of Gladwell’s arguments, that only the strong ties forged offline will lead people to fight and die for one another and that the digital world cannot build such ties. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant because online and offline ties are not separate. They are often mutually reinforcing. Especially on Facebook, a platform that encouraged people to connect to those they also know offline (as opposed to, say, MySpace), it is reasonable to believe that people received both online and offline cues about the actions their friends were taking and that this awareness of protesters among one’s social network encouraged the less political to join. However, not all the protesters knew each other. In a rally of over 1 million, how could they? How trust works in a network, where Z trusts X only through their mutual acquaintance Y, has yet to be fully analyzed.

The fact that Morozov casually makes this statement, which is critically at odds with the evolving trends of digital activism, is significant. It appears that, in his eagerness to downgrade the importance of technology he is unaware of the changes technology is bringing.

Will Facebook Delete Lou Sarah’s Account?

Facebook has a real name policy that allows it to delete the accounts of users who use pseudonyms. Advocates like Jillian York have pointed out that this endangers activists:

Activists who use pseudonyms often find their accounts deleted. Even folks with well-known and established pen names have been told by Facebook that they must revert to the name on their government-issued identification.

This leaves activists in the difficult position of using their real name on Facebook and leaving themselves vulnerable or using a pseudonym and keeping their fingers crossed that Facebook will not notice and that they will not one day log-in to find their account and contacts deleted. It’s a precarious game.

A new case has arisen that will test Facebook’s commitment to its real name policy, or at least bring greater attention to the issue. It has recently been revealed that right-wing American pundit Sarah Palin has a pseudonymous Facebook account under the name Lou Sarah. Though the page has not been confirmed, the evidence is pretty strong. The account is associated with Palin’s private email address, most of the account’s friends are from Wasilla, AK (including Palin’s father Chuck Heath), and the account holder knows the content of an episode of Palin’s reality show, which has yet to air.

Will Facebook protect the fake account of a ridiculous yet prominent American political figure while continuing to delete the accounts of real political activists around the world? Lou Sarah is anxiously awaiting the answer.

“Net Delusion” Review: The Authoritarian Trinity

NOTE: This is the third in a series of posts reviewing the book “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.” Here are the links to the first post and second post.

About a third of the way through his book The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov references the Orwellian “trilogy of authoritarianism”: censorship, propaganda, and surveillance. This is a useful framework for analyzing digital repression, but Morozov only tells half the story.

Unlike in his chapters on the mythology of the Iranian Twitter Revolution and the neo-con school of cyber-optimism, Morozov is in journalist mode here, rather than attack mode. His chapters on the trinity are original and empirical, yet nhe does not present the other side’s ideas. In this post I’ll review Morozov’s insights on the three pillars of digital authoritarianism and then present the other side: why there is still legitimate reason for optimism about the power of digital activists to combat these forces.


Morozov begins his chapter by explaining why authoritarians might not want to censor critical blogs: they allow an opportunity to gain intelligence. Critical blogs also keep local authorities in check by allowing a higher level of criticism that both allows the central government to play defender of the people by punishing local corruption and gives the illusion of accountability.

Next, Morozov looks at technical innovations in censorship. One new option is predictive individual censorship that would allow a banker, but not a dissident, to read foreign newspapers online. This facility is based on the same types of applications that provide product suggestions on Amazon: computer programs can tell our preferences from the places we visit on the web and build profiles of us based on our online behavior. “Instead of being prompted to check out the ‘recommended’ pages, we’d be denied access to them.”

Another way of using algorithms to analyze aggregate data is link analysis, which can be used to automatically block certain content based on who links to them. “If a dozen anti-government blogs link to a PDF published on a blog that was previously unknown to the Internet police the latter may assume that the document was worth blocking without even reading it.”

Yet censorship does is not only undertaken by governments. Many outsource the work of censorship to Internet service providers (ISPs) and web site operators, leaving the work and the cost to the private sector. Governments don’t even need to create rules for censorship. “Governments say ‘censor’ but don’t spell out what it is that needs to be censored, leaving it for the scared executives to figure it out” creating an uncertain censorship environment for activists and even encourages companies to over-censor just to be on the safe side. Governments also crowdsource digital repression by outsourcing censorship to their own citizen. In Thailand, a web site set up to collect reports of web content criticizing the royal family blocked 5,000 submitted links in the first 24 hours of operation.

Yet blocking content is imperfect as more and more citizens are learning to user circumvention technology. Even when opposition web sites are hosted abroad in friendly countries, authoritarian governments have found a way to a harass and someones successfully shut them down: the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, which involves using software to overload a site with page requests and thus rendering it unable to serve pages to legitimate users. This is a serious but under-reported problem for digital activists around the world, and it is good that Morozov is bringing attention to it. Given repeated attacks, site operators and users become demoralized and may even get kicked off their hosting service since attacks to the site affect the sites of other clients on the same server, making them “digital refugees”. Buying extra bandwidth, the most effective response to DDoS, is prohibitively expensive to most activists.

The Other Side: All these issues are real and serious, but there are ways that activists are fighting back. There are both technical and semantic censorship work-arounds. On the technical side there are anti-censorship tools like proxy servers, virtual private networks (VPN), and circumvention applications like Tor, Ultrasurf, and Freegate that allow activists and the general public to access censored contact by routing requests around blocks.

In addition activists, particularly in China, are developing “semantic” work-arounds, creating alternative spellings and homonyms that allow then to discuss censored topics. The Internet police usually figure out these tricks, but they are forever playing catch-up because it is difficult to predict what alternative word activists will use and activists can choose another if one is blocked.

There is even hope for victims of DDoS attacks. By making a digital home on a popular commercial platform like Facebook, Youtube, of Blogspot, activists force repressive governments into “dilemma actions”: if they block the popular platform they raise awareness of (and opposition to) censorship among the site’s apolitical users. If they try to attack the site at a network level, as Pakistan did to Youtube in 2008, they are assured international embarrassment – and that the commercial provider will be able to recover.


Morozov has the sometimes amusing and sometimes merely obfuscating habit of giving his chapters and sub-sections silly titles. Sometimes they transmit the necessary information (“WWW and W” is about Bush and the web), and sometimes they just obscure the subject. Chapter five, “Hugo Chavez Would Like to Welcome You to the Spinternet,” is about online propaganda, about the use of spin on the Internet.

At its most sophisticated, repressive governments use netizens as their mouthpieces, luring them with the promise of acting as agents of accountability when their true role is to pantomime that role while letting the government off the hook. Not surprisingly, the best example comes from China where a young man died in prison apparently by hitting his head while playing “elude the cat” (Chinese for hide-and-go-seek). This audacious and ridiculous lie set the Internet on fire and the Chinese government asked a committee of netizens to investigate – except they were all current or former employees of state media and their report was “inconclusive.” Apparently the government was too afraid of actual netizens to use them this time, but they might in the future.

Morozov then notes how governments are countering critical content with their own interpretations rather than censoring it outright, knowing that a ban can actually increase interest in whatever is forbidden (the Streisand Effect). For example, following the 2008 war with Georgia, Konstantin Rykov, one of the Kremlin’s favorite digital propagandists, created of an online documentary-style video called “08.08.08: The War of Treason” that “portrayed the Georgians in the worst possible light imaginable”. It was not a tough sell to Russian nationalists, but was a far easier sell than traditional ham-fisted propaganda. Morozov also mentions the thousands of paid propagandists of China’s 50 Cent Party.

The Other Side: Authoritarians are certainly getting more creative and effective at online propaganda, but this does not mean that they are winning. When authoritarians choose propaganda over censorship they are implicitly entering into competition with their detractors and, as in prize fighting, you only compete with a worthy adversary. If the influence of the Kremlin’s detractors could simply be silenced by adding their IP addresses to a block list, then the Kremlin certainly would. By entering into a competitive media environment with its ideological opponents the Russian government is implicitly admitting that their strength and influence, that these opponents cannot be ignored or silenced, they need to be engaged. Though the outcome is far from assured, this is what Gandhi was talking about when he famously said “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”


This chapter reviews the many sneaky ways authoritarian governments have for tracking activists online. In Vietnam, the government hid malware in a download on the site of a respected NGO which turned activists’ computers into “mini-panopticons” in which their actions were visible at all times. Malware surveillance technologies include key-stroke recorders for logging passwords (reuse means just one grants access to many accounts), face-recognition software for digital video, GPS tracking for mobile phones, and data mining (Google knows how often Russians search for “bribes,” “opposition,” and “corruption).

Morozov also argues that surveillance is easier in the digital age. “The old means of doing surveillance usually began with a target and only then searched for the crimes one could ascribe to it. Today the situation is the reverse: Crimes – anti-government slogans are suspicious connected to the West – are detected first, and their perpetrators are located later.” This is a much more efficient system with fewer false positives.

The Other Side: But again, the mere presence of effective surveillance does not mean authoritarians will win. Surveillance is most useful with career activists, and for them it is a real danger. What it is not so useful for is countering one-off activists who take a political action once (uploading a video of a protest) and then go back to their regular lives and the casually political who occasionally pass on a link to a banned web site or criticize a government official online but who are too numerous to take effective action against. The ease of content creation in the digital age makes this kind of semi-activism ever more likely.

This problem of scale is one that Morozov himself addresses but does not resolve. He acknowledges that “there is so much data being produced online that authorities cannot possibly process and analyze all of it.” Yet the scale problem is not primarily with amount of data but the number of unhappy citizens. Practically speaking, what do you do if you work for the Kremlin and know that 1 million Moscovites Googled the word “corruption” last month or work for the Chinese government and know that 200 million citizens watched a grass-mud horse video? Knowing is important, but it does not imply that an effective response is possible.

As with all these tactics, if a governments oversteps its bounds by impeding the lives of ordinary citizens it lose legitimacy and politicizes the apolitical. From there it is a slippery slope in which ever greater force is necessary to maintain control, which results in ever lower legitimacy. When a government has no legitimacy left the smallest event can trigger a revolt, as former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali learned a month ago when the suicide of a fruit-seller motivated dissatisfied citizens to move out into the street and demand his ouster.

Trusting Twitter: Rumors and Information Sharing During Egypt’s Revolution

One of the primary benefits of Twitter during times of massive coordination and rapidly changing contexts is the speed in which information can be shared. In 140 characters or less, Twitter users can pass on information to large networks of geographically disparate followers through hashtagging. The more quickly events unfold, the more quickly information is received, passed on, and acted upon. This acceleration has had a large impact on the ability of communities to confirm information and filter for accuracy. Though it is commonsensical to deduce that the speed of information production will correlate with a reduction in its quality, the benefit of a raw information environment is undeniable particularly in changing media and political environments such as that of the January 25th uprising in Egypt.

Three trends (anecdotally documented) in information processing through digital media and social networks took place in the three week time period of January 25th to February 11th: changing paradigms of confirmation; changing incentive structures for spreading information; and a looser tie between information and its source.

Confirmation Processes

In quickly changing situations, trust mechanisms become localized. As the January 25th uprising pushed ahead, the sheer distance between demonstrations, centers of power, and populations coupled with a lack of formalized media coverage resulted in an exponentially increasing flood of information. Twitter and personal level social networks responded to fill this void and information-sharing became a socially embedded and ubiquitous force: “What’s new?” replaced traditional greetings of “How are you doing?”. As the sheer volume of circulating information increased, the requirements for confirmation were at first lowered. To confirm information before sharing it, all that was required was a phone call from a cousin who heard from a neighbor that live ammunition was being used on protestors in a distant neighborhood. As “confirmed” information shared was largely disputed by eyewitness accounts, the process of confirmation radically shifted. Unless an individual saw an event unfold firsthand or knew someone very well who did, information was prefaced with “I have heard that…”. Twitter reports during the beginning of the uprising were retweeted with wild abandon, but as the uprising entered the second week, retweeting was increasingly reserved for tweets marked “confirmed”.

Incentive Structures for Sharing Information

In support of the idea that raw information sources like Twitter are important in fluctuating contexts, the primary features of information worth sharing was the degree to which it was actionable and the novelty of content. The first false reports of live ammunition being used were much more likely to be redistributed than later false reports of live ammunition both because the first reports proved inaccurate and because the newness of the event (confirmed or unconfirmed) had worn away. The degree to which information was actionable – coordinative information (reports of violence, police movements, demonstration locations) and reports concerning the uprising’s impact on daily life – was also positively correlated with the likelihood of that information being shared.

Changing Association Between Information and Its Source

In alignment with the changing requirements for confirmation, information was at first increasingly detached from its source. Details about a piece of information’s source became highly relevant and expected as the information environment proved largely unreliable. As the uprising reached the second and third weeks, actionable information that was retweeted as confirmed largely came from a subset of trusted Twitter users. This association of trust with Twitter users that had high levels of readership, previous tweets that were proven to be factual, and a firsthand view of the events, resulted in a true socializing of mediatized communication. The social bonds of trust extended to reputable public online figures.


It is unfair to say that Egyptians were unduly trusting of unconfirmed information before the uprising. Given the state control of media and rampant political scandals, healthy skepticism undergirded confirmation and information-sharing decisions. However, the uprising posed a particular challenge: there was no time to wait for confirmation or a reactive media sphere to cover and confirm the rumors but actionable information and access to an aerial view of events was needed more than ever. In this environment rumors gained momentum before being dispelled and retraction of disproven information became impossible in a media environment saturated in information detailing the uprising. This meant that rumors about things such as looting and live ammunition (later dispelled) planted deliberately by those attempting to incite fear were more capable of spreading far, wide, and quickly. (Though there were instances of looting and the use of live ammunition, the vast majority of reports of both were later disproved.) In the days after Mubarak’s resignation, as the army tried to quell further protests, it attempted to revive the perceived severity of the curfew. A text message was widely distributed saying that those out after 12pm would be taken to jail and serve a three month sentence and a note to forward as received was included after the message. In this scenario the source and veracity of the information was impossible to determine but in uncertain times even the rawest actionable information is oftentimes passed on. This shift in traditional confirmation and source expectations led to a rich but confusing media environment throughout the uprising, but it also undoubtedly contributed to the revolution’s success.

Of Cyber-Skeptics and Cyber-Utopians: Debunking Myths and Discussing the Future

About ten days before the events of January 25, the media was abuzz with writers and influential thinkers wondering if the Tunisian revolution was a Twitter revolution or not. The camps, as usual, were divided, with incessant criticism from cyber-skeptics and their tirades against cyber-utopians. Sifting through the widespread commentary about digital activism in the wake of the extraordinary events of the revolution at Egypt, the polarity of opinions is jarring. While most commentary from supporters of digital activism has been balanced and acknowledges the presence of inevitable drawbacks, cyber-skeptics seem to wax eloquent about the utopianism of the opposing school of thought. A review of the commentary points to the contrary and provides a sneak peek into what the future course of conversation in these circles could be.

Technology-aided revolution (Source: Beefoto/Flickr)

The School of Skepticism

On a scale of cyber-skepticism to cyber-utopianism, Malcolm Gladwell continues to move at a rate that will soon push him off the cyber-skeptic end. It has been proven beyond doubt that digital activism is not without risks. If anything, this has become a controversial subject with the question of the unavailability of anonymity impeding activists online. How the Egypt revolution happened would not be of any interest to Gladwell, who says he’d rather choose to focus on the why (in The New Yorker). It would, perhaps, be interesting to observe the ‘why’ as well. Did social media play a role, however small, in creating these digital activists, later helping them to organize better? Were there conversations in the cyberspace that indicated an uprising was in the offing?

Evgeny Morozov is the emerging leader of the tech naysayer school and his latest book ‘The Net Delusion’ attempts to debunk any remaining myths of social media revolutions (not that there were any trustworthy scholars claiming its existence in the first place!) Here is a review of ‘The Net Delusion’ and a detailed take of Mary Joyce of the Meta-Activism Project on Morozov’s ideas.

Cyber-Supporters and the Public Sphere

Extreme skepticism apart, there are some rational voices that have commented about the real role that technology and digital activism have played in furthering events at Egypt. The Berkman Center’s Jillian York acknowledges that Twitter is a complement to major news networks and that the public’s awareness of who to follow on Twitter has also been significant in this revolution. A quote from her blog (“Egyptians know their country better than CNN, MSNBC, or even Al Jazeera possibly could.” ) probably sums up the essence of this revolution the best – it has been a revolution of and by the people of Egypt, as revolutions have been, across centuries. What makes this more relevant to the world of digital activism is the fact that every Egyptian who wanted to talk, could now possibly be heard from halfway across the world.

Clay Shirky, who has remained hopeful about the role of social media and digital activism making a positive impact, has been engaging in constant word battles with Gladwell. In one of his responses to Gladwell’s rather ironically-titled ‘An Absence of Evidence’, Shirky acknowledges that the tools of social media alter the dynamics of the public sphere. The public sphere has been an issue oft-discussed in the past few weeks, from several angles. One of them has been in the context of social media’s role in the public sphere. Increasing concerns about Facebook continue to be voiced. Jillian York talked about the role (or lack thereof) of Facebook in the Arab public sphere about a year ago and these concerns have resurfaced with stronger voices in the context of Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan. (What Can Facebook Do To Better Support Activists –

Earlier this week, an article in The New York Times discussed how the world of digital activism would deal with the possibility of autocratic governments holding the kill switch for the internet. More data is needed to understand how the internet was effectively shut down in Egypt and could be useful in furthering understanding for activists in the coming years.

Misnomers and Redundant Non-Debates

In the midst of debates about whether or not technology matters to revolutions, Jay Rosen of NYU recently published an interesting post about the redundancy of opinions and discussions that have begun to cloud constructive conversation in this realm (Following it up with a collection of reactions and comments to the Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators argument). Calling the internet and its social media tools a “sexy newsy sidebar to the main event,” he says that factors are not causes. His frustration at the claims of non-existence of extreme cyber-utopianism could be a response to the skeptics’ constant thrashing of arguments that no one seems to be making anymore. Some points are beyond refutation.

Yay or nay? (Source: @ahmed

The Question of Why

In spite of his now-frustrating routine of arguments (“Just because innovations in communications technology happen does not mean they matter”), Gladwell does make a valid contribution to the cyber-utopian camp by suggesting a focus on why the revolution occurred. A lot of supposed cyber-utopians (who, in reality, are only just supporters of the idea that digital activism can have a positive effect) have discussed the ‘Why’. Why was there a revolution in Egypt? Why now? There’s also the increasingly discussed question of “What next?”

Devin Coldewey also takes a moderate view of the revolution and the role of technology. Since internet is the contemporary means of communication, it was used to organize. Five years ago, he says, it would have been mobile phones. His views form a more reasonable version of Gladwell’s “it’s not the how but the why that matters” argument. While leaning away from the utopian camp, Coldewey also acknowledges the relevance of internet, although he says “the internet is neither necessary nor sufficient for a revolution. An outraged and unified population is both.”

From Lunch Counters to Leadership Crises

Lunch counters out there do need integrating, as Gladwell pointed out last year, except, we can probably inform as many people of it online as we could have offline. One is not a substitute for the other, but a complement that could prove more effective than either as a standalone tactic. Organizing has become more effective and the power of organizing as a tool to exercise democracy has been proven by the success of the people of Egypt. “In the absence of social media, would these uprisings have been impossible?” Gladwell asks. No, but the presence of social media has made the road to effective means and successful ends of such uprisings easier and more global.

A more critical concern at this juncture would be about Egypt’s future. A regime has been overthrown. Digital activism has proven to be a potent counterpart to traditional, offline organizing. But, with the changing political atmosphere in Egypt come changes in concerns in the media as well. The big question is – who will lead Egypt? While citizen activists, their online and offline supporters and voices from across oceans could create, sustain and see a revolution through to its successful end, the revolution, in large part, has been leaderless. Anne-Marie Slaughter, until recently Director of Policy Planning for the State Department, writes about the changing conception of leadership in the internet generation, stating that leaders are central nodes in multiple networks and rightly points out that mass movements cannot govern.

It is probably time to stop overstating the evils of technology and begin constructive conversation about the road ahead for a leaderless revolution. Even the cyber-skeptic/cyber-utopian trope is unhelpful to the field as it allows thinkers to pigeon-hole one another and discredit each other’s arguments with buzzwords. Cyber-skepticism, moderate support or illusions of cyber-utopians will not decide the future of Egypt. Just like its revolution, it will be decided and carried forward by its people.


Internet Freedom 1.1: A Policy Develops

Yesterday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech (above) on “Internet Rights And Wrongs: Choices & Challenges In A Networked World,” which can be seen as a follow-up on the Internet freedom agenda. Though garnering little attention (the official State Department version had 21 views on YouTube when I watched it) the speech is important as a barometer for how the State Department is thinking about digital activism and digital repression a year after her first speech on Internet freedom in January of 2010:

This new address is clearly an “ideas speech” meant to win the support of Internet intellectuals, wooing them with terms like “dictator’s dilemma,” “Global Network Initiative,” “digital activists,” and discussion of the cyber-optimist/cyber-pessimist debate. Though there are few new ideas in this speech, there is some elegant enunciation of the key issues in the field and evidence that State’s understanding of Internet freedom is becoming more sophisticated. Here are some of the main points:

  • Uses a rights approach, proclaiming that “together, the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online comprise what I’ve called the freedom to connect. The United States supports this freedom for people everywhere, and we have called on other nations to do the same.”
  • Suggests the need for principles to govern the Internet as a public space in terms of finding a balance between competing interests: liberty vs. security, transparency vs. confidentiality, free expression vs. fostering tolerance and civility. In each case she notes the importance of both sides, in true diplomatic fashion.
  • Advances the dictator’s dilemma argument that “when countries curtail internet freedom, they place limits on their economic future.”
  • Restates US commitment to open internet: “I urge countries everywhere instead to join us in the bet we have made, a bet that an open internet will lead to stronger, more prosperous countries.”
  • Backs off previous support for “a single technology,” likely a reference to past financial support for the development and dissemination of circumvention tools, which critics viewed as a simplistic response to a complicated problem, saying “I know some have criticized us for not pouring funding into a single technology, but we believe there is no silver bullet in the struggle against internet repression. There’s no app for that.”
  • Announces a significant increase in funding “to support a burgeoning group of technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against internet repression” with $25 million in additional funding to be awarded in 2011, up from $20 million in over the past three years. The funding strategy is a “venture capital-style approach, supporting a portfolio of technologies, tools, and training.”

Though the State Department is not leading the intellectual agenda in this field, they are at least showing that they are a part of it and that they are savvy enough to know what is going on (multiple global anecdotes are shared) and know what they most important ideas and concerns are.

However, this speech does not mark a significant break with the ideas of the first: this is Internet freedom 1.1 not 2.0. The speech marks the development of an existing policy, not its reformulation. There is still the conviction that technology is value-neutral, to be used for good or ill, the focus on tools, the US commitment to an open global Internet. The changes are more subtle: from a “four freedoms” framework to a rights approach, a sophisticated enunciation of the competing interests called into play when aiming for an open Internet, name-checking key ideas like the dictator’s dilemma. The thinking of the State Department is developing and developing in a positive way.

“Net Delusion” Review: Back to the Cold War

NOTE: This is the second is a series of posts reviewing the book “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.” Here is a link to the first post.

In this second post on The Net Delusion I’m going to look at two chapters together. This is not only because there are eleven chapters in the book and I need to double-up sometimes, but also because Morozov himself sets up an amazing thematic juxtaposition: In chapter two he successfully shreds the idea that the Cold War is an effective metaphor for the current Internet freedom debate, and then he begins chapter three by using an extended Cold War anecdote to make arguments about Internet freedom.

I really liked the beginning of chapter two. It was just really good, probing, edifying journalism about how the neo-cons got into the Internet freedom game: how the George W. Bush Institute hosted a group of “global cyber-dissidents”, how neo-cons got Congressional funding for Falun Gong to make circumvention tools, how these politicians quickly fell into the inaccurate language of Cold War-speak.

The neo-cons came of age politically and intellectually in the Cold War and were the ones to fight it. It is not surprising that they would come to see the political role of the Internet in repressive regimes in the same light. Morozov does an excellent job of skewering this false intellectual conceit:

Having previously expended so much time and effort on trying to break the Iron Curtain, Western policy-makers would likely miss more effective methods to break the Information Curtain…. Policymakers’ previous experiences with solving similar problems, however, block them from seeking more effective solutions to new problems. This is a well-known phenomenon that psychologists call the Einstellung Effect.

He continues, focusing in on the false Berlin Wall / Cyber-Wall analogy:

Physical walls are cheaper to destroy than build; their digital equivalents work the other way around. Likewise, the “cyber-wall” metaphor falsely suggests that once digital barriers are removed, new and completely different barriers won’t spring up in their place – a proposition that is extremely misleading when Internet control takes on multiple forms and goes beyond the mere blocking of web sites.

These are all good points, but before I discuss the way Morozov falls into his own Cold War intellectual trap in chapter three, I’d like to take a moment to analyze the rhetorical choices in chapter two. Just as he chose his opponents’ weakest argument (“Twitter Revolution”) in chapter one in order to score rhetorical points by playing Harlem Globe Trotters to their local losers, he makes two careful omissions in this chapter to make the idea of Internet freedom seem intellectually bankrupt.

Omission 1: Treats neo-conservatism as the only intellectual rationale for Internet freedom

In this chapter Morozov treats the idea of Internet freedom (and, by extension, cyber-optimism) as having uniquely neo-con roots. Picking an intellectual fight with a neo-con in the post-Bush era when the US is still mired in Iraq and Afghanistan and an American diplomat cannot say the word “democracy” without being perceived as an imperialist is like attacking US isolationalists after Pearl Harbor – their intellectual pedigree has been so successfully degraded by actual events that they make an easy target. By treating the idea that ICTs can have deleterious effects for authoritarian regimes and that policies should be developed around that idea as a neo-conservative one, Morozov hopes to make the idea invalid by association.

I know many people who believe that the Internet can have these positive effects for activists and pro-democracy proponents : Ethan Zuckerman, Yochai Benkler, and Jillian York at Harvard, Patrick Meier at Stanford, Philip Howard at the University of Washington. Not even one of them is a neo-conservative. They draw their optimism not from past intellectual frameworks but from observation of current phenomena.

Omission 2: Treats digital activism is an idea, not a phenomenon

In Morozov’s mind, digital repression is a reality of multiple amusing anecdotes, but digital activism and the use of digital technology against repressive regimes is just an idea. Yet there are hundreds of examples of members of civil society using digital tools to broadcast alternative political narratives, coordinate anti-government actions, transfer resources, create a shared awareness of shared grievance, and mobilize protest. If Morozov needs some examples, he can download the list of 1,000 cases in the Global Digital Activism Data Set. Digital resistance to authoritarianism is real, not just the misconception of neo-cons. Yet it is easier to invalidate a phenomenon if you pretend it doesn’t exist.

So why, after successfully cutting off the intellectual legs of Cold War-inspired proponents of Internet freedom does Morozov remove his own in chapter three by using the Cold War as a predictive model? In chapter two he writes that:

Anachronistic language skewers public understanding of many other domains of Internet culture, resulting in ineffective and even counter-productive policies. The similarities between the Internet and technologies used for samizdat – fax machines and photo-copiers – are fewer than one might imagine.

This is all true, so why, after critiquing “anachronistic language” and Cold War thinking does he launch into an extended anecdote about how cable TV undermined democratic aspirations in East Germany during the Cold War? If he is savvy enough to argue that the similarities between fax machines and photo-copiers and the Internet are few, how can he allow himself to overlook the differences between the Internet and television? Read-write capacity, consumers becoming content creators, media fragmentation, the “former audience” – these are not new ideas.

Broadcast hasn’t been an accurate metaphor for the Internet since the beginning of the millennium, and Morozov knows this. By comparing the complacency created by Western TV in East Germany to the complacency created by web TV from the likes of today, he is doing exactly what he excoriated the neo-cons for: using a “Cold War metaphor” to suggest an understanding of digital repression in the modern day.

So why does he do it? For the same reason that he makes so many rhetorical choices in his book: because its easier to defeat a proposition if you pretend it does not exist. It is no accident that nearly every case in the Global Digital Activism Data Set involves self-publication of user-generated content. Content creation is crucial to most of the elements of successful digital activism: offering alternative narratives, creating a sense of shared grievance, mobilizing supporters. By choosing a metaphor from the broadcast era of television – and pretending it is analogous to the Internet era – he also pretends that the creative capacities of the “former audience” not only are unimportant but also don’t exist.

Winning arguments by cherry-picking weak ideas that he can easily defeat and pretending that challenges to his rhetorical view do not exist is poor journalism and poor rhetoric. Morozov is an excellent writer and analyst capable of winning arguments even when he has not tilted the field of play in his own favor. Perhaps for all his bombast he is less intellectually confident than he appears.

The Religious Element of Egypt’s Secular Revolution

For a peaceful demonstration organized within a police state to gain sufficient momentum, a critical mass of demonstrators must be mobilized. This critical mass of demonstrators can most easily be mobilized through existing social structures even if it is instigated within novel networks and communication technologies. In different socio-political contexts appropriate social structures will vary, but in Egypt the clear choice for organizers of the January 25th uprising was the congregation of Friday prayers.

It is no coincidence that each pivotal day of the demonstrations – the “Day of Rage,” the million man march, and the threatened ten million man march (that was eventually quelled by President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation) – all happened on Fridays, the Sabbath day in Islam. Friday is a day off for most of the employed, meaning traffic is very limited and more of the population is free to attend demonstrations, but it is also a day of Friday prayers where millions gather across Cairo to pray and listen to sermons from imams. Numbers at mosques swelled, likely because of the attendance of secular demonstrators, imams discussed the demonstrations in sermons (some to dissuade congregations from attending, others to encourage engagement), and at the close of prayers marches began at mosques and moved toward key areas – bridges, squares, and ultimately Tahrir.

By calling for demonstrators to gather at mosques on Twitter, Facebook, and SMS before protests, the organizers made it possible for demonstrations to continue even in the event of a media shutdown. By localizing meeting points – mosques are in every neighborhood in Cairo – and choosing a meeting point guaranteed to have a large number of people that could potentially be apolitical, organizers allowed for a cover of anonymity that could take the place of communication confirmation of the actualization of a planned protest.

Though mobile telephony was completely disrupted in Cairo on the Day of Rage — undoubtedly a turning point in the uprising — a critical mass of demonstrators gathered at mosques and marched on Tahrir.

Though the Muslim Brotherhood did not engage in the January 25th demonstrations until they gained momentum after the first few weeks, the meeting points chosen by demonstrators were initially politicized and given a veneer of radicalization by some western media outlets. The trope that the two choices for Egypt are autocracy or theocracy was reiterated and the use of mosques in the demonstrations put forward as proof.

In analyzing the mobilization of populations for change, particularly in the wake of well orchestrated digital media campaigns, it will become increasingly important, particularly in police states, to assess the social structures that are de facto off-limits from crackdown. These structures, that can rationalize the gathering of many under apolitical guise, are likely to be interesting points of focus during uprisings that are subject to media crackdowns. When communication capability is unplugged, organic social and community structures become critical to the mobilization of many and cater to a movement built of a population with radically different levels of risk-aversion and commitment.

What is Success in Digital Activism and Repression?

ReadingThe Net Delusion” has got me thinking about how we define successful digital activism and digital repression in authoritarian regimes and how traditional definitions of success favor authoritarians.

The easiest way to define a campaign, tactic, or movement as successful is by asking “did it achieve its stated goal?”. Campaigns aim to alter the status quo while authoritarians seek merely to maintain it. Put another way, digital activists only succeed if they create change, but authoritarians succeed so long as change is absent. For an authoritarian regime, success means that society stands still, whereas success for an activist is more the equivalent of running the Iron Man. As a result, the bar for success in digital activism campaigns is far higher than it is for the regimes they oppose.

An authoritarian regime that launches a successful social media surveillance initiative and maintains the status quo may be said to have succeeded in their strategic goal, but a digital activism campaign that aims to end corruption or topple a dictatorial regime is not called a success unless the regime falls. By this measure, Egyptian activists had failed up until the point they ousted Mubarak last week. Yet we know that the online networks they had built – both between organizers and among supporters – was crucial to their ability to mobilize. In addition, the Egyptian blogosphere was crucial in creating a shared sense of shared grievance that made mobilization possible when the time was right. They factors need be be counted as successes too.

Just as the advantage of digital repression and activism can be measured along a continuum, so should digital activism success. We need to stop thinking about the binary of success and start thinking of a continuum of progress and relative advantage. This type of framework will help us to better understand the how successful digital activism and repression are within a society, instead of waiting for one defining moment.

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