Malcolm Gladwell’s Still Got it Wrong

In October of last year Malcolm Gladwell wrote a much-read piece in the New Yorker arguing that the value of social media for activism was greatly overstated and older analog methods of organizing were more effective. The piece drew considerable criticism from the blogosphere, which picked apart his argument from a variety of angles. On Sunday, Gladwell was interviewed by Fareed Zakaria on CNN, seemingly having learned nothing more about digital activism.

“In light of all the things happening in the Arab world,” Zakaria observed, “you have been distinctly unimpressed by social media as a way of generating political discontent. Why?” This is an unusual question, since the idea that social media “generates” political discontent is a straw man argument – no one actually believes it. Zakaria asked the question either 1) because he doesn’t understand this or 2) was handing Gladwell a straw man that he could easily tear down. I’m going to give Zakaria the benefit of the doubt and go with #2.

Gladwell’s Flawed Proof

However, Gladwell did not hit this easy pitch by drawing the distinction between the motivations for protest (not digital) and the means of protest (quite often digital). Instead, he created another, even weaker straw man to defeat: that digital activism is no more that flash-mobbing. (By defining digital activism by its weakest avatar he used a similar strategy to Evgeny Morozov. Maybe that’s why he wrote the blurb for Evgeny’s book. But I digress.) Gladwell started off humbly (“I’ve been as dumbstruck as everyone else by what happened in the Middle East”) but soon threw a punch:

I can’t look in the past at social revolutions and see examples of cases where people had a problem, under dire circumstances, of getting lots of people together to voice their concerns…. Looking at history, I don’t see the absence of efficient tools of communication as being a limiting factor on the ability of people to socially organize.

Even this opening gambit is extremely problematic, here’s why:

  1. Proving a Negative: The way Gladwell sets up his proof, he is right that social media is not needed for revolution if social movements in the past did not have collective action dilemmas (what he calls “getting lots of people together”). Yet really, how do you prove the absence of a collective action dilemma? You could look at thwarted protest movements, but what about the protest movements that never even emerged… BECAUSE of collective action problems? It’s a catch-22. He points to fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 (when “13% of East Germans had telephones”) as evidence that technology was not needed, but what if there had been 74% phone penetration? Perhaps the revolution would have happened a decade earlier. It is panglossian and a naive misreading of historical process to assume that the past could only have occurred in the way it did, that “all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
  2. Social Movement ? Flash Mob: Second, by saying that social media is not needed because people did not have a problem “under dire circumstances, of getting lots of people together to voice their concerns” he is aiming at the most visible form of social movements – the protest action – but ignoring all the other components of social movements, like changes in the opportunity/threat structure, presence of mobilizing structures, and framing processes (hat-tip Doug McAdam), all of which happen outside of public view. Social media likely affects all those steps in the process. Here I think Gladwell is simply suffering from representation bias. He believes the full set of social movement processes is equivalent to the social movement processes he can see – people in the street.
  3. Problems with Historical Precedents: As Gladwell sets up his proof, social media is only useful if it solves some historic collective action dilemma. He does not “see the absence of efficient tools of communication as being a limiting factor on the ability of people to socially organize.” However, even if the limitation is not visible to him, it may still exist. Even those engaged in the activism, like Gladwell’s example of John Lewis, may not be aware of these limitations. If people in the past did not perceive an inefficiency in their process, that does not mean a more efficient process cannot subsequently be created. For example: printing press > typewriter > computer > computer + Internet. Each stage was the peak of technological advancement… until it was improved upon. Even if past activists were able to successfully mobilize and saw no collective action limitations to their work (and I’m sure they did), that does not mean that these processes could not be improved upon by access to new technology.

Seeing the Past with Rose-Colored Glasses

Gladwell has a real problem with idealizing the past. In idealizing the closed American media environment of the 1950’s and 60’s he says “The civil rights movement – all they had to do was essentially capture the three [television] networks.” What he presents as inevitable in hindsight was no doubt tremendously daunting and extremely difficult for activists at the time. All they had to do was co-opt a media structure owned by a conservative white elite – no problem!

In focusing on the successes of social movements in the past, Gladwell glosses over the limitations of past communication structures. The civil rights movement, by some measures, began in 1896. I find it hard to imagine that between that time and the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, civil rights activists would not have had a use for near-free tools for independent mass information dissemination and mobilization.

Good Points on Costs and Strategy

Occasionally in the interview, Gladwell makes a reasonable statement. For instance:

What I don’t know at this point is whether the balance of benefits and costs to the new technology will work out in the favor of the oppressed or whether they will work out in the favor of the oppressor.

This is a good and reasonable question, but his rhetoric does not reflect it. In his rhetoric it appears he has already made up his mind. He also notes that “the real work is elsewhere,” meaning that your must have a strategy and a core group of initiators before you can have a successful digital activism campaign. Again, this is true, but digital technology does not prevent people from being strategic, it only makes it easier to act in the absence of strategy.

Why Did Gladwell Even Do This Interview?

Since Gladwell does not really know what he is talking about regarding digital activism – or even theories of pre-digital social movements – why did he do this interview, which served as a platform for his ignorance? There is vanity, of course, but I would also guess that, since the incredible success of The Tipping Point in 2002, he has felt incredible pressure to create another intellectual master work. Seeing digital activism as a field getting a lot of attention, he decided to seek his fortunes here.

And that is fine, but he is an influential thinker and when he spreads false information through his lack of understanding he does a disservice to digital activism, which is already misunderstood. I would be happy to have Malcolm Gladwell as a colleague in research and honest analysis, but in his current mode as an under-informed talking head only interested in exploring one viewpoint, he does more harm than good.

(hat-tip to Nancy Scola of TechPresident for highlighting this interview.)

Training in Lebanon: Digital Activism Strategy

Earlier this month I was in Beriut to train a group of civil society members from the Middle East and North Africa on digital campaigning.  It was part of e-Mediat, a new technology training and capacity building program funded by the U.S. State Department and developed in response to Secretary Clinton’s announcement of Civil Society 2.0.  Fellow trainer Beth Kanter has a number of great blog posts on the training, which lasted several days and also included trainers Jessica Dheere and Mohamad Najem from Social Media Exchange.

Here are the slides from my day-long session, which covered digital communications strategy, media choices, and action planning:

View more presentations from Mary Joyce

“Arab Spring” Spurs Crackdowns in Africa

Although there have been prolonged protests in the Middle Eastern countries of Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, the successful revolutions of the “Arab Spring” have occurred in North Africa. The regimes of Tunisia and Egypt have fallen and Libya, which lies between them, is still mired in violent revolt. The African character of the revolutions has been largely ignored in the Western media, probably because “Arab” and “Middle East” are more resonant frames for Western audiences, but heads of state in Sub-Saharan Africa have been taking notice.

Though activists have seen great victories in North Africa, below the Sahara the main result has been increased government paranoia. In late February, activists in Zimbabwe were arrested and charged with treason simply for meeting to discuss the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. (In Zimbabwe, a charge of treason carries the possibility of the death penalty.) Though most of the activists were release for lack of evidence, six are awaiting trial, though they are out on bail.

In addition, Cameroon has sought to block digital activism by asking local mobile provider MTN Cameroon to halt their Twitter via SMS service. The company reported on their Twitter page: “We can’t comment further than ‘security reasons’ on #Government instructions,” a seeming attempt to distance themselves from the decision. Paul Biya has been President of Cameroon since 1982, a year after Hosni Mubarak took office, so maybe he sees a troubling parallel. Biya may also be looking west and noticing how popular Twitter has become as a venue for political discussion of the unrest in Cote d’Ivoire.

In Senegal, Sidy Lamine Niasse, head of opposition media group Walfadjri, called on Senegalese to protest in a Day of Action on March 19th, which led to light efforts at mobilization on Twitter and Facebook, as well as offline. Though there was a large protest in Dakar, a few hours before the rally authorities arrested a number of suspects who they claimed were plotting a coup d’etat, not a protest, including an official of the fan club of Walfadjri. Four of those people were released last week for lack of evidence. Like repressive Zimbabwe, democratic Senegal charged activists with ridiculously out-sized crimes, though the judiciary was independent enough to see that they were released.

The situation was much the same in Gabon where in late January, two weeks after the successful revolution in Tunisia, security forces fired tear gas andarresteddozens of supporters of Andre Mba Obame,an opposition politician,during a protest in the capital Libreville. Global Voices contributor Julie Owono reported:

The current wave of popular protests for free elections sweeping the African continent (Tunisia, Egypt and Cte d’Ivoire) has made the Gabonese government very wary of allowing protests to grow any larger.

So far it is the state – not activists – that have the upper hand in Sub-Saharan Africa. By responding to nascent protest movements with excessive force they hope to nip democratic reform in the bud.

Failures in Digital Activism: A Macro View

Success, Failure, and Strategy

I recently returned from a long (mostly non-digital) trip and am just getting back into work mode. Today I checked the backlog in my Google Reader and came across an old post by Patrick Meier on civil resistance tactics used in Egypt’s revolution. The post ends:

I…. won’t repeat myself other than to conclude with this: protesting intelligently increases the chances of success. Protesting unprepared and spontaneously will not work, as I have written in this blog post regarding the Sudan protests…. It is important that resistance movements be smarter and better prepared.

This made me think of Evgeny Morozov’s chapter in The Net Delusion, which attempts to debunk digital activism as meaningless slacktivism (my response is here). Though Evgeny cites only one example of slacktivism – a Facebook group called “Saving the Children of Africa” – there are many more.

In fact, in most of the cases in the Global Digital Activism Data Set that the Meta-Activism Project is developing, the effect of the action is unclear and it is hard to attribute success based on the espoused goals of the activists themselves, who are often aiming at large and complex social problems like defeating corruption, securing human rights, and winning democratic freedoms.

Here Comes Everybody… Even if They Don’t Know What They’re Doing

There’s little debate that digital technology and social media facilitate activism: easy group formation and collaboration, near-free mass information dissemination, fast resource transfer, anonymity tools. Yet this facilitation is strategy-agnostic. It was just was easy to start “Saving the Children of Africa” as it was to start “We are All Khaled Said.”

Where previously activism resources – money, mailing lists, leadership positions – were given to skilled organizers by hierarchical organizations (I’m thinking of unions, political campaigns, and public interest lobbying here), digital technology makes the tools of activism accessible to all users, regardless of strategic capacity.

The result of this low bar to entry into activism is as follows:

  1. More campaigns by more people, most of whom are unskilled as activists;
  2. More failures resulting from poor strategy by the unskilled;
  3. A few amazing successes like Egypt, where skilled strategists have powerful organizing tools they previously would not have had access to.

Activist skill is the rate limiting factor in both the digital and pre-digital eras (see left). Though potential to start campaigns has increased, activist skill has not, leading to the dodgy track record of digital activism: a few amazing successes, many modest ones, and a lot of dross.

It is reasonable to believe that there has been some increase in the number of successful campaigns because of the introduction of digital tools – a scale change – and anecdotal evidence provided by people like Beth Kanter and organizations like bears this out. However, I think that the number of unsuccessful campaigns and actions still outpaces growth in effective digital activism, leading to a preponderance of ineffective campaigns and a perception by pessimists that digital activism is ineffective.

Closing the Strategy Gap

However, this perceptions that digital activism is ineffective is also inaccurate. Social media is a set of tools with certain affordances that can be brutally effective in the hands of savvy and strategically-minded activists, many of whom would not have been able to achieve the the speed and scale of their campaigns in the pre-digital era. Yet the flip-side of this broad access is that those without strategic skills can now also attempt to launch campaigns.

The key to increasing the rate of successful digital campaigns is to close the strategy gap by giving strategic knowledge to those who would like to engage in digital activism. Fortunately, the Internet is uniquely well-suited to information dissemination and many of the important lessons can be drawn from the existing fields of strategic communications, marketing, organizing theory, social movement theory, and theories of nonviolent resistance. The challenge now is to package this information in easily-digestible formats that can spread quickly through the Internet.


The Modern State Under Attack

Western Democracies Feel the Strain

The revolutions in the Middle East are politically Darwinian. The authoritarian post-colonial state, so well suited to life in the twentieth century, finds itself maladapted to life in the twenty-first, when satellite television has pierced the information vacuum, removing the tyrant’s ability to define political realty, and the Internet has allowed for effective mobilization of shared grievances that are often only noticed when people are already in the streets and the perception of political stability and government legitimacy has been shattered.

Yet the downfall of the authoritarian post-colonial state is less surprising than existential threat now felt by Western democracies. Pushed from above by corporations and from below by an ever-expanding pluralism, Western democracies – those pinnacles of human progress – are under tremendous stress.

It’s the Economics, Stupid

The first source of existential stress is obvious: economics. The modern state cannot pay for itself. On Friday, European leaders announced a permanent $700-billion safety net for the EU in order to sure up investor confidence. Yet the announcement was overshadowed by the resignation of the Prime Minister of Portugal after a budget of austerity measures was rejected by parliament, signaling the potential for a third EU bailout request, following those of Ireland and Greece.

There are many causes for this economic strain. They are partly due to loss of competitiveness and economic growth as services and financial institutions stay in the West while manufacturing moves East and South. Yet much of the problem is that, in response to their citizens, Western democracies have committed themselves to paying for things they can’t afford. In Europe these are public sector pensions. In the US these are the mandatory spending programs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

In the US, while corporations like General Electric and Google are finding ever more creative ways not to pay taxes, the bill for programs that benefit the elderly rise as the Baby Boomers become seniors. This means less money in and more money out. And the borrowing binge that has kept America and others afloat cannot last forever.

The reason this is an existential problem for Western democracies is that public pensions and Social Security aren’t pork or the result of special-interest lobbying, they truly benefit citizens. If these programs are ended (unlikely) or curtailed to meaninglessness (likely), then an important support of the middle class standard of living will disappear for those no longer of working age. But isn’t the growth of the middle class – with all its benefits to culture, public health, political stability, and human happiness – been one of the greatest achievements of the Western democracy? If Western democracies can no longer afford to subsidize a middle class the China model of economic development through autocracy will seem ever more appealing.

And the Network Won’t Help

As the two hierarchical structures of government and corporations battle for dominance, the network adds more trouble. While people power can mean the end of autocracy in dictatorships, in democracies “the people” because free to associate at will, leading to a pluralism of interest-groups. While we do want the freedom to have 37 groups to protect the Gulf Coast and 520 groups focused on childhood literacy, in reality this pluralism means fragmentation as money and attention are divided into infinitely smaller and ultimately less powerful units.

In a state with a few hierarchical lobbying organizations like the AARP and Sierra Club, members of government have some hope of being able to meaningful engage these groups. But the network, with its easy tools for publication, donation, and mobilization only accelerates fragmentation. Vanishingly simple group formation means more citizen groups, more campaigns, more demands, more e-petitions, more email. Even a conscientious politician will have their attention and time tremendously strained. Given the clamor of citizen demands, they may choose to just focus on the voices that can give them the money they need to get elected, unintentionally strengthening the hand of moneyed interests.

And of course, pluralism also comes with a price tag, each group demanding their “pound of flesh” for this subsidy, that government program. And this pound-of-flesh pluralism puts a further economic strain on the state.

What Next?

The modern democratic state faces a dual threat: fiscal deficit and information surplus. It is under extreme economic pressure, both from traditional hierarchical interests and from new networked campaigns. While the short-term crisis is fiscal, the longterm crisis concerns the processing of more information, more citizen voices.

In a democracy where more citizens can make themselves heard, new institutions will be needed to respond to them, yet the financial capacity of the state to respond to citizens is decreasing as the ability of citizens to make their voices heard is increasing.

The theoretical biologist Stuart Kaufman speaks of an “adjacent possible,” states of being that are one incremental step away from the present. At this point, at least in the US, it seems that the hierarchical forces of corporations are stronger than both governments and fragmented citizen groups and that the resolution to the existential problems of Western democracies will be decline in the power and financial resources of the state, resulting in a reduced capacity for redistribution of wealth and thus an increase in the gap between a wealthy few and the poor masses, pointing this rich nation back in the direction of developing ones. An adjacent possible where the people of Western democracies are able to leverage the power of the network to speak with one un-fragmented voice – as the people of Egypt did a few weeks ago – seems much more unlikely.

Though an anemic state, strong corporate sector, and fragmented civil society seems to be the direction we are currently headed, this is not our certain future. Just as the Arab post-colonial state found itself maladapted to effectively compete with an informed and networked citizenry united with one voice, citizens of the West can also demand that their leaders make sound financial decisions and that those decisions are made in the common interest. Yet it also means changing the Western lifestyle to one we can afford. This means dramatic changes on the personal level. As citizens, we can now raise our voices more effectively than ever, but we still don’t always know what to say.


Private Sites Attack Political Content: Flickr Removes Amn Dawla Content

After Egyptian protesters seized Amn el Dawla documents a flurry of photos have been uploaded on social networking sites and other web platforms including Flickr. Given the volume of the documentation seized it has been difficult to effectively design mechanisms to ensure authenticity and redaction of sensitive personal information. When Flickr removed content from uploaded from a CD of photos taken from state security offices posted by Hossam el Hamalawy (Egyptian blogger arabawy), the site did not mention these issues of authenticity or sensitivity. (Issandr el Amrani details the seizure of files at The Arabist)

Flickr is a site intended for the sharing of photographs, but given the large Flickr community, tagging capabilities, and social network structure the site was used by Hamalawy to post the Amn el Dawla documents. That was until Thursday March 10th when Flickr removed all documents posted by Hamalawy and notified him that the images constituted a breach of community guidelines. The company cited the fact that the documents were not original content created by Hamalawy content and informed him that the entire set, entitled “SS DVD,” was removed.

This seemingly targeted enforcement of Terms of Service raises many questions about the implications of individuals using free (but private) platforms to broadcast and share content that is politically sensitive. These services are private first and public second. While the intentions (and explanations) of Flickr are unclear, what is clear is that activists must diversify their web presence, and consider the advantages of open source hosting that is protected from the whims of private companies. Not only are sites like Flickr forcibly removing content, but companies like Twitter are being forced by court order to share personal details connected to accounts to pursue a case against WikiLeaks. As collaborative efforts using free online services successfully engage with offline political contexts, the willingness of private services (and the governments regulating them) to retain a hands-off approach becomes increasingly less likely.

A Media Narrative of the Tunisian Revolution

I recently had the opportunity to meet Kouraich Jaouahdou. Kouraich owns a communications agency in Tunis, and as a former information-communications expert and organizer of several events highlighting bloggers and other groups acting against Ben Ali, tracked the media elements of the revolution from the beginning. Once the protests began in Tunis, he was also out in the street protesting with his fellow citizens. This is how Kouraich remembers the role of the media in the Tunisian revolution, and as the account of a single individual, there are bound to be inconsistencies and errors of memory. In some instances, I have made changes in Kouraich’s account based on news accounts of events. In these cases I link to the source.

2008: Back to Gafsa

Kouraich begins his account of the Tunisian Revolution not in December of 2010, but in January of 2008. Phosphate is a major Tunisian export and Gafsa, a town in the 90,000, is a key production site. In 2008 it served as the epicenter of protests against the Ben Ali regime, and many protesters were killed.

A friend of Kouraich’s posted a video of the massacre to the site Dailymotion. While the Gafsa massacre did not make the news internationally, this small use of digital media for activism did alert the Ben Ali regime to the political uses of social media. As a result, the regime blocked DailyMotion, YouTube, and later on Facebook. However, protests against the blocking of Facebook causes that one site to be reopened that same year.

Tunisian access to Facebook would prove critical to activists in 2010 and social media would ensure that a silent massacre like Gafsa did not repeat itself.

2010: Mohamed Bouazizi’s Act of Despair

By now the world is familiar with the actions of Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller who set himself on fire outside the local municipal building on December 17th, 2010, in his home town of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia.

That same day, protests began in Sidi Bouzid. Kouraich was not present, but from what he could tell through postings on Facebook and Twitter (a hashtag #sidibouzid quickly emerged) and videos uploaded to YouTube and DailyMotion, the protests seemed not to be organized by institutions, but rather by free agents – “just ordinary people.” This mirrors the pattern of leaderless networked protests in Egypt a few weeks later.

Of course, the Ben Ali regime noticed that protesters were using social media. They had learned in 2008 that blocking Facebook could result in a Streisand Effect, where blocking a popular service actually brought greater attention to the political purposes for which it was banned and was a black eye for the regime. Rather than blocking Facebook they blocked the personal and group pages that Tunisians were using to share content about the protest. Digitally-savvy Tunisians like Kouraich were well-versed in the use of proxy servers, and were still able to view the pages, but for most Tunisians, access was effectively blocked.

Al Jazeera the Amplifier

Previous accounts have mooted the role that Al Jazeera played in amplifying citizen media by re-broadcasting video produced by citizens in Sidi Bouzid and elsewhere, which Kouraich corroborated.

In his TED talk few days ago, Wadah Khanfar, the Director General of the Al Jazeera Network, validated this role explicitly:

We in Al Jazeera were banned in Tunisia for… for years and the governments did not allow any Al Jazeera reporters to be there. But we found that these people in the street all of them are our reporters, feeding our newroom with pictures, with videos, and with news! And suddenly that newsroom in Doha became a center that received all this kind of input from ordinary people, from people who are connected …. And then we took that decision.. we are the voice of these voiceless people, we are going to spread the message.

The Value of Sneakernets

In the town of Kasserine, another Gafsa was in the offing. Protests had spread to this town and security forces had blockaded the citizens inside and several deaths had already occurred. It seemed that the regime was hoping to squash the protests with another brutal massacre.

But this time it was impossible to implement an effective information blockade. Activists took memory cards with video on them and passed them over the border to Algeria, from whence they were transported to Tunis and onto the Internet, where they were picked up by stations like Al Jazeera. The Tunisian government was no longer able to operate in an information vacuum.

The Role of Radio

Television played an important role in raising awareness of protests, but so did radio. In late 2010 two new radio stations were launched in eastern Tunisian and the capital region: Express FM and Shams FM. Though the founders of both had ties to the Ben Ali regime, they were not die-hard loyalists, and the stations hired young and independent journalists who were digital natives. In late December the 29th, 30th, and 31st as Kouraich remembers it – the stations began broadcasting information about the human rights abuses occurring in other parts of the country.

Around the same time Nessma TV, a satellite station based in Tunis, broadcast a forum in which opposition members and activists were allowed to freely explain the situation to the Tunisian public. These figures would never have previously been allowed on national television. The Internet could be seen as starting a domino effect in which more and more media outlets started covering, even on a small scale, the protests against the Ben Ali regime.

Seeing opposition figures on TV and hearing them on the radio served to reduce public fear of the regime, a key turning point in any nonviolent revolution. By the time major protests started in Tunis in late December and early January, thousands were in the streets.

The Phone-to-Computer Network

But the role of social media was not over once news of the protests jumped into the mainstream media. During the protests in Tunis ordinary citizens, now unafraid of Facebook monitoring by the regime, said in the status updates that they were going to the protests, influencing their friends to go as well. On a darker note, Facebook, Twitter, SMS, and digital images were used by citizens to warn of the locations of snipers shooting at protesters , especaailly after Ben Ali escaped, leaving his regime’s armed militia trying to recover the streets.

This online-mobile synergy was another trend in the protests. Sometimes digital analysts like to argue whether the Interet or mobile phones are more important for activism, but in Tunisia computers and mobile phones were merely separate entry points to the same network. People would report sniper positions via SMS or a voice call and then someone sitting in front of a computer would post the information to a Facebook page or tweet it.


The protests in Tunisia reveal three key trends in digital activism:

1. Leaderless Revolutions

In both Tunisa and Egypt we have seen robust protest movements arise online. As Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out, leaderless revolutions do not necessarily stay that way, but the means of leader selection are more democratic than in traditional top-down structures. In a network “meritorious growth” (increased network connections to those who provide value) snowballs through “preferential attachment” (quickly increasing connections for those who are already well-connected).

This is one theory of how Wael Ghonim became the face of the Egyptian Revolution. He was dubbed a leader by the media, but (more significantly) a represenative by the youth movement, not because of top-down patronage but because he inspired the other members of the movement that he was a part of.

Will networked leaders make the transition into the stiff hiercharchies of the state? Will they lose their networks or will their networks change the institutions they enter? Will the networked movements elect traditional politicians to represent them? These are hugely interesting questions which we will see playing out live.

2. The End of Information Vaccuums

It used to be possible for an authoritarian regime to kick out the media and then butcher hordes of its own people through the (often willing) blindness of the international community. As the Chinese and Burmese governments – as well as the Tunisians – have seen recently, even one tourist with a digital camera can bring evidence of an atrocity to international awareness.

The “international community” has also changed. While diplomats have been aware of the atrocities of foreign governments for years and have often made strategic choices not to act, ordinary people may not have such sange-froid. When an atrocity occurs, foreign governments may be pushed by their own citizens and the media to act, even when they otherwise would not.

3. The New Media Domino Effect

During the Cold War, the domino effect referred to the theory enunciated by President Eisenhower that if one country in a region became communist, surrounding countries would follow. The new media domino effect is that if one type of media outlet is broadcasting important information, other media outlets will follow or become obsolete.

This seems to have been the case in Tunisia, where the Internet was the first domino, the freest form of media in an un-free country and the one closest to events on the ground because it was being created by participants in those events. Though state-owned media did not topple in Tunisia, it almost did in Egypt, where anchors on state TV began speaking publicly (though off-air) in support of the protests before Mubarak fell.

As evidence of a new reality becomes harder to ignore, media outlets closer and closer to the regime begin to fall, until the information space is saturated with the alternative narrative of the revolution. Although Muammar Gaddafi says “all my people, they love me” everyone knows he is lying.

Amn Dawla Leaks: Egyptians Use WikiLeaks Model to Publicize State Security Secrets

Though initial hype about a “WikiLeaks Revolution” in Tunisia has largely proven unfounded, the format of open source collection and publication of documentation has obviously inspired Egyptian activists. On Friday March 4th, when the Ministry of the Interior announced that all state security operations were suspended until the Ministry underwent “restructuring,” all staff vacated office buildings. Using this as an opportunity, protesters laid siege to the ministries offices throughout the city to protect against further destruction of potentially incriminating documentation. The debris of shredded paper flooded the offices and images quickly began appearing on photo platforms like Yfrog. Though there have been many rumors circulating about the destruction of documents and several unexplained fires at central government buildings like the Ministry of the Interior and the central Mougamma in Tahrir Square, this was the first visual documentation to surface.

Following this confirmation of document destruction came an unexpected surprise: there were many documents that were still legible, and more importantly, incriminating. Groups of protesters roamed the offices collecting documentation detailing agreements between the government and Gamma Group to hack Skype and email accounts; details about branches of the Ministry particularly targeting human rights groups; torture devices; and many other equally disturbing activities recorded in paper trails.

The data collection was not structured in a way conducive to centralization and as protesters left the scene many took documentation with them. The armed forces called on protesters to return documents to them so that they can be used as a part of a larger investigation into corruption and rights violations, but an online solution to ensure the openness and availability of the information was quickly developed and modeled after WikiLeak’s platform. The Facebook page called “Amn Dawla Leaks” (Arabic for State Security Intelligence) was formed, has been “liked” over 9000 times, and has begun inviting protesters that seized documents to post scanned copies of them online. At the time of this writing 33 documents have been posted. To disseminate the images more widely, the hashtag #AmnDawla was created and currently has been used over 3000 times on Twitter.

Wadah Khanfar: Internet in Revolutionary Context

Speaking at TED a few days ago Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s director-general and a seasoned chronicler of the Middle East, made an excellent contextualized argument for the value of digital activism: not as a cause of change but as a connector, not only as a means of mobilization but as a means of changing perceptions of personal power.

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