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?

2 thoughts on “More is Different: The Weakness of the Authoritarian Trinity

  1. Excellent points! I very, very much enjoy that saying, “More is Different.” I don’t think anything could be clearer. Very related to the entire concept of Emergent phenomena. Get a lot of things together, and its different then a lot of things separated, and you start to see new and unexpected things happening. Nice post!

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