Rebels in the Fortress: Personal Power and Hierarchical Control

Bradley Manning made a lot of trouble for the US government. P.J. Crowley didn’t help the situation. And Phillippa Thomas‘ blog made sure that everyone knew about it. The interesting thing is that these PR nightmares are connected and they’re evidence of challenges that the digital network poses to fortress-like hierarchical organizations like the US government. By increasing the power of the individual to make news and gain influence, toeing the party line becomes less appealing, making it more difficult for hierarchies to keep their people in check.

Manning, Crowley, Thomas, (& Social Media) Put the President in a Tight Spot

As most people now know, Bradley Manning, a lowly army private, was arrested in 2010 on suspicion of having passed restricted material to the website WikiLeaks, including the “Collateral Murder” video and thousands of US diplomatic cables. He still sits in prison awaiting a possible court martial.

P.J Crowley was quite a bit higher up. Until he was forced to resign in mid-March, he was Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, an official spokesman for the State Department. On March 10th he made a comment at a small seminar at MIT, saying that Manning’s detention was “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid,” a direct admonishment of US policy and an odd comment for an official government spokesperson.

Philippa Thomas, a BBC reporter taking a sabbatical at Harvard, happened to be attending the seminar. She also happened to have recently created a basic blog as part of a class assignment at the Kennedy School: She asked Crowley if his comment was on the record. He said it was. She blogged the story. Though she did tip off BBC’s North America editor Mark Mardell via phone, she broke the story on her blog. A tweet by Mardell brought 17,000 hits and launched the story.

That was a Thursday. On Friday, President Obama personally rebutted Crowley’s claim at a press conference. On Sunday, Crowley resigned.

When Resignation and Imprisonment Aren’t the End of the Story

And yet Crowley hasn’t lost his influence. In fact, the resignation dust-up probably brought him greater name recognition. He began tweeting while he was at the State Department and has continued to do so. He voices his opinion on issues ranging from Qaddafi’s extradition to US policy towards North Korea.

And the folks back at the State Department aren’t so happy about it. An anonymous source reported to TechPresident that Crowley looks like he’s tweeting on behalf of the Obama administration and they aren’t so happy that he took his 25,000 followers with him when he left – especially since he only started his account after he became State Department spokesman.

Though in prison, Crowley has a large following, and the petition organization Avaaz recently collected half a million signatures demanding that the “torture, isolation and public humiliation of Bradley Manning” end.

The Barbarians Aren’t at the Gate, They’re Already Inside

So what does this all mean? It’s not only the network VS. the hierarchy, it’s the network IN the hierarchy. In December of last year I wrote a post on the seven effects of networks on hierarchies, ranging from helpful amplifiers to threatening “pirates”. That post was largely inspired by Mark Pesce’s talk at PdF 2009 on competition between hierarchical organizations, like the Church of Scientology, and networked organizations, like Wikipedia. (Anonymous vs. MasterCard provides a more recent example).

Yet as the case of Manning, Crowley, and Thomas shows, individuals are not in networks OR in hierarchies, they are most often members of both. Manning was a soldier of the United States Army (is there a more rigidly hierarchical structure than the military?), but he also liked to chat with Wikileaks activists. Crowley was a spokesman for the State Department, but he also had a large following on Twitter. Thomas was an employee of the BBC (albeit on sabbatical), but she was also a blogger.

Governments and corporations need to worry about shadowy networked organizations like terrorist cells and hacker groups, but they also need to worry about the networks of their own employees. Not only does the Internet connect these employees to independent means of broadcasting information to a large audience, it also provides an alternate source of incentives. Manning is surely miserable now but, before his arrest, he viewed himself as a public servant and a “hacktivist,” sharing information that ought to be in the public domain. Crowley likewise has found an alternate source of support and esteem. After his resignation he tweeted:

I am humbled by the support and encouragement. I will keep tweeting on global issues. There is still lots to say about BFF#NorthKorea. 🙂

Yes, a public figure forced to resign from a prestigious government post just tweeted a smiley-face. And the fortress wobbles.

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