Conference Tweets on Egypt’s Democratic Transition

The (conference about the Egyptian) revolution will be tweeted! A full-day conference is being held today at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law on the theme of “Democratic Transition in Egypt” and the proceedings will be tweeted. See below or follow @StanfordCDDRL and the hashtag #ARDEG (Arab Reform and Democracy – Egypt).

In California and Cyberspace, More Democracy Not Always Better

Proposition 8, a recent example of Californian direct democracy.

Social media played a critical role in moving Egypt and Tunisia toward democracy by keeping people informed about protest movements and encouraging them to join. Yet a special report in The Economist this week about the dysfunction of direct democracy in California gives further evidence of how more democracy is not always better. When is democracy too much and how might digitally-assisted democratic processes be different than their analogue predecessors?

California: a Dismal Failure of Increased Democracy

California added the direct democracy processes of referendum, recall, initiative, and proposition to their constitution in the early twentieth century (see below). The initiative – called a proposition once on the ballot – is the most radical in that it allows citizens to make law that cannot be undone by the elected representatives of the legislature. It was an institutional change that greatly increased the power of citizen groups (and later individuals) to make public policy.

As the report shows, this experiment in direct democracy has been a miserable failure for California. Elected representatives have little to legislate about since initiatives like Proposition 13 have tied their hands regarding raising taxes, and 70-90% of the annual budget has become non-discretionary.

Moreover, the initiative process, meant to allow groups of citizens to balance the power of elites, has backfired entirely. Because of the industry of petition-collectors and others that can carry out the logistics of an initiative for the right price, it has actually become a useful tool of the rich elites whose power it was intended to offset. Karen Bass, a former Democratic speaker of the state assembly, notes in the article that “any billionaire can change the state constitution. All he has to do is spend money and lie to people.”

Is Cyberspace Like California?

Like California’s direct democracy, digital activism is a result of a structural change in the political environment. In California, new politically processes were created as amendments to the state constitution, creating new political affordances and constraints. In the digital world, cheap and tremendously effective communication tools were built for economic reasons, but ended up creating political affordances and constraints as well. It in now much easier to share information globally and much harder to create an information vacuum. It is also much easier to track individual communication and much harder to maintain privacy.

If one judges by the reactions of repressive governments, it would seem that they at least view this digital infrastructure as a net gain for democracy – or at least a threatening form of people power. It is repressive regimes that control digital content and services most forcefully, which indicates that they see these services as a threat to their own power. (Though some repressive governments are seeking to use the Internet as a tool in their repression by increasing their online surveillance capacity or propaganda efforts, the first tactic of most repressive governments is to limit and censor the Internet rather than use it to their own advantage.)

Though the sources of their power are different, both Californian direct democracy measures and digital activism have the effect of making citizens more politically powerful and more likely to successfully challenge government power.

In California the result has been poor quality legislation that serves special interests in the short term and is tremendously detrimental to the common interest in the long term. California is frequently crippled by budget crises and, since the initiative free-for-all began in the late seventies, has seen its stellar AAA credit rating has dip to A-, “the worst among all 50 states and not much better than ‘junk’.”‘

People Power ? Democracy: The Problem of Factions

By making it easier for citizens to cheaply and easily share their political views with others, create relationships with like-minded people, collaboratively plan actions as a result of those shared beliefs, recruit others to the cause, and mobilize those supporters to action, digital activism also increases democracy in a very basic way: it makes the people – the “demos” – more powerful, the same intent as the California measures.

Yet more powerful people does not mean better democracy. First there is the problem of factions. In Federalist 10, one of the creators of American democracy, defined factions broadly:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

A faction is not just a special interest minority but also a majority which seeks to dictate to a minority. Unfortunately, digital technology facilitates both.

First, it facilitates the growth of cohesive minority groups as demonstrated by Nicholas Negroponte‘s theory of the “Daily Me”, Cass Sunstein‘s theory of echo chambers, and the “divided they blog” thesis of Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance in their 2005 paper on US political bloggers.

Though the network can also break across group boundaries and increase mutual understanding and xenophilia, through trans-cultural communication methods like “bridge-blogging”, the fact that digital technology eases the creation of groups, which may have narrowly-focuses interests – remains a real problem. Even when digital technology brings together a majority, this majority may still not have the common interest at heart, as Madison noted. In this way, cyberspace suffers the same problem as California by increasing the power of special interests.

Decoupling Money from Power in Cyberspace

Yet there is one way in which digital technology provides a different kind of democratic empowerment than state institutions: it largely decouples money from power. In the case of California, one of the great failings of the direct democracy measures is that their mechanisms – collect signatures, convince voters – can be achieved by hiring petition-management and marketing firms. In fact, lacking the money for such services, as would be the case of a true citizen initiative, would put that initiative at a significant disadvantage. In California, the mechanisms of direct democracy empower the super-rich.

It is different in cyberspace, where near-free communication infrastructure means that the difference in influence between the the rich and the rest is much more muted. The influential voices online come from blogs and (in Egypt) Facebook groups. These platforms are accessible to anyone, and a mix of compelling message and good strategy can lead to influence even without money.

Of course, this does not mean that the rich do not have influence over cyberspace. Cyberspace is populated by people, and these people consume multiple types of media and are the object of multiple online and offline influences. The overwhelming influence of certain special interests on cable TV and talk radio will seep into cyberspace through the content creators whose opinions they influence. It’s a complicated and highly intermixed media environment.


As a structural change in the political opportunity structure, digital technology has a complex and often contradictory effect. While is soothes some political ills, like the communication power of the resource-rich, it exacerbates others, like the ease of faction creation. The final effect of digital technology on democracy is uncertain yet malleable. It is important that we better understand its current effects so that we can make interventions to nudge the political effects of the Internet in a direction that is beneficial for democracy.

e-Mediat: Putting Civil Society 2.0 into Practice

e-Mediat team photo (clockwise from top-left): Chris Blow and Ed Bice from Meedan, Heather Murphy and Heather Ramsey from IIE, a representative of TechSoup, Jessica Dheere and Mohamad Najem of Social Media Exchange (SMEX) Beirut, Beth Kanter, Shradha Balakrishnan of IIE, me, Kit Bartels of Middle East Partnership Initiative, Andrea Burton of Meedan. (photo: Beth Kanter)

In November of 2009, Secretary of State Clinton announced her “Civil Society 2.0” strategy which aims to “help grassroots organizations around the world use digital technology.”   A corollary of the more controversial Internet Freedom agenda, Civil Society 2.0 aims to use digital technology in a way even Internet Freedom cynics like Evgeny Morozov might support – as a tool for strengthening civil society by identifying existing institutions that are already stakeholder group for political accountability and provide a digital skill set to strengthen it.

But how do you operationalize this strategy?  The Department of State, through the Middle East Partnership Initiative, has provided approximately $5 million in funding to a small number of projects to provide this training.  I am a consultant one of the largest, a project by the Institute for International Education to provide training to over 100 grassroots organizations in Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon, and Morocco.

Along with nonprofit tech guru Beth Kanter and Jessica Dheere and Mohamad Najem of Social Media Exchange Beirut (SMEX), I’ll be training a group of local trainers from these countries, who in turn will be responsible for training NGOs in their own countries.   We know that in order to create stability be need to link these NGOs with local resources, so in addition to developing a cohort of local trainers, we’ll also be working to develop outreach strategy that connect local techies to the NGOs in their own countries.

We are starting this project at an interesting time.  During the course of our meetings we learned about – and eagerly tracked – action on the ground in Tunisia.   e-Mediat is working in the context of a rich environment of regional activists, digital and traditional.  We seek to find a niche where we can do some good.

The Price of Revolution

Beyond the specifics of Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, Ukraine in 2004, or the Philippines in 2001, what is the global effect of digital technology on revolutions?

Digital networks are a structural factor that decrease the costs of revolution. Authoritarian regimes respond with ever more repressive practices that send their countries in two possible directions. The first is successful totalitarianism, � la North Korea or Turkmenistan. The second and, I think, the more likely, is a repressive spiral in which increased repression causes a decrease in regime legitimacy and revolution or democratic opening becomes the most likely outcome. Here’s how it works:

Scenario 1: Pre-Digital Era

In the pre-digital era (figure at left), the supply of revolutionary means was fairly low. Media was centralized and could thus be fairly easily controlled by the state. If people wanted to meet and discuss the political status quo critically they had to do it in the physical world, which was difficult. Those few who did oppose the regime had little means to share that message to bring others to their way of thinking, let alone actually mobilizing a movement. And meeting to plan actions to actively challenge the political status quo was positively dangerous.

As a result, the price of revolution remained high, as it was both difficult and dangerous, and as a result the number of revolutions in authoritarian states was moderate. They were some spectacular successes, like the end of the Soviet Union, but other non-democratic states, like theocratic Iran, communist China, and the Soviet successor states of Central Asia, formed and consolidated.

Scenario 2: Digital Era – Present Revolutions

In the digital era, the supply of revolutionary means has increased, and we are just beginning to feel the effects. These new “revolutionary means” are the low-cost networked technologies available through mobile and Internet infrastructure. Media is now decentralized and, though censorship is in force in many states, communication is now more difficult to control than when all mass media was capital-intensive and centralized. If people want to meet and discuss the political status quo critically they can do it on a range of content-sharing platforms, from blogs to Facebook groups to Twitter. Those few who did oppose the regime now have many means to share that message to bring others to their way of thinking, and these tools are also useful in mobilizing people to form a movement.

While surveillance means that it is still dangerous to organize online, a range of encryption and circumvention tools has made anonymous communication possible to a degree that was impossible when communication was limited to real-world meetings, land-line phone, and paper. The Internet is a bonanza for government watchers, but mostly because those they are watching are not savvy enough to use available technologies to protect themselves.

As a result of this range of new technologies, the price of revolution has been lowered (by how much we do not yet know). Revolution has has become both less difficult through the introduction of communication tools and less dangerous through the introduction of anonymity tools. As a result, the number of revolutions in non-democratic states has somewhat increased. The Arab Spring and the list at the beginning of this post does not comprise the sum total of examples of this trend, but rather the beginning of one.

Scenario 3: Digital Era – The Empires Strike Back

Of course, the autocrats of the world are not going to sit idly by and let this happen. They are going to try to push the price of revolution up again by making it more difficult and more dangerous. As the price of revolution increases, quantity of revolution demanded decreases. This means that the government seeks to keep the price of revolution high (difficult and dangerous), while the opposition seeks to make the price lower (easier and safer).

The first thing repressive governments will do to raise the price of revolution again is to try to remove the structural factor of the Internet, the factor which initially reduced their price. We are seeing this phenomena already as countries from China to Uganda blocking access to social media or seeking to do so.

However, this attempt to turn back the clock on technology is unlikely to succeed. Their citizens have taste for it and censoring social media too strongly may only serve to politicize the currently apolitical social media majority who wish only to share photos of their pets and vacations.

So these government must try to increase the price of revolution in other ways, most specifically by driving down demand. How does one drive down demand for revolution? First, increase demand for the status quo (“the one-party state brings economic prosperity!”). This is a winning gambit and clearly popular in China. The second option is to intimidate the population so that they are afraid to act on their existing revolutionary demand. This means making high-profile arrests of opposition figures (the recent arrest of Ai Weiwei) and instituting more robust surveillance to identify and intercept the politically motivated (don’t say the word “protest” on a cell phone in Beijing).

If governments succeed in censoring the Internet and decreasing the supply of the means of digital revolution, then the supply curve will shift to the left (S3), resulting in a slightly higher price of revolution (P3) and lower quantity of revolution demanded (Q3). Put another way, by decreasing supply of the digital means of revolution through filtering, intimidation, self-censorship and the like, revolution has become more dangerous and difficult (more “expensive”) than when the Internet was unfettered, and as a result demand for revolution has decreased.

Scenario 4: Digital Era – Revolutionary Demand Rises

The problem is that “intimidating the population so that they are afraid to act on their revolutionary demand” may actually increase that demand by making the current regime seem more unjust and out of step with the interests of the people. The current government seems less legitimate, the status quo seems less appealing, and a revolutionary alternative seems moreso.

Even though the price of revolution (P4) has not changed (it has not become any safer or easier), demand for revolution has increased, which means that quantity of revolution demanded has increased (Q4). Although the price of freedom is still higher than before the digital crack-down, the quantity of freedom demanded is higher than in all previous scenarios.

It is not a new dynamic for an autocrat to seek to stabilize his rule through increased repression, which in turn makes him more odious to his people and thus less stable. However, the Internet and related networked technologies are a new structural factor that can set this dynamic in motion, and this is a dynamic that favors a revolutionary or change outcome.

There are probably limits to this analogy as there are ways in which social movements differ from the market equilibrium model (hell, even economics differs from the market equilibrium model). Nevertheless, I think this is a useful exercise in exploring the macro effects of digital technology as a structural factor in revolution.

Rebels in the Fortress: Personal Power and Hierarchical Control

Bradley Manning made a lot of trouble for the US government. P.J. Crowley didn’t help the situation. And Phillippa Thomas‘ blog made sure that everyone knew about it. The interesting thing is that these PR nightmares are connected and they’re evidence of challenges that the digital network poses to fortress-like hierarchical organizations like the US government. By increasing the power of the individual to make news and gain influence, toeing the party line becomes less appealing, making it more difficult for hierarchies to keep their people in check.

Manning, Crowley, Thomas, (& Social Media) Put the President in a Tight Spot

As most people now know, Bradley Manning, a lowly army private, was arrested in 2010 on suspicion of having passed restricted material to the website WikiLeaks, including the “Collateral Murder” video and thousands of US diplomatic cables. He still sits in prison awaiting a possible court martial.

P.J Crowley was quite a bit higher up. Until he was forced to resign in mid-March, he was Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, an official spokesman for the State Department. On March 10th he made a comment at a small seminar at MIT, saying that Manning’s detention was “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid,” a direct admonishment of US policy and an odd comment for an official government spokesperson.

Philippa Thomas, a BBC reporter taking a sabbatical at Harvard, happened to be attending the seminar. She also happened to have recently created a basic blog as part of a class assignment at the Kennedy School: She asked Crowley if his comment was on the record. He said it was. She blogged the story. Though she did tip off BBC’s North America editor Mark Mardell via phone, she broke the story on her blog. A tweet by Mardell brought 17,000 hits and launched the story.

That was a Thursday. On Friday, President Obama personally rebutted Crowley’s claim at a press conference. On Sunday, Crowley resigned.

When Resignation and Imprisonment Aren’t the End of the Story

And yet Crowley hasn’t lost his influence. In fact, the resignation dust-up probably brought him greater name recognition. He began tweeting while he was at the State Department and has continued to do so. He voices his opinion on issues ranging from Qaddafi’s extradition to US policy towards North Korea.

And the folks back at the State Department aren’t so happy about it. An anonymous source reported to TechPresident that Crowley looks like he’s tweeting on behalf of the Obama administration and they aren’t so happy that he took his 25,000 followers with him when he left – especially since he only started his account after he became State Department spokesman.

Though in prison, Crowley has a large following, and the petition organization Avaaz recently collected half a million signatures demanding that the “torture, isolation and public humiliation of Bradley Manning” end.

The Barbarians Aren’t at the Gate, They’re Already Inside

So what does this all mean? It’s not only the network VS. the hierarchy, it’s the network IN the hierarchy. In December of last year I wrote a post on the seven effects of networks on hierarchies, ranging from helpful amplifiers to threatening “pirates”. That post was largely inspired by Mark Pesce’s talk at PdF 2009 on competition between hierarchical organizations, like the Church of Scientology, and networked organizations, like Wikipedia. (Anonymous vs. MasterCard provides a more recent example).

Yet as the case of Manning, Crowley, and Thomas shows, individuals are not in networks OR in hierarchies, they are most often members of both. Manning was a soldier of the United States Army (is there a more rigidly hierarchical structure than the military?), but he also liked to chat with Wikileaks activists. Crowley was a spokesman for the State Department, but he also had a large following on Twitter. Thomas was an employee of the BBC (albeit on sabbatical), but she was also a blogger.

Governments and corporations need to worry about shadowy networked organizations like terrorist cells and hacker groups, but they also need to worry about the networks of their own employees. Not only does the Internet connect these employees to independent means of broadcasting information to a large audience, it also provides an alternate source of incentives. Manning is surely miserable now but, before his arrest, he viewed himself as a public servant and a “hacktivist,” sharing information that ought to be in the public domain. Crowley likewise has found an alternate source of support and esteem. After his resignation he tweeted:

I am humbled by the support and encouragement. I will keep tweeting on global issues. There is still lots to say about BFF#NorthKorea. 🙂

Yes, a public figure forced to resign from a prestigious government post just tweeted a smiley-face. And the fortress wobbles.

Approaches to Studying Net Freedom: Freedom House & The OpenNet Initiative

Yesterday Freedom House, which conducts comparative studies of democracy around the world, released Freedom on the Net 2011: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media. The 400-page tome is composed mostly of detailed reports of 37 countries, “a representative sample with regards to geographical diversity and economic development, as well as varying levels of political and media freedom.” It also includes an overview essay and some pretty info-graphics.

It is clear that a lot of work by very bright and serious people went into this report, but I am not sure that the total is greater than the sum of its parts. The overview essay did not reveal much new information, touching on the key elements of online censorship that are already well-known: a closing of the Internet following the hayday of online freedom in the mid-nineties, offline persecution to match online blocks, implementation of censorship by ISPs. It’s a good summary, but doesn’t break any new ground.

It is inevitable that comparisons will be drawn with the OpenNet Initiative, the multi-institutional consortium that is currently the institution of record for tracking online censorship around the world. At last count, ONI tracks sixty countries, nearly twice an many as the Freedom House study. They do, however, track Internet freedom (or lack thereof) in different ways. Here are their respective indices for cross-country comparison:

The OpenNet Initiative’s Indices:

  • Political: Filtering of Web sites that express views in opposition to those of the current government, also human rights, freedom of expression, minority rights, and religious movements.
  • Social: Filtering of material related to sexuality, gambling, and illegal drugs and alcohol, other topics that may be socially sensitive or perceived as offensive.
  • Conflict/Security: Filtering of content related to armed conflicts, border disputes, separatist movements, and militant groups.
  • Internet Tools: Web sites that provide e-mail, Internet hosting, search, translation, Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone service, and circumvention methods.
  • Transparency of filtering policy.
  • Consistency of filtering policy over time.

Freedom House’s Indices:

  • Obstacles to Access: insufficient infrastructure, price, event-specific filtering, business access, freedom of Internet regulators.
  • Limits on Content: Extent of filtering, content deletion, transparency, user self-censorship, influence of government and interest groups on accessible online content, economic constraints, diversity of viewpoints online, mobilization use.
  • Violations of User Rights: legal protection of freedom of online speech, laws punishing online activities, detentions, restrictions on anonymous communication, surveillance, ISP cooperation with the government, extra-legal intimidation, technical violence/cyber attacks.

The OpenNet Initiative’s indices currently tracks only “filtering,” the blockage of online content. They divide the types of content blocked into three types: political, social, and conflict. They also have two separate macro measures on how filtering is administered by governments, asking if that policy is transparent and consistent.

Freedom House is more ambitious in the phenomena they seek to record in their indices, but this diversity of scope leads to somewhat muddled indices (see “Checklist of Questions” at the end of the report). One has the distinct sense that they started with a range of phenomena that they wanted to measure and then were forced to divide them into three indices, like the Freedom House’s flagship annual study, Freedom in the World, which has two indices, political rights and civil liberties, which result in a freedom status score.

There is certainly a rich range of phenomena being tracked, from self-censorship of activists to the freedom of the bodies that regulate the Internet, but the way that quite different factors are combined muddies the final score. If one is looking at an Obstacles to Access score of 15, does that reflect poor quality infrastructure, high prices for a dial-up subscription, or that the government turned off the Internet during the last election? Though ONI measures less they measure it more clearly. Their scores track less factors, making the connection between the score and the phenomena clearer.

I am glad that Freedom House is now tracking Internet freedom. Last year they tracked 15 countries and this year they tracked 37, indicating that they one day hope to create an Internet Freedom index with a global scope, perhaps similar to their Freedom in the World surveys. However, I still think they have work to do in creating clear and compelling indices to measure Internet freedom. Either more indices or fewer factors may be the way to go.


Training Young Leaders at Students United!

Today I trained a great group of young leaders from the public higher education system in Massachusetts.  The training was part of Students United!, a conference that brought these students together to learn about activism and increase their own power in defending higher education funding in their state. I lead four 30-minute sessions which began with the group creating their own definition of digital activism, a strategy presentation by me, and a group activity where students decided how to apply social media tools. The slides from my presentation are below.

Sessions began with each group creating their own definition of digital activism.

Participants during the small group exercise.

The Russian Cyber-Dystopia Under Threat

Digital slacktivist Alexey Navalny does nothing but look out the window all day.

The cyber-dystopian thesis of Evgeny Morozov’s book The Net Delusion has taken quite a drubbing thanks to the inconvenient Arab Spring, which began shortly after his book was published. Yet the problem of effective digital activism is not limited to the Middle East and North Africa. The cyber-dystopian ideal, founded on the principles of censorship, surveillance, and propaganda, is under threat in Russia as well, where the government’s elegant policy of cyber-hedonism and breast-centric web programming is not successfully defeating the dangerous forces of digital activism. I think I just became disillusioned.

Not only does research by the Berkman Center’s Internet & Democracy Project indicate that the Russian government’s online propaganda is not drawing much of a following (“pro-government bloggers are not especially prominent [in the Russian blogosphere] and do not constitute their own cluster”), but there are actual digital activists not – not! – engaging in meaningless slacktivism but actually calling government officials to account in powerful crowdsourced projects. The New Yorker reports:

Alexey Navalny, a lawyer and blogger known for his crusade against the corruption that pervades Russian business and government… cuts a striking figure, and in the past three years he has established himself as a kind of Russian Julian Assange or Lincoln Steffens. On his blog, he has uncovered criminal self-dealing in major Russian oil companies, banks, and government ministries, an activity he calls “poking them with a sharp stick.”

Three months ago, he launched another site, RosPil, dedicated to exposing state corruption, where he invites readers to scrutinize public documents for evidence of malfeasance and post their findings…. Since RosPil started, it has registered more than a thousand users and five hundred experts. According to a tally maintained on the site, the project has caused requests for tender worth 188.4 million rubles, or $6.6 million, to be annulled….

Last fall, when Moscow was waiting for the Kremlin to appoint its new mayor, Russia’s leading newspaper, Kommersant, held an informal online election for the post. Navalny won in a landslide, with forty-five per cent of the vote.

Yes, very impressive, Mr. Navalny. You appear to be using digital technology to defund corrupt projects across your country while using a mere blog to become an influential public figure. But I won’t give up on my cyber-dystopianism. I know that the Internet has great potential to give dictators the upper hand in their noble battle to defeat the forces of democracy. I refuse to give up hope.

Message Jamming: 7 Methods of Signal Disruption

Now that the masses have access to mass communication, there are not only more opportunities to create messages, but also to jam them. When governments try to jam messages we call it censorship, but this is only one form of message jamming. Here are seven methods of message jamming that can be used by activists or governments/elites.

1) Stop the Message

Mechanism: Stopping the message means placing a block between the message and the audience. It is a form of censorship that includes putting blocks within the network architecture to prevent certain words, articles, and even entire sites from being accessed by a certain population. Most governments that censor use these mechanisms, which function automatically and are easy to implement at the national level. There are even nice Western technology firms who have created software to make it easier.

Counter-Action: Activists and citizens can use proxies, onion routers, and VPNs to circumvent these blocks.

Advantage: Governments. Even though savvy users can get around censorship, most citizens remain blocked.

2) Stop the Messenger

Mechanism: Repressive regimes are not satisfied with blocking the transmission of dangerous messages. They want to stop these messages at the source, which means stopping the messenger. There are several ways to stop the messenger from transmitting messages, including threats and intimidation, resulting in self-censorship, or physically cutting activists off from the means of transmission. This can be achieved by separating the means of transmission from the activist (turning off the Internet or SMS services) or by separating the activist from the means of transmission (imprisonment and illegal detention).

Counter-Action: Find work-arounds. In a case in which the infrastructure is cut off from the activists one can replace Internet communication with fax or access the net through international dial-up modems. In a case in which the activist is cut off from the infrastructure one can find creative ways to get the message out, such as blogging from jail by writing posts on pieces of paper and passing them to friends on the outside.

Advantage: Governments, again. Savvy activists can get their messages out but, for most people, Internet shut-down or imprisonment does stop the messenger.

3) Delegitimize the Message

Mechanism: If the message and the messenger cannot be effectively stopped, they need to be rendered non-threatening. One way to do this is to make the message less appealing. For example, in the US, when a public health care option sounded pretty appealing, Sarah Palin re-defined it as “death panels” (a very “sticky” idea). In this troublingly effective 2009 statement she took an idea that seemed appealing and cost-effective and re-defined it as “evil” in a few sentences:

The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care, but as the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost. And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

Counter-Action: Coming up with a “stickier” definition of your message than your opponent, the back and forth ends when one side’s definition of the idea sticks.

Advantage: No one. It’s a rhetorical game and no one has a monopoly in coming up with sticky definitions.

4) Delegitimize the Messenger

Mechanism: If a message is a threat, it is probably a threat because it is somehow appealing on its own merit, so while a repressive government could argue the merits of “down with the dictator,” they usually don’t. Rather than delegitimize the message, they delegitimize the messenger. For example, during the recent revolution, the Egyptian government forced Vodaphone to send out this SMS to all its subscribers, defining the pro-democracy activists as “traitors and criminals” and government supporters as “honest and loyal men.” It’s pretty textbook:

The Armed Forces asks Egypt’s honest and loyal men to confront the traitors and criminals and protect our people and honor and our precious Egypt.

Counter-Action: The messenger is in a harder position here than with message delegitimization, because not one message, but every message he/she transmits is tainted by association. This makes it harder to fire back and redefine the message in their favor.

Advantage: No one. Neither government nor activists have a monopoly over character assassination. Both can use the tactic effectively. In fact, activists may even see their legitimacy rise if they are the subject of attempted character assassination by an unpopular government.

5) Impersonate the Messenger

Mechanism: Why defeat your opponent when you can impersonate him/her and transmit your own messages in their place? It is tough though as it takes perseverance and skill to impersonate one’s target and one also has to be convincing enough not to be immediately debunked. During the 2009 Iran election protests, a number of Twitter accounts were set up for the seeming purpose of confusing activists and observers and encouraging the former towards violence. Identified by TwitSpam:

  • (Using fake RT to spread disinfo)
  • (posing fake RTs; disinfo)
  • (Was preaching violence & destruction in all caps; now updates are protected)
  • (Alternating between a false report of Mousavi death and spam about iPhones)

A particularly ingenious use of impersonation was carried out by the Pakistani government when they (accidentally…hmmm) asked a national ISP to set their DNS servers to impersonate, thus erroneously re-routing millions of page requests around the world.

Counter-Action: Publicly debunk the impostor or overwhelm disinformation with accurate information, either from multiple sources or from a single trusted source.

Advantage: Governments, slightly. In an age where activists as well as the government can shout loudly, it is not so difficult to debunk or overwhelm the impostor, making it difficult for government agents to impersonate activists. However, it is much harder for activists to impersonate the government.

6) Dilute the Message

Mechanism: If you cannot stop or delegitimize the message/messenger or impersonate the messenger, then you might as well try to dilute the message so much that it is drowned out. Yes, there are a lot of water analogies for this one. The basic idea is to shout louder that your opponent such that your opponent’s message no longer has the attention of the public and you are able to define whatever the subject is by flooding (there’s another one) the public space with your own messages.

There are many good examples of this, but one of my favorites is the case of the Westboro Baptist Church, which protests funerals with posters of virulently hateful messages. In the action pictured above, counter-protesters appear to be attempting to drown out the Westboro protesters with their own signs that simultaneously mock (delegitimize) and dilute the hateful message.

Counter-Action: Scream louder. Push your message out over more platforms, particularly ones that are more influential.

Advantage: Governments unfortunately have greater access to influential channels (network TV, print media, etc) than activists do.

7) Co-Opt the Message

Mechanism: This is the last option, only one step removed from utter defeat. To co-opt your opponent’s message is to say “yes, the message is right, but it’s our message so we should get the credit.” This is the dictator extolling the benefits of democracy when he’s been forced to hold a free and fair election.

Counter-Action: There is no counter-action as the opponent has effectively won.

Advantage: Since this is the last recourse of the rhetorical loser, no one who uses it has the advantage any more.


Of the seven methods, governments have the advantage in four (stop the message/messenger, dilute the message, impersonate the message) and neither activists nor the government has an advantage in two (delegitimize the message/messenger). Activists don’t yet have the advantage in any tactic, but they should seek to drive governments into tactical battles of delegitimization, where activists have more of a fighting chance. Where censorship and message dilution are prevalent, activists are in a distinctly inferior position.

(UPDATED, mostly to correct typos.)

7 Activist Uses of Digital Tech (Slides)

I just finished presenting a webinar for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict on the seven activist functions of digital technology, illustrated with examples from the recent revolution in Egypt.  The full slide-deck is below.

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