In Egypt today we are seeing the continuing digital saga of authoritarian governments vs. civil society activists. Egypt is a country with an extremely strong digital civil society, including high mobile phone penetration, an active blogosphere, and a history of Facebook campaigns that achieve real-world results, such as the 2008 General Strike and the “We are All Khaled Said” campaign. Yet a few days ago the government flipped the Internet “kill switch.” Not a single Egyptian ISP remains online and mobile phone networks are of limited use.
In the old discourse of digital activism, the cyber-optimists would point to the importance of the Internet in getting Egypt to where it is today: creating a shared awareness of shared grievances and building loose networks of Mubarak opponents that have strengthened the offline movement. Cyber-pessimists would point not only to the Egyptian government’s use of the kill switch, but also to how the government uses social media to track the actions and networks of dissidents.
Both sets of observations are true. Now we need a more nuanced framework for understanding the “cat and mouse” game of authoritarians vs. activists, based in the tactical reality of digital activism and social movements, not the ideological dichotomy of cyber-optimist vs. cyber-pessimist. Here’s a place to start:
Figure: Tactical Framework for Digital Technology Use in Authoritarian Regimes
Authoritarian Government Uses Tech to Their Own Advantage
The graphic above presents a taxonomy for understanding both digital activism and digital repression as part of a continuum, not a dichotomy. At the far left, we have cases in which authoritarian governments are using digital technology to their own advantage. There are few of these examples, the most prominent being instances of crowsourced oppression, like the 50 Cent Party in China, in which citizens are paid to leave pro-government comments in blogs and forums, and how the Iranian government posted photos of protesters online in the hopes that fellow citizens would help identify them.
Authoritarian Government Blocks Civil Society Tech Advantage
Moving to the right we see cases in which the government is blocking a civil society advantage provided by digital technology. There cases include censorship, blocking, and the “kill switch” and are far more common. Most authoritarian governments limit the effectiveness of digital activists by limiting their technology use, not be adopting their tools, as in the previous category. This is significant because it implies that in most cases of digital repression civil society, not governments, are given the greatest advantage by technology. The case of the Egyptian kill switch bears this out. If the Internet was of greater advantage to the Mubarak government they would have left it on. The fact that they turned it off indicates that they felt the Internet was of greater use to their civil society opponents.
Tech Useful to Both Authoritarians and Civil Society
In the current dichotomy of cyber-pessimist vs. cyber-optimist, the fact that technology can benefit both authoritarian governments and civil society is often overlooked because each side wants to claim the case as their own. The best example here is that social platforms like Facebook and Twitter that help activists to air grievances and mobilize, but also help authoritarian governments to track these activities, since they are being broadcast in public. In authoritarian regimes, most digital activism cases fall into this category because of this dual nature of public social media.
Civil Society Blocks Authoritarian Tech Advantage
Moving into the arena of civil society advantage, we have cases in which civil society is successfully blocking an advantage that technology provides to authoritarian governments. The key example here is the use of proxy servers and other circumvention and anonymization technology to block the government’s ability to use the Internet to track the actions of its opponents online. Because of the technical knowledge required, only a minority of those censored online will evade that censorship, making Internet censorship a powerful tool of authoritarians.
Civil Society Uses Tech to Their Own Advantage
The number of cases in this category depends greatly on how effective an authoritarian regime is at online surveillance and censorship. If a regime is good at watching its citizens online, then most activist uses of social media – blogging about shared grievances, tweeting information not covered by state-owed media, mobilizing through Facebook groups – can also benefit the regime by providing an opportunity for surveillance. In the most extreme cases, censorship effectively blocks activist content from even getting online. China has moderators that delete sensitive messages from online forums, countries like Egypt and Iran have turned off the Internet in times of crisis, and North Korea simply refuses to provide internet access to its citizens. Yet choosing between full censorship and a more permissive surveillance policy poses a challenge to authoritarians. While censorship will make it more difficult for citizens to develop a shared awareness of shared grievances, it also pushes dissidents underground, where they are harder to track. Is it better to allow dissidents to use social media for the purposes of tracking them or better to completely block their access out of fear their ideas might spread? This is a real dilemma for authoritarian regimes.
This framework does not resolve the question for whether authoritarians or activists are winning the digital battle, but it does provide a framework for analysis that recognizes the realities of digital activism and digital repression, and the continuum on which their actions are based. The challenge now is to look at how frequently each type of action occurs and to what effect. The Global Digital Activism Data Set will fill in many of the cases on the right side of the continuum. A Global Repression Data Set in needed to fill in the cases on the left.