Stories for Mobilization: Bouazizi, Said, and Al-Khateeb


Social movement theory tells us that in order to take part in a political action a person needs to feel both outrage at the status quo and hope that it can change. But what tips the scales? What makes a complacent or apolitical person dissatisfied with the current system? What makes a cynical or fearful person believe that change is possible?

A series of dramatic mobilizations during the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria indicate that successful mobilization may depend more on increasing outrage than in decreasing cynicism and fear. In these three cases we have seen stories of brutally unjust human rights abuses on individuals bring people into the streets in dramatic fashion.

The three stories are well-known to us by now. The Arab Spring began with the Tunisian Revolution and the Tunisian Revolution began with the self-immolation of the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. In Egypt, the murder of Khaled Said by the police served as a rallying point for dissent that later shifted and grew into a call for regime change. In Syria, the torture and murder of 13 year old Hamza Al-Khateeb by Airforce Intelligence brought thousands into the streets despite a vicious government crackdown and gave new energy to a protest movement.

All three were young men, somehow killed by the government, even when it was by a suicidal act of desperation. Their stories expressed the daily indignities of life in an unfree society in the most graphic terms: in each case the body was violently disfigured and these shocking images were seen by many of the countries’ citizens on the Internet and on cable channels like Al Jazeera.

Why did these stories move so many people to risk their own lives by demanding freedom? What makes this narrative powerful?

  1. Mixes the personal with the universal: The three young men reminded every old man of his grandson, every woman of her son, every child of her brother, every young man of himself. In this way, the stories affected each individual at a personal level and also affected every individual at a personal level. This is what revolutions are made of.
  2. Symbolically threatens the apolitical: The fact that police tortured prisoners unjustly was well-known in Egypt. In fact, the country had a well-developed anti-torture movement before the revolution. The regime tortured activists, yes, trouble-makers. But if you keep your head down, if you ignore the injustices you see, if you never take any political action, you can get by. These three stories demonstrated a symbolic threat even to citizens who were apolitical, to people just trying to live their lives. When the apolitical feel there they cannot be safe in the status quo, their desire to protect it decreases and pent-up grievances seem more salient. All this makes participation in a political action more likely.
  3. Fits a powerful cultural frame: Most of what works about these stories is universal: kinship, injustice, innocence, outrage. Yet relevant cultural frames also increase the resonance of a story for a given audience. All three of these young men were called “martyrs” (shahid,???? ). In the Middle East the term is frequently used for political mobilization to position the departed as part of a greater fight against injustice, as someone who died for a cause. In Arabic, the same word is used for “martyr” and “witness” because in Islam a martyr is said to have died as an act of witnessing truth and righteousness, and is thus blessed. Linking these stories to powerful religious beliefs and political narratives gave them even more power.
  4. Visual and shocking: To a population accustomed to state corruption and violence, even news of atrocities cease to shock. What made the stories of Bouazizi, Said, and Al-Khateeb resonant was not only that they were unusually brutal – self-immolation, a public beating, a child murder by torture – but also that the unusual brutality was visible through photos and video of the bodies after the fact. This made the atrocity credible in countries of official lies and propaganda and also had a visceral emotion effect. Seeing the pictures is far more painful than hearing about them and this also increased grievance against the regime to a fever pitch.
  5. Mass awareness: Finally, because of digital and independent international media, vast numbers of people were exposed to these images and stories. Even a decade ago, these stories would have moved the few people that heard of them from a neighbors, but would not have been capable of mobilizing nations. Today that is possible. The plot is not complicated. The image speaks for itself, and in a world where a piece of content can “go viral,” that is all that is needed.

It is also important to note that these stories not only aided the cause of dissidents, they are backfired on repressive governments. Repressive governments are not brutal by chance, they are brutal by choice. They are brutal because they seek to intimidate, because they hope to balance outrage with fear. No matter how unhappy a citizen is with the current system, he will be too afraid to take action. Yet these actions backfired against the regimes: they increased outrage more than they increased fear. They made the status quo seem so intolerable that the average individual became more fearful of the status quo than he was of change. This is the key shift from the apolitical to the political mindset: the status quo becomes more intolerable than the risk of trying to change it.

Unfortunately – or fortunately – these stories are hard to manufacture. They arise in the violence of repressive regimes and it is up to activists to be aware of them and to use them. There is of course the question of exploitation: was the memory of Bouazizi, Said, and Al-Khateeb used for the selfish purposes of political dissidents? Certainly this is an ethical issue to be aware of. Yet, in these three cases, by making these young men symbols of revolution and freedom their respective movements did not depersonalize them. They reaffirmed the dignity and humanity that repression had tried unsuccessfully to take from them.


Crowdsourcing the Constitution?

Egypt is alive with vibrant political discourse, action, organizing and hope. While much attention has recently been focused on the “constitution first” campaign run by activists (with a Tahrir rally promised on July 8th by opponents of holding elections before writing a new constitution), debate on the constitution itself proceeds apace (although today’s news suggest the elections may indeed be postponed until December). Two digitally-based initiatives for crowdsourcing the constitution have taken shape. The first, under the auspices of the Hisham Mubarak Legal Center, is called “Let’s Write Our Constitution,” and is hosted online by a Google group here. One of the participants there is my friend the journalist Mohamed El-Gohary, now with the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, which played a substantial role in reporting on regime abuses between 2006 and the revolution. The other is spearheaded by the Cloud to Street project, working with the Baradei presidential campaign. It uses an innovative software platform that allows participants to debate various possible constitutional amendments, including a potential bill of rights advanced by the Baradei campaign itself. Both of these projects, whatever their outcome, support Benkler’s argument that the new information environment supports enhanced individual participation in the public sphere via many-to-many conversations.

It should be noted that popular (i.e. non-elite digirati) opinion of these struggles appears to be dimming. Fahmy Howeidi, one of Egypt’s longstanding opinion columnists and social arbiters, skewers the debate today (Ar.) in Shorouq and argues, “First, the poor.” The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) may indeed delay elections, but the biggest challenge facing all Egyptians, as Howeidi rightly notes, is not necessarily the shape of the constitution, but rather the plight of destitute Egyptians facing ever-direr economic circumstances.

It Takes Two : The Challenge of Scaled Hybridity Analysis

Digital activism: an intricate dance of online and offline factors

Though they often use it as a weapon against each other, cyber-optimists and cyber-pessimists agree on one thing: digital activism cannot be effective without connecting back to the real world. Because all our institutions of power still exist offline, in order to influence real-world outcomes, digital actions must have real-world effects. Yet we are far more empirical in our study of online activity than of offline context, resulting in an incomplete picture of digital activism as a whole.

In their forthcoming book chapter, “Contingency and Hybridity in Advocacy Networks: Implications of the Egyptian Protest Movement,” Christopher Wilson and Alix Dunn of The Engine Room make a case for the importance of analysis both online and offline factors – a methodology they call hybridity. While needing to weigh both online and offline factors is not new, they are trying to systematize this type of analysis:

Though intuitively of great importance, there has been little study of the joint mobilization of digital and traditional media, or communication bridging digital and grounded networks, and what consequences this might have for how we understand the interaction between online and offline activity in digital advocacy. The characteristic of hybridity is an attempt to counteract this inattention, by identifying objects of analysis in which online and offline activity interact per se, in which that interaction is measurable and comparable, and in which that interaction is meaningful.

Subjective Hybridity: Case Studies

While all researchers – and even casual analysts – know intuitively that they must consider offline context and consequences when analyzing digital activism, scaling hybridity analysis is one of the great challenges of digital activism research.

At one end of the spectrum, we have case studies that do an excellent job of hybridity analysis, but in most hybrid case studies N=1 and only a single instance is analyzed. Most case studies are also stronger on qualitative than quantitative data, because it is easier for the untrained analyst to work with, but there are also examples quantitative case studies, like Zeynep Tufekci’s work on preferential attachment on Twitter during the Egyptian revolution, which is more empirical than most qualitative case study work because it follows the exigencies of network science. Still, the amount of offline context included is up to the writer of the individual case study.

There are also large-N hybrid studies, based mostly on the collections of qualitative case study and anecdote, like the work of Clay Shirky and Evgeny Morozov. In their work, Shirky and Morozov consider hybridity through personal interpretation and analysis, as is the case with the writers of N=1 case studies, of which their work is composed. Both do a good job of hybridity, though they create their own standards about what information about offline context to include and analyze.

Empirical Non-Hybridity: Quantitative Analysis of Digital Data

At the other end of the spectrum we have large-N analyses of online phenomena, like the Berkman Center’s country blogosphere maps and the Web Ecology Project’s analysis of Iranian protest tweets that mix qualitative content analysis with quantitative analysis of link behavior and frequency. These studies are exhaustive, and thus statistically significant, in analyzing all available data without the narrow scope of the study. In these cases offline context is considered, but not using the methodological rigor and thoroughness of the analysis of online content.

Why Empirical Hybridity is Hard

Simply put, hybridity analysis of large-N data sets is hard. Why? Here are the main challenges:

  1. Ease/Difficulty of Information Access: A tweet, by its very nature, is made public online, and thus easy for a researcher to grab. Information about strategic thinking and other factors of causality and outcome are less likely to be published for reasons of self-protection, lack of motivation, or time constraint. While much data about online actions can be collected using a simple scraping program, the same is rarely true of information about offline political economy.
  2. Differences in Marginal Cost of Data Collection: Thousands of tweets can be collected easily by a scraper. The marginal additional effort to record an extra tweet is vanishingly small, and is measured in computing time or server cost, not in researcher time or effort. In fact, for online data, the marginal cost of collecting an additional piece of data decreases for each additional tweet. If you spend 2 hours setting up a scraping program, that number does not increase whether you collect 100 tweets or 10,000. The financial cost is also low. Collecting offline data is quite different. It may take hours to track down one tweeter to interview and that interview may not even be probative. It may be necessary to travel to the location of the event, a great financial expense.
  3. Different Levels of Abstraction: Larry Lessig defines digital as “perfect copies, freely made,” a boon to researchers. Tweet and Facebook postings are encoded uniformly and have a limited range of content types. The data can be copied directly to a spreadsheet without the need for abstraction, alteration, or interpretation. With the help of software, every tweet with the hashtag #Jan25 can be individually analyzed in its complete and original form. A strategy or outcome, on the other hand requires significant interpretation on the part of the researcher and activist. Even if the researcher is quoting the activist directly, the questions asked will shape the type of information obtained. The activist herself may forget, misinterpret, or withhold information. In addition, some important contextual variables, like the relative power of different political actors, can only be comparatively quantified in the extreme abstract, with available information dramatically flattened and subjectively interpreted. Digital information comes in pre-packaged and copy-able analytic units of binary code. The same cannot be said for many types of offline information, much of which is lost at the moment of capture because of the complexity of offline phenomena and the limits of the ability of the researcher to perceive and accurately record (symbolize) all information.
  4. Ethical Concerns: Activists may unwisely publish personal data, but if the researcher records and analyses that data, it does not put the activist in any additional danger, or at the very least is working with the same information as repressive governments. By seeking offline information, however, the researcher runs the risk of making public what was previously private and putting the activist at risk. It would be foolish and irresponsible to try to conduct in-person interviews with digital activists in Bahrain or Syria right now, but even remote interview techniques, like Skype or email questionnaires, may be tracked by the authorities and used to persecute activists. Sometime offline data is not only difficult to obtain, it is also dangerous to do so.

Suggestions on Hybridity Methodology

How do we scale and systematize hybridity analysis beyond the N=1 of the case study? Here are some ideas:

  1. Study Groups of Case Studies: The easiest and cheapest (in time and money) way to scale hybridity analysis is to study groups of case studies. Since any case study worth its salt weighs online and offline factors, comparing large numbers of case studies will result in large data sets that also have the characteristic of hybridity. This is one of the methodological principles behind our Global Digital Activism Data Set. This methodology is far from perfect, of course. There is little regularity in the way digital activism case studies are written, making comparability difficult. Even when the same questions are asked of each case study during a coding process, some cases will provide that information more completely than others, and in some it will be totally absent or conflicting. So even if groups of case studies are subjected to uniform analysis, they may not all include the information necessary to provide equally reliable information across cases. The level of abstraction is also high, and so is the subjectivity of the hybridity of each case. Still, I think this is a good place to start. Reaching consensus on the type of information a digital activism case study should contain will also make this type of work easier.
  2. Automate the Collection of Offline Data: One of the problems of collecting offline information is that it is expensive and time-consuming to the researcher. In order to scale this type of work, researchers should find ways to automate this type of data collection wherever possible. For example, rather than interviewing an activists personally, the researcher could direct multiple activists to an online questionnaire that includes questions designed to capture the unanticipated, as in an in-person interview. Having all activists answer the same questionnaire could also improve comparability. Though there might be a lower conversion rate, a system of incentives, even payment, could be developed to encourage activists to complete the form. Methodologies like this would allow interviewing to be less costly in both time and money, lowering the bar to entry into this type of research and increasing the number of activists interviewed.
  3. Be Creative with Online Data: Some offline questions can be answerable by the creative and skilled analysis of online data – just ask the repressive governments that search activists’ Facebook friend networks in search of their offline collaborators. In other cases information about offline context is recorded online and can be scraped. We need to think more deeply about what kinds of questions about offline context can be answered through the analysis of online data and what the best methodologies are.
  4. A Digital Efficiency Does Not Always Exist: Sometimes it will not be possible to automate offline data collection or reveal this information through analysis of online sources. Sometimes it will simply be necessary to get on a plane and spend painstaking hours interviewing activists in situ or using other methods of offline data collection. The Internet age has made instant and low-cost omni-presence the default, but sometimes analog research methods – time-consuming and expensive though they are – are still the only way to get the whole story.

Finding Methodologies to Meet the Exigencies of Empiricism

The uniformity of digital data, compared to the messiness of offline data, encourage collection of large-N digital data sets and discourages (or does not facilitate) the collection of large-N analog ones. The digital network has many affordances for researchers, but tougher offline work is still necessary to get a complete and accurate picture of digital activism phenomena and their effectiveness. We need to start thinking more critically about our research methodologies, requiring higher levels of empirical proof for characterizations of digital activism, and finding practical means for achieving this empiricism.

The Name Game

Shakespeare wrote that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but if it were also called a “fragrant blush petalation,” “pink prickler,” or “Valentine’s blossom,” that would certainly cause confusion. When we talk about the effect of digitally networked technologies on contentious politics, we are met with an equally thorny problem: we are in a moment of Babel.

A forthcoming chapter on contingency (strategic use) and hybridity (online-offline duality), by Alix Dunn and Christopher Wilson of The Engine Room, begins:

The academic study of digital media use in political mobilization and advocacy is in the process of defining itself. Spanning a variety of disciplines and theoretical frameworks, analyses of “digital activism”, “new new social movements”, “ICT4HRs” and “cyber movements” constitute an emergent field of study that has yet to assert a common research agenda or mode of analysis.

Updates from a Decade of Babel

Over a decade after the Zapatistas arguable launched modern digital activism as a global phenomenon with their use of the web to promote their cause, followed by the early hacktivist FloodNet solidarity action, we cannot even agree on what we are talking about. (I only use the term “digital activism” here because it is my organization’s focus and it is in regular use, but I acknowledge that it is only one of the several terms jostling to define the field.)

This isn’t a new problem. I first started addressing the battle for definition in 2009, with a post on DigiActive.or when I was first getting interested in the macro-theory of digital activism. The post included several visualizations of the relative popularity of different terms (I used the phrase “mind share” a lot) and I even attempted to define all the terms relative to one another by use of a complicated Venn diagram (see left).

Since then there have been some winners and losers in the name game. Though we’re still only in the quarter-finals of selecting a clear naming convention for this field, I thought an update was in order.

The 1990’s – Less Hip Than Ancient Greeks

So, who are the losers? Any term with the prefix “e-” now seems horribly out-dated, hopelessly linked to the mid-nineties when the public web was in its infancy and a computer was simply an electronic device for doing previously paper-based tasks like sending messages, writing reports, and creating numeric tables. So e-activism and e-advocacy are out.

Interestingly, the same is not true of the even earlier prefix “cyber,” which is actually derived from the Greek kybern?t?s, steersman or pilot, and was used to refer to computers as early as the 1970s, when the Control Data Corporation (CDC) sold the “Cyber” range of supercomputers. Yet the cyber prefixs hangs on. Not only is it in common usage in the terms “cybercrime” and “cyber-attack,” hacktivists themselves use it. The alternately lulzy and politically motivated hacker group LulzSec has defined their mission as “the expression of energy through comically malicious and entertaining cybermaterials.” So while the term cyberactivism is less in vogue, its prefix may still prove to be relevant.

It Helps to Have a Posse

Then there are the terms-with-organizational-constituencies. Info-activism was coined and is promulgated by Tactical Technology Collective. The earliest reference to liberation technology was an article by Frederick Noronha in a 2003 issue of Linux Journal, but the term is currently being promulgated by the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford.

Likewise the term civic media, while broader than the other two, was in the early nineties, when the Civic Media Center opened in Gainesville, Florida, yet the term is now promulgated most visibly by the Center for Civic Media at MIT, founded in 2007 with the word “future” in its title.

Though from a much smaller stage, I guess it’s fair that I take some blame for pushing the term digital activism, first through and now through this project. The earliest usage I found for the term was a 2003 London event sponsored by and and it’s popular internationally among grassroots activists.

When you’re a word, it helps to have a posse, a group of people that you can count on to use you in papers, blog posts, tweets, and events, to define you, to spread you far and wide. While the words above are affiliated with specific organizations, even a term like social media for social change (coined in 2008 by blogger Gradon Tripp), is particularly popular in the Western NGO world as a way for established social change organizations to harness the power of new media to increase their efficacy.

People who come from a traditional organizing background have promoted the term online organizing as a means to digitally enhance the work of engaging citizens to mobilize their peers around issues of mutual concern. The New new social movements and cyber movements that Dunn and Wilson mention come from academia’s attempts to draw social movement theory into a twenty-first century context.

In a way, the fragmentation in terminology merely reflects the fragmentation of these constituencies. The sociologists have their terms and so do the organizers and the social media consultants. As long as these constituencies are able to be understood among themselves, there is little motivation to develop terms that are understood across constituencies. The lack of communication and coordination among the different groups engaged in the study and use of digital technology in a political context is both caused and exacerbated by the lack of common terminology.

One Word to Rule Them All?

This is not to say that improved communication would lead to a single consensus term. These words are not interchangeable. “Social media for social change” refers to a specific type of digital tools while “online organizing” implies both an Internet-based tool set and a specific means of using them. ICT4HR implies the broadest possible tool set (even a landline phone or telegraph would be included), but does specify a type of cause: human rights.

There will not be one word that wins out and comes to define all interaction between humans, technology, and social and political power. The problem is that these terms do not actually have mutually exclusive meanings and the terminology of our field is marked by imprecision. People use words like “digital activism” and “online organizing” interchangeably where there meanings rightly include some areas of overlap and some of mutual exclusivity.

Time for Closure

Wiebe Bijker of the University of Maastricht has an elegant little term for the way in which social groups differ over the definition of a social artifact they share: “interpretive flexibility.” In his 2008 book Technology & Social Power, Graeme Kirkpatrick of the University of Manchester explains:

Writing the social history of an artefact in constructionist terms involves identifying a series of steps or phases in its development. First, it will be possible to identify one or more relevant social groups who participate in defining the artefact, constituting it as a meaningful object and picking out certain of its possibilities. These groups will then be found to differ over its correct interpretation…. During this time the artifact is said to have “interpretive flexibility” its meaning-significance is open to be negotiated and contested by relevant social groups.

I quoted this same passage in 2009, and we have not made much progress towards “rhetorical closure,” the final step in defining the meaning of a new technology. Yes, certain terms like “e-advocacy” and “e-activism” have lost popularity, but others, like “liberation technology,” are on the rise.

In a way, it is defensible that our terminology changes as the phenomena itself does. The “e-advocacy” or the nineties is certainly a different beast than the “social media for social change” of the aughts.

Yet to see a narrowing of terms, a consensus. I fear that this lack of shared language will maintain the tribalism of study and practice and thus retard our understanding of this incredibly important phenomena. The Tower of Babel is a symbol of shared language divided. We have never had that moment. Yet we must work to create a shared vocabulary if we wish to build shared understanding together.

image: suizilla / and the sea

Digital Activism: A Look Back

Sometimes, the best way to move forward is to pause and take a look back. With the global debates about digital activism still raging, this post will highlight some of the scholarly works from the past few years that provide insights into the evolution of thought on digital activism. Studying these observations against the current backdrop will provide useful perspectives on the catalysts behind the change in tone of the dialogue surrounding this topic – moving from discussion and leaning more towards debate.


Internet was commercialized in the late 90's, and the Dotcom Boom had the world's attention right after

Dotcom Boom

As Trebor Scholz points out in Digital Activism Decoded, after the commercialization of the internet in the late 90’s, digital activism existed, but was not widely publicized. With the arrival of the dotcom hype, few others made headlines, possibly drawing attention away and allowing the discussion of the topic to be observations, instead of arguments. To put it simply, while hackers and activists were still active and embracing new tools, the audience was witnessing a different game at another arena.

Howard Rheingold in his book, The Virtual Community, speaks of grassroots activist David Hughes’ travels to towns, meetings with locals and how his pioneering efforts revealed the world of computers and internet to several townsfolk. As early as 1988, when interviewed by Rheingold, Hughes spoke of his online activism, bringing an online forum to let local vendors express their concerns [See here]. Such stories of new domains conquered and online pioneers are not new today, but the numbers have certainly grown. Although Hughes’ efforts might have been met with skepticism by some, they had no distinct individual forum on which to debate the subject’s legitimacy. While letting a pioneering trend take root was a blessing, the current environment is distinctly different. There are many aspiring to be someone like David Hughes and an equal number of critics. It is a healthy debate, for sure, but one that has only recently evolved into a fierce one.

Protests and internet broadcast channels

With the protests against the WTO in 1999, came the arrival of activist-run Internet broadcast channel, Indymedia. Started with the goal of challenging mainstream media stories, this was a great precursor to the fiery brand of citizen journalism we witness today. Oppressive government regimes and crackdowns on Internet and journalistic freedom were prevalent in the late 90’s and early 2000 as well, as outlined by Scholz [See here]. But, the amplifying power of retweets, likes, blog posts and other outlets used by the tech-savvy 21st century activists, and, more importantly, their supporters, have brought the field of digital activism into focus, for better or for worse.

Old thoughts, new changes

In his book, Who Is My Neighbor? : Social Affinity In A Modern World James A. Vela-McConnell says that the lack of a “human face” makes an e-mail more likely to be ignored and makes virtual activism less likely to be a substitute for actual activism, acknowledging its virtue as a supplement instead. This observation in his 1999 book, is one that is in line with what cyber-optimists and cyber-pessimists (in varying degrees), still acknowledge. While there was not much “noise” (read: lively debate) around this notion expressed then, it has become a full-blown verbal hurling match with no specific targets in the digital activism idea space today. What has changed, perhaps, is the nature of virtual activism, which Vela-McConnell stated as lacking critical exposure by being invisible to the media and public. In twelve short years, we are at the age of 24-hour news channels broadcasting Twitter feeds to support (or create) news stories.


Online activism complements offline action

Another instance of online activism is alluded to by Meredith Minkler in Community Organizing andCommunity Building for Health. A Public Electronic Network of Santa Monica, California is referred to as case of organizing online, pointing to local online networks addressing health concerns as the precursors to this breed of activism. Another early digital activism campaign was the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).

Progress and more

Digital activism has shown tremendous progress, evolving from a local neighborhood network to spread messages of health or a conscious citizen spreading the word about technology to the age of social media and almost-everyone-has-a-voice-and-an-opinion. While I will continue to focus on more scholarly opinions and the evolution of thought on digital activism in future posts, the key takeaway from this discussion is the simultaneous transformation of the nature of discussion of the subject. The digital activism world, if considered as a sphere in itself, has become more public now – everyone has an opinion and everyone wants to share it, while few want to listen and still fewer want to make amends and consider moving forward. Despite its relevance being established, constructive thought is being muddled by whispers of the dangers of slacktivism and over-hyping the dictator-toppling potential of a particular medium.

The Shirky-Morozov era (yes, I generalize) is one of lively debate, thoughtful writers and, above all, concerned thinkers. Ten years from now, I hope to reminisce about the progress of digital activism thought instead of regretting the muddle of crowded debates that the decade past had been.


Josh Price: Our New Research Intern

Josh on the Appalachian Trail

Summer is here and it’s time for interns. Our first is Josh Price, a political science graduate from Haverford who will graduate from the University of Chicago at the end of the summer with a master’s degree in Social Science. Josh is interested in social media, message framing, public opinion, and American politics. He also hiked the entire Appalachian Trail! This summer, Josh will be working the Research Director António Rosas on the Global Digital Activism Data Set, focusing on statistical analysis and building the representativeness of the data set.


America’s Information Interventions

[UPDATED] Are America’s information interventions around the world just imperialism in a digital mask or is a different type of foreign policy at work? In an interesting post today on the Savage Minds blog Adam Fish, a PhD candidate at UCLA, writes:

By the end of the year the US State department will spend $70 million on stealth communications technologies to enable activists to communicate beyond the reach of dictators according to a recent NYT article. Prototypes include a suitcase capable of quickly blanketing a region with a free wifi network… software that protects the anonymity of Chinese users… and underground buried cell phones on the border of North Korea for desperate phone calls to “freedom.”

These are political tools deployed to promote the agenda of one nation over that of another. How should we address information imperialism?The use of networked communications tools to subvert so-called regimes exposes a proclivity for digital intervention…

Fish then goes on to identify three types of information imperialism:

  1. Digital Literacy: Social media trainings for citizens in unfree countries.
  2. Cyber-Celebrities: Putting successful digital activists (and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs) on tour to promote their practices and tools.
  3. Code as Weapon: Stuxnet and politically-motivated viruses.

Sami Ben Gharbia, critic of American digital intervention

Though the term “information imperialism” was coined by a Chinese newspaper as a way to challenge the legitimacy of the State Department’s policies, it is easy to see why a Western academic would like it. It is part of the same argument made last year by Sami Ben Gharbia in his excellent essay, “The Internet Freedom Fallacy and the Arab Digital Activism.” Like Fish’s post, Ben Gharbia sought to smash the altruistic facade of America’s help to the world’s digital activists, pointing out that it was just the most recent iteration of traditional statecraft and realpolitik: country A meddles in the affairs of country B for country A’s benefit while telling a sweet story about how the intervention is good for country B and for the world.

However, while these interventions are certainly not altruistic, they are different than past modes of imperialism: colonialism and the propping up of dictators friendly to the US. There is a difference between the interventions of funding Mubarak and funding digital activists trying to overthrow him. It is a hypocricacy, as journalist Rami Khoury indicated in his New York Times op-ed “When Arabs Tweet” when he wrote:

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

Yet the very fact that these two political actions are hypocritical when carried out in tandem indicates how different they are in aim and in worldview. Simply put, when American foreign policy supports the citizens of a country over their rulers the effect on global democracy is different. The term “imperialism” implies “power over,” but creating an infrastructure for freedom of expression and assembly of the citizens of another country is “power with.”

This is still not altruism. The US has simply identified its interests as being complementary to those of the citizens of certain repressive regimes more than with the interests of their rulers. The policy is not uniformly applied (the US government does not seem to care about digital liberation is countries like Saudi Arabia) and it can damage the legitimacy of activists and even out them to their governments.

Supporting digital activism implicitly means supporting nonviolence.

Yet it is also different from previous instances in which the US backed citizens against repressive rulers. When the CIA backed coups in Latin America, they were technically backing citizens, but those citizens represented the narrow financial and security interests of the US, not the best interest of majority of citizens. (The 1953 CIA-backed Iranian coup is another good example of this phenomenon.)

The US is still “picking winners” when they decide whom they train and give equipment to, but by supporting nonviolent digital means the State Department is increasing the likelihood that political changes will result in democracies, rather than simply a different autocracy propped up by the US.

Scholars Maria J. Stephan, now a strategic planner at the State Department, and Erica Chenoweth recently compared the outcomes of hundreds of violent insurgencies with those of major nonviolent resistance. As Chenoweth noted in an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this year called “Give Peaceful Resistance a Chance“:

Our data show that from 1900 to 2006, 35 percent to 40 percent of authoritarian regimes that faced major nonviolent uprisings had become democracies five years after the campaign ended, even if the campaigns failed to cause immediate regime change. For the nonviolent campaigns that succeeded, the figure increases to well over 50 percent.

By supporting tools for freedom of digital expression and freedom of virtual assembly, the State Department is implicitly supporting nonviolence and democratic change. The functional link between nonviolence and democracy is not hard to ascertain. It is a method of revolutionary change that works by engaging broad swaths of society. Notes Chenoweth, “people don’t have to give up their jobs, leave their families or agree to kill anyone to participate in a nonviolent campaign. That means such movements tend to draw a wider range of participants.” And broadly-based revolutions are thus more likely to lead to broadly-based democratic governments.

We can still be cynical about the goals and outcomes of American information intervention, but it is not quite the same as imperialism. By supporting broad-based citizen movements, America cedes much control over the ultimate outcome of the political contest. That is how democracy works. In 2006, when the US pushed for democratic elections in Gaza, Hamas won, which was counter to American interests. By digitally supporting citizen movements, the US runs the same risk that the “wrong” types of citizens will come to power.

Perhaps, in the twilight of its empire, the US is seeking to build a world of countries that share its interests by democratic process rather than by force, frequent intervention, and the expensive propping-up of dictators. Quite frankly, we may not be able to afford the latter option for much longer.

More is Different: The Weakness of the Authoritarian Trinity

In their recent article on advocacy evaluation in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Steven Teles and Mark Schmitt note:

Advocacy efforts almost always involve a fight against a strategic adversary capable of adapting over time. Practices that once worked beautifully get stale once the losers figure out how to adopt the winner’s strategy or discover an effective counterstrategy.

Though this may remind you of the authoritarian learning curve from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, the above describes a constant dynamic of contention.

The introduction of digital technology has not nullified tactical competition, but it has changed its nature. In his book The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov elegantly identifies the authoritarian trinity – censorship, propaganda, and surveillance – tactics by which a repressive government can take the upper hand digitally. Yet in each case the government loses the numbers game: if there are enough people countering the tactic, it loses effectiveness. More is different.

In the case of censorship, if enough citizens circumvent blocks – using an ever widening array of tools – the government’s censorship efforts are no longer effective. If the government takes the “nuclear option” of censorship – shutting off the network entirely – they only alientate more citizens. With small acts of censorship a government builds a population that is gradually savvier about circumvention and with large actions of censorship the government risks speeding that process. It’s a catch-22 in which every act of censorship runs the risk of inspiring a citizen to learn how to circumvent it.

In the case of propaganda, a lie in the government-controlled media can be refuted in the international media or citizen media, as occurred in Egypt when the government said that the political situation was returning normal in mid-February and Al Jazeera and Egyptians on Twitter disagreed. The Internet provides a means of broadcasting a variety of alternative interpretations and a means of channeling those alternative interpretations to a variety of other media platforms. Shouting over citizens only works if the citizens acquiesce.

Unlike censorship and propaganda, in which the government seeks to counter the effects of an Internet designed to offer users multiple paths to the same destination and facilitate the quick and broad spread of information, surveillance exploits a characteristic of the Internet that actually benefits authoritarian governments. Public information about the world’s citizens, their thoughts, and their relationships is now freely available to be tracked and parsed for signs of opposition.

Yet surveillance also runs up against the numbers game. As Zeynep Tufekci likes to point out, the government is a resource-constrained actor. Even if they know that one million people are planning to converge on the capital, there is little they can do to stop them other than extreme violence which will encourage more citizens to oppose the government. Once the opposition out-numbers the government, surveillance is no longer useful because the government no longer has the means to act on it effectively.

The authoritarian trinity only works when the opposition is small relative to the entire population, when their words can be cut off or drowned out and their actions can be monitored effectively. This is why China rules in censorship and Russia rules online propaganda. Both governments have successfully marginalized the opposition such that they can be controlled, while the majority of citizens remain apolitical or actively support the regime. But if an event were to crystallize opposition, the balance of power could quickly shift.

It is for this reason that the Chinese government has become so paranoid about mentions of the Jasmine Revolution or the word “protest” spoken over a cell phone. They know that once the the critical point occurs, network dynamics will favor the digital activists, as small groups of dissenters link and connect to those who were previously isolated. Duncan Watts writes in his 2003 book, Six Degrees:

The phase transition is driven by the addition of a small number of links right near the critical point that have the effect of connecting many very small cluster into a single giant component, which then proceeds to swallow up all the other nodes until everything is connected.

In his 1971 paper “More is Different,” Phillip Anderson noted that the natural sciences are divided based on a recognition that groups of atoms behave differently atoms in isolation (dividing physics from chemistry) just as single beings are different from groups (differentiating medical science from epidemiology).

The same could be said of the three central strategies of digital repression: they work against small groups of divides activists, and are rendering ineffective once the number grows. (See Zeynep’s analysis of whack-a-mole protests for another example of this phenomenon.) If this observation is true what are the critical points of mass connection needed to defeat censorship, propaganda, and surveillance and how can they be achieved?

Making Connections: an Internal Communications Workshop

Last week I had the privilege to work with the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition on internal communications for their global organization of grassroots AIDS activists. I started by asking the staff to create an org chart of ITPC on the wall of the meeting room, which we could refer to throughout the day.

Creating an org chart for ITPC

Creating an org chart, adding communication pathways

Then they added in the different communication pathways the organization needed to succeed.  Colored yarn represented different types of communication, like “informing,” “consulting,” and “directing.”

Pathways that were not up to snuff got a "gap" marker.

Pathways that were not up to snuff got a GAP marker.

After the pathways were drawn, all the gaps were recorded on note cards so staff could vote on which they wanted to focus on.  We didn’t have time to address all the gaps, but we wanted to make sure we addressed the most important.

Staff vote for the gaps they think should be addressed during the workshop

Staff vote for the gaps they think should be addressed during the workshop

Then I facilitated a group discussion of solutions.  We developed several practical processes to improve internal communication, such as Watering Hole Wednesdays, when staff around the world would be on Skype at the same time twice a month for casual conversation.

Staff discuss practical solutions and create a plan for implementation,

Staff discuss practical solutions and create a plan for implementation,

Report from Personal Democracy Forum

I am still exhausted from two great days at Personal Democracy Forum. There was a lot to absorb – over 30 keynotes on the main stage and over 20 break-out sessions. I kept my laptop closed for most of it so I could concentrate on what was being said. Here were some of the highlights for me:

There were a lot of discussion of the implications of activism and social life in the quasi-public sphere, platforms on which we can all participate, but which are privately owned. Good presentations on this topic included Susan Morgan (video) of the Global Network Initiative, danah boyd on the privacy hacks of teenagers, Marietje Sschaake (video) on the role of European communications firms in international freedom of expression and privacy, and Eben Moglen (video) announcing FreedomBox.

Other great ideas came from Zeynep Tufekci (video), who presented a number of theories of global digital activism, Rebecca MacKinnon (video), on the role of the network in the evolution of political power, Lisa Gansky (video) on the “meshy” new sharing economy, and Jay Rosen’s (video) report card on pro-am journalism in the digital age.

There were a lot of emotional keynotes too, from funny (Dan Sinker – video, Omoyele Sowore – video, Marko Rakar – video) to heart-felt (Jim Gilliam – video) to righteously outraged (Larry Lessig – video)

I hosted a break-out session on the second day with Zeynep Tufekci and Alix Dunn. I started out by describing our knowledge of digital activism as best symbolized by a ping-pong ball (thanks Patrick), between the paddles of cyber-optimism and cyber-pessimism.

Our “knowledge” of digital activism is highly dependant on the outcome of the most recent revolution. We were pessimistic about digital activism after the 2009 revolution in Iran and feel very optimistic now after Egypt and Tunisa, but we could move back to pessimism depending on the outcomes in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. Needless to say, this is not empirical. In fact, it is little more than a form of representation bias.

Next Zeynep Tufekci mentioned some methodological challenges of studying digital activism, such as the inability to do experiments. However, she did express hope in the value of “digital footprints” (so much more is recorded and available for analysis in the digital age) and in cross-country comparisons like the Global Digital Activism Data Set. Alix Dunn briefly described the data she collected with her research partner, Christopher Wilson, about the Egyptian Revolutions, called the Tahrir Data Project, which includes survey results, tweets, and in-depth interviews about media use.

I also briefly presented the GDADS infographics (see below)

It was a great time with lots of smart people and excellent ideas. I look forward to returning next year.

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