Can Crowd-Sourced Discussions be Democratic?

Note: This post by Vivek Srinivasan, Program Manager for the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford, was originally published on Vivek’s Info.

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This is a response to a critique of wathiqah.com (a platform to discuss the future of Egypt’s constitution) in Meta-Activism Project. The article entitled “the revolution is not a branding opportunity” points out that the name of the commercial platform is visible prominently and takes an objection to it. She also discusses the limitations of such platforms to which I would like to respond.

The author points out that online discussions reach a very small proportion of the population, that they are not representative, and that they are easy to manipulate by well organised groups. I agree with the critique whole-heartedly, and I guess most people will do so as well. The question I wish to ask here is, given the problems, do such platforms have a democratic role at all?

If one were to examine any single dialogue process, I am sure we can find a thousand reasons to call it unrepresentative. Most active dialogues tend to involve small numbers of people. This can be said not just of a process, but also of any organisation, political party, social movement, or any forum. For that matter established electoral processes in the most advanced democracies too suffer from some of these limitations, in the strict sense of the word. For example, despite its formal representation of all US citizens, one could say that elected bodies could be hijacked by organized groups, and that the number of people who participate in electoral process is low, not to talk of effective participation.

To take a different example, social movements that have radically deepened democracy have been criticised for leaving out significant social groups. For example, the civil rights movement in the USA has been justly criticized for ignoring the voices of women; prominent women’s movements have been criticised for being unrepresentative of the voices of lower class women. The examples can go on and on.

My argument is that no single process, forum or organisation can perfectly satisfy all democratic principles. Democracy is an endless conversation that necessarily has to happen in multiple spaces. Wathiqah is one such forum that is mediating a few conversations. Its democratic role lies in the fact that it is engaging thousands of citizens in thinking about the constitution.

It enables a lot of individuals to voice their opinion about political issues. I believe that forming and articulating political positions is not an easy task, and that by making that process simple, the platform assists a lot of people to develop their political persona, which is critical for good citizenship.

Further, when a large group engages in a conversation, new ideas tend to emerge. The design of online discussion platforms help us identify some widely shared ideas. Such identification in itself is an important democratic act.

Enabling large numbers of people to engage with political issues, providing a space for people to voice their opinions, providing a forum for the exchange of ideas and the possibility of identifying a few widely shared ideas are the critical democratic functions that such a platform performs.

While these are democratic functions, we should acknowledge that online discussions are accessible only by a limited population, and that they remain vulnerable to hijacking by organized groups. Given these limitations, it would be a grievous mistake to interpret the “outcome” of the conversation as THE voice of a society.

If we understand the process with its limitations, and if online platforms are one among many other forums of conversation, then one could say that they serve an important democratic purpose. The critique at Meta Activism and others will ensure that we remember the partial nature of the conversation, and such reminders play an important democratic role as well. That said, we should not forget that partiality is the nature of any democratic conversation. Online platforms provide an avenue for large scale engagement and are especially good at reaching a lot of young people who are otherwise left out of political dialogue. I guess that is a goal that those of us committed to democracy can cherish.

On Confusing Memes with Movements

Note: This post by David Karpf, Assistant Professor in the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, was originally published on shouting loudly.

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Allow me to be cranky for a minute.

Jeff Jarvis had some fun on twitter this weekend. After a day spent reading news about the debt limit, and a nice pinot noir with dinner, he tweeted,”Hey, Washington assholes, it’s our country, our economy, our money. Stop fucking with it.” Encouraged by some of his replies and retweets, he turned it into a hashtag, #fuckyouwashington. It didn’t *technically* reach the trending topics list — twitter management censors for language a bit — but it did pick up steam, with 10,000 or so people writing their own #fuckyouwashington message.

So far, so good. I scanned the tweets while standing in line at Trader Joe’s Saturday night. It was pretty entertaining. The debt ceiling negotiations are patently absurd. A routine congressional vote has been converted into a mighty standoff that might bring down the global economy, all because Republican legislators are more beholden to the most conservative elements of their base than they are to managing the damn country. Sure, blow off some steam on twitter. Riff on the theme a bit.

But, predictably, the next day Jarvis and others took to calling their little exercise a “movement.” That’s where I board the cranky-train. [important context: I’ve been in nonstop editing mode on my book manuscript. My snark-meter could probably use recalibration.]

If we label everything a social movement, then the term ceases to have any meaning.

The size of this “movement” bears some scrutiny. In a country of 300,000,000+, only a few million pay regular attention to politics. Let’s say (for some back-of-the-envelope math) that the politically-attentive class is approximately the same size as the audience of Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, and other political talk shows. That would be around 10 million, or ~3% of the population. Not very big. Many of those people are on twitter, of course. Let’s pretend they all are. And they’re mostly going to be linked to people with similar interests — other members of the politically-attentive class.

On Saturday, a member of the techno-journalistic elite with a strong following, offers up an engaging hashtag, linked to the news that has politically-attentive Americans concerned. About 10,000 use the hashtag, echoing his concern. That’s 0.1% of the politically-engaged class, and 0.003% of the national population. We’re supposed to call this big?

Importantly, their tweets don’t aggregate to much of anything. It’s over by Sunday. The “movement” received coverage on CBSOnline’s “What’s trending,” a blog devoted to… trending topics on twitter. That same blog has a story up right now about George Takei and planking. Which is also pretty entertaining. And also isn’t a social movement. Dave Weigel also mentioned it in a blog post for Slate, but he was writing about the debt ceiling anyway. I’m all for giving Weigel entertaining hooks, but how about some #realtalk while we’re at it?

Jarvis sees “cause for hope” in all of this. He writes that it demonstrates “the potential of a public armed with a Gutenberg press in every pocket, with its tools of publicness.”

Meh.

What Jeff Jarvis did Saturday night was a meme. It rippled and went viral a bit. It was kinda cool. But not every meme is a social movement.

Social movements are about building and exercising power. The end goal is to force powerful individuals to take some action that they wouldn’t take otherwise. Or the end goal is to replace recalcitrant individuals in power with people who are more in touch with the will of the people. In the process, social movements affect the balance of power, give people a sense of their own power, and result in concrete improvements in people’s lives. Social movements knit communities together and reinvigorate democracies. They inspire people to enter public life. They ain’t easy.

Since social movements are so attractive, and since its pretty much impossible to distinguish the early stages of a social movement from the early stages of an ephemeral and passing fad, there’s a strong tendency to label everything a social movement. And that degrades their meaning. (It’s like grade inflation. If everyone gets an A, then an A isn’t anything special. The difference is that it’s difficult to care much about grade inflation. Social movements can actually, y’know, change the world.) We should fight against that trend.

So I’m thankful to Jeff Jarvis for the meme this past Saturday. It was entertaining, and fun to read. It’s nice to hear that there are thousands of people out in twitterland who also find the debt ceiling negotiations absurd.

But don’t call it a movement. Please. There isn’t a second or third act to this particular play. It was a meme, it went briefly viral among people who already care about this sort of thing, and it left few traces behind. The debt ceiling fight continued, oblivious to the twittering masses. Social movements are something greater than that. They’re extended, and collective, and costly, and sadly still far too rare. If social media tools are influencing social movements (Hint: they are.), we’ll need to be clearer in our language before we can make much headway in figuring out how.

Cranky session over. Back to my edits.

 

How Do You Want to be a Scholar?

Jeff Nunokawa, Professor of English and scholar or nineteenth-century literature at Princeton University, likes to use social media in his work:

Nunokawa… began using Facebook in 2005, as an alternative to burdening his students with too many exhortatory emails. By now he has written more than three thousand notes. “They are brief essays… rendering the sphere of scholarship sociable.” [The New Yorker, July 4, 2011]

“Rendering the sphere of scholarship sociable” – this is part of a vision of how the pursuit of knowledge can and should change in the digital age. I’ve written before about how academic institutions are limiting the spread of knowledge and how to improve the peer review process, but it’s not enough to tweak and critique various current modes of scholarship. One should also have an overarching vision in mind. Here’s mine: remove the obstacles to the free flow of knowledge and the information out of which it is built.

The current practices of scholarship block the flow of knowledge and information at every turn. Knowledge is socially shared on an annual basis at a variety of formalized conferences, instead of in a constant, informal, and natural way, à la Nunokawa. The pace of peer review and publication is slow and content is embargoed until it goes to press. Though raw data (facts) cannot be copyrighted, intellectual property conventions limit the dissemination of data. Analyses and interpretations are closely guarded by copyright. All these practices are linked to the tenure and livelihood of individual scholars, giving people interested in the development of knowledge a personal stake in defending these old, inefficient, and counter-productive processes.

It might seems foolish or naive for someone like myself – an academic outsider and grad-school drop-out – to criticize the time-honored rituals of academic life. But seeking to build knowledge in new and better ways by challenging old customs isn’t sophomoric. It come from a passionate commitment to the purpose of academia, which is to create knowledge. Again from the Facebooking professor: “it’s not that I don’t want to be a scholar, but this is how I want to be a scholar.”

Here’s how I want to be a scholar:

  • I want to be open, to share, to collaborate, and to co-create.
  • I want to publish an idea when it comes to me – on my own schedule, not a publisher’s.
  • I want to choose which of my ideas should be linked to income/monetized (some) and which should be free (most).
  • I want access to all books and articles ever written and all data ever created, in a usable form.

How do you want to be a scholar?

Eat Me: the Media Environment as Food Web

In the wake of the Arab Spring, there are few dichotomies left in mass media. Producer and Consumer? Dead. Blogs started the battle years ago, when the “former audience” began to produce their own content. Now the former audience creates content not only for one another but also for broadcast media. Where would the 24-hour news cycle be without YoutTube videos and Twitter sources?

New Media and Old Media? The distinction is becoming fuzzier. Yes, social media is new, networked, and peer-to-peer, but seemingly old media can be too. International television broadcasters like Al Jazeera are networked as well. They cover social media not as a sideshow but as a news source. They recognize citizen media makers as collaborators in the news-making and reporting process, not just kids with video cameras who need to turn their work over to the pro’s for it to be useful to others.

who eats whom?: an example of a food web

If we can’t understand the 21st century media environment as a dichotomy, how can we understand it? Keeping with the environmental theme, I think a biological metaphor is in order: the trophic cycle of the food web. Trophic, from the Greek troph?, meaning”nourishment,” and refers to the movement and exchange of nutrients in the natural world. A plant photosynthesizes energy. The energy from the plant is eaten by a rodent, who absorbs that energy. The rodent is then eaten by a hawk or bear… or dies of a heart attack and is decomposed by bacteria.

Why compare our current media environment to a food web like the one on the left? First of all, information operates in the media network like food operate in the web: both are discrete units that pass from organism to organism, changing a bit at each level of processing and reconfiguration, but still recognition: images, interpretations, dates, stories.

Second, just as no organism is uniquely a consumer or producer of food, no media entity is uniquely a producer or consumer of information. Grass produces energy for the rabbit as it consumes energy from the sun. A citizen journalist captures a cell phone video of a protest which is later rebroadcast by a television station. Unlike the media dichotomies mentioned earlier, which are mutually exclusive, this duality of consumer and producer is complementary and contemporaneous: each consumer of news is also a potential creator of news, from the guys sitting on his sofa to the newspaper editor.

Third, like food webs information networks are chaotic and unpredictable. Yes, a pig might be eaten by a bear, but he also might be eaten by Mark Zuckerberg or die of old age. In the same way an individual tweet or blog post or image might be picked up by CNN, by a few local blogs, or it might languish never to be relayed beyond its original audience. In fact, information networks are even more chaotic than food webs because while a single calorie cannot be consumed by two organisms at the same time, each piece of digital content can be copied an indefinite number of times simultaneously. In an environment with many media “organisms” of different sizes, complexity, and constitution, the path of any one piece of information is difficult to predict… or control.

Despite the chaos, there is some categorization in the food web, and it also applies to the information network. Here are thetwo types of information consumption/production:

  • Autotrophic nourishment converts the physical phenomenon of sunlight into units of energy which other organisms can use. In the natural environment, plants are autotrophs. In the media environment, autotrophic behavior is the conversion of physical phenomena, like an event or piece of testimony, into a piece of usable information. In an earlier era only trained journalists were thought to be able to perform this task of converting events into publicly useful information. Now it is easier and easier to record and transmit events and anyone can act in the role of an autotroph.
  • Heterotrophic nourishment uses energy that has already been converted into a usable form by another organism. In the natural world, animals are heterotrophs. In the media environment, heterotrophic behavior is the consumption of units of information that have been created by another organism. It’s you reading a blog post or a listening to a radio news segment. It’s a TV producer watching a variety of citizen video and deciding which one is best fit for broadcast. It’s a newspaper journalist reading a press release and deciding if there’s a story there. And heterotrophic chains can be loooong. Just as a calorie can be transferred from the sun to a carrot to a rabbit to a human, a story can be transmitted from an eye-witness to a blogger to a tweet to a newspaper article. And there are an infinite number of pathways that any piece of information can travel. We are pretty good at tracking these units on discrete platforms (for example, Engine Room’s data set of #jan25 tweets), but when a piece of information jump between platforms, between media, and from offline to online, our methods of analysis fall short.

Oh course, this is not a perfect symbiosis. Yes, professional media producers are more likely to act as autotrophs and convert their own information. Yes, most citizens are more likely to consume existing information that create their own. But any individual can act in either an information autotrophs or an information heterotroph at any time, and this keeps things interesting.

Would the analogy between food web and media network break down at the level of specific mechanisms? Of course it would. Is it still a useful metaphor for the increasingly interconnected media environment and the dual nature of each individual within it? I think it is. Now it’s time for a midnight troph… I mean snack.

 

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?

Global Digital Activism Data Set: Geographic Representation

Note: In the interest of open research, we are sharing infographics of our in-process project, the Global Digital Activism Data Set. We hope that this transparency will elicit original perspectives and constructive critique. A previous post is here.

Another day another GDADS infographic. This one shows the target countries of the digital activism cases in the data set. The largest by far is the USA, followed by Egypt and Iran, then China*, Russia, Brazil, and India. These seven countries have significantly more cases/country than the others in the data set, and form a nice analytical unit. Is this distribution representative? If so, what explains the distribution? If not, why is a certain country being over- or under-sampled? If accurate, what trends might this distribution reveal?

The first candidate for over-sampling is the USA. Though US cases account for only 12.6% of all GDADS cases, they do make up the largest single country block. Why might the US be over-sampled? Most coders are anglophone and many are US-based making, US cases more visible. Digital activism is also widely covered in the US media meaning that it is easier to find sources for US cases than for digital activism cases in countries without as attentive media coverage (attentive, yes, though not necessarily accurate).

However, the preponderance of American cases may be representative. Almost all the key technologies of digital activism – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, the Internet – were created in the US and were likely first adopted by Americans. The US may have the most cases because Americans were “early adopters” of digital activism, meaning not only a longer time horizon, but also time for early and late majority users to adopt digital activism practices (see graphic above). In addition, America is politically free with an active civil society and high Internet penetration rate, so digital activism could indeed be significantly higher in the US.

The next countries with the most cases – Egypt and Iran – are entirely different. They have relatively low Internet penetration rates. As of 2009, 11% of Iranians and 24% of Egyptians were Internet users, according to the International Telecommunication Union, as compared to 78% of Americans. They also have smaller populations. Today Iran has 75 million citizens and Egypt has 80 million, while the United States has 309 million. However, the greatest difference is political freedom, relatively high in the US and low in Iran and, until recently, in Egypt.

Why might we be over-sampling Egypt and Iran? Perhaps their strategic political position, particularly to the United States, meant that their digital activism got more media coverage, particularly after their respective revolutions. This may be true of Iran, since half our cases are from 2009 and after, but it is not true of Egypt. Only two Egyptian cases are from 2011. In the case of Egypt, the high number of digital activism cases may have been predictive of a coming revolt.

If this is a representative sample, then political freedom may have a complex effect on digital activism. Activism may be common both in countries where it is freely allowed and also in countries where repression incites activism even where it is dangerous. In other words, digital repression may not have a uniquely chilling effect on activism.

The last quartet of countries is also interesting because China, Russia, Brazil, and India are grouped together in other geo-political contexts. Called the BRIC countries, they are defined by their similar stage of newly advanced economic development, their large populations, and stress on “education, foreign investment, domestic consumption, and domestic entrepreneurship.”

Though they are economically similar, they are technologically and politically different. While China, Russia, and Brazil had similar numbers of Internet users (29%, 29%, and 39% in 2009, respectively), India had only 5%.

They also have very different political freedom ranking. According to Freedom House‘s 2010 report on Freedom in the World (which many people disagree with, I know) China had the lowest possible score in political rights and the second-lowest possible score on civil liberties. Russia fared only slightly better, while Brazil and India ranked well in both. Again, if the digital activism counts are representative, this would indicate a non-linear connection between political freedom and digital activism instances.

It is surprising that the most obvious commonality among the seven countries is not Internet penetration, GDP per capita, or political freedom, but population size. While the seven countries differ considerably in the first three areas, they are among the 20 largest countries by population size, the top 10% worldwide. In addition, four of the five largest countries by population – China, India, the US, Indonesia, and Brazil – are also in the GDADS top seven for digital activism cases.

These top seven countries also allow us to make a ballpark estimate of the the Internet penetration tipping point for digital activism. Though of course other factors are also at play, in six of the seven countries at least 24% of citizens were Internet users in 2009 (the exceptions being Iran and India).

We need to be more confident of the representativeness of our sample before making any of these statements definitive, but even in its unfinished state, the GDADS is leading in interesting directions.

 

* If you include the digital activism cases from the special administrative region of Hong Kong, China rises to second place with 75 cases.

 

 

“Net Delusion” Review: The Authoritarian Trinity

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

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

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

Censorship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Propaganda

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

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

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

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

Surveillance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology-aided revolution (Source: Beefoto/Flickr)

The School of Skepticism

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

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

Cyber-Supporters and the Public Sphere

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

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

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

Misnomers and Redundant Non-Debates

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

Yay or nay? (Source: @ahmed http://img.ly/2TgS)

The Question of Why

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

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

From Lunch Counters to Leadership Crises

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

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

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

@nikisrinivasan

“Net Delusion” Review: Back to the Cold War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Success in Digital Activism and Repression?

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

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

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

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

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