Home Quick Thoughts + Shares 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.

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4 replies to this post
  1. This is a fantastic exploration of some of the issues of US intervention/help in the nonviolent revolutions that are happening around the world. Kudos!
    The one little detail I will correct is that the author’s name is Erica Chenoweth. Only one letter off. 😉

  2. You can ignore my Facebook comment, I should’ve commented publicly in the first place 🙂

    You write:

    “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.”

    So, when we support Egyptian democracy activists through digital means, and those activists then elect the Muslim Brotherhood, does the buck stop there? And if so, was all the spending and effort futile?

    • My measure would be “what do the Egyptian people think about such an outcome?” but for the State Department it would likely be viewed as a failure.

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