How Censorship Backfires on Repressive Regimes

By pulling the plug on the Internet, Mubarak hastened his own demise.

As the digital elements of the Arab Spring continue to be parsed, it seems that at least one conclusion has been reached: Internet censorship can seriously backfire for repressive regimes. Turning off the Internet forces activists into the streets, while selectively filtering popular platforms like Facebook unifies even the non-political and motivates citizens to acquire anti-censorship skills.

A previous post by Alix Dunn on this site explained how the “the Internet kill switch didn’t kill Egypt’s protests” because offline and television transmission of key message was possible [UPDATE: and just released a short case study on the topic]. However, we are now seeing that not only were activists able to mitigate the damage of significant digital censorship, it actually ended up being to their advantage.

1) Digital Service Shut-Down Forces Offline Engagement

Rather than limiting participation in the protests, turning off the Internet (the most dramatic form of digital censorship) actually increases offline participation. This conclusion has been drawn repeatedly with regards to the Egyptian Revolution, most recently by the participants at a recent Danish conference, Cyber Activism Changing the World?: A Conference on Social Media and Women in the Uprising. Courtney Radsch, a PhD candidate studying cyberactivism and Arab media, was in attendance and reports on comments by influential Egyptian digital media commentator Mona Eltahawy:

in Egypt, when Mubarak cut off the internet he effectively forced people to the street – a major tactical mistake in Mona’s perspective. By shutting down the internet activists could no longer tweet or SMS each other to see what was going on so they had to actually go into the streets to find out.

At first, forcing citizens to engage offline might sound like good news for repressive governments. Out in the open, activists are easy to identify, torment, and detain. However, when offline activism takes the form of public protests (rather than back-room meetings), the public nature of the protest creates its own cascade effects. Seeing more people on the street makes it more likely that fence-sitters will join in the protests.

2) Censorship Itself Becomes a Cause

A similar conclusion was drawn by digital activist Noha Atef at the re:publica conference in Berlin in April, with the addition that censorship not only forced people to go into the street to see what was going on, but that censorship became part of what motivated them to do so. Jillian York reports:

When Egypt turned off the Internet and scrambled mobile signals (there are 70 million mobile subscriptions in Egypt, ~80% of the population), Noha explains that it drew more people into the streets. She explains that censorship became a part of the cause, and that despite the Internet shutdown, people were taking photos and videos, knowing that at some point the Internet would be available again.

3) High-Profile Censorship Incites Circumvention Skills Acquisition

This idea of censorship as a unifying grievance and a motivation for protest was also described in the Tunisian context. In a recent event at MIT Ethan Zuckerman reports on the comments of Sami Ben Gharbia, Tunisia’s most prolific digital activist:

Facebook became central to the Tunisian media ecosystem because all other sites that allowed video sharing – YouTube, Daily Motion, Vimeo and others – were blocked by the Tunisian government, along with hundreds of blogs and dozens of key twitter accounts. This censorship, Sami argues, drove Tunisian users towards Facebook, and made it hard for the government to block it. The government tried in 2008, but the outcry was so huge, they reversed course. The main reason – usage of Facebook more than doubled during the 10 days of blockage as Tunisians found ways around the national firewall and onto the service. [emphasis added]

Here again a new element is added. It is not only that blockage of digital technologies forces people to engage with other dissidents IRL and that censorship is a unifying grievance that can motivate participation in protest, high-profile cases of censorship, especially of popular services, also motivates users to learn censorship work-arounds that will limit the government’s ability to censor in the long-term.

4) The Dictator’s Dilemma: Increased Pressure from Economic Elites

The dictator’s dilemma is a theory posited by Christopher Kedzie in 1997 that dictators risk commercial and financial repercussions by limiting the Internet and are thus less likely to do so. Though China has proved that it can selectively block cultural content without negatively affecting economic development, when the question is whether to shut down the entire Internet, the dictator’s dilemma is very much back in play. The fact that Mubarak decided to allow the ISP Noor to continue functioning for a while after the shut-down because it provided Internet access to the Egyptian stock exchange is a direct illustration of the dictator’s dilemma.

The theory of change behind the dictator’s dilemma is that the negative financial repercussions will add further motivation to protesters. But this is not specific enough. It is unlikely that the average Tunisian or Egyptian will feel a direct economic impact from loss of Internet access. However, economic elites will. Economic elites, who are often the beneficiaries of government patronage in non-democratic regimes, are most often regime supporters. That is because these elites are essentially conservative in that they benefit financially from the current regime. (If they are opponents, as in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, they are quickly dispatched).

However, economic elites are often not ideological supporters of the regime. If they see that the regime’s actions are putting their profits at risk, they are likely to put pressure on leaders – whom they often have direct access to – pushing to quickly resolve the political unrest. They may not sympathize with demonstrators – in fact, they probably do not because they do not want political change – but they are one more source of pressure on the regime: “Crush them or leave, we don’t care, just open the banks again.” You can bet that when Mubarak was forced to shut down Noor he was getting a lot of angry phone calls from wealthy investors.

Lessons for Activists

Clearly, censorship still has value to repressive governments, and it can still be effective if it does not bother most citizens. In China, most citizens don’t care about the blockage of Facebook because they have RenRen and Kaixin001. Losing Facebook was not a great loss because it had few users. This was not the case in Tunisia in 2008.

It does not even matter much if elites are circumventing censorship, so long and the information they access is not transferred onto the national internet. As Zeynep Tufekci notes:

Thus, the effect of selective filtering is not to keep out information out of the hands of a determined public, but to allow the majority of ordinary people to continue to be able to operate without confronting information that might create cognitive dissonance between their existing support for the regime and the fact that they, along with many others, also have issues. Meanwhile, the elites go about business as if there was no censorship as they all know how to use work-arounds. This creates a safety-valve as it is quite likely that it is portions of the elite groups that would be most hindered by the censorship and most unhappy with it.

From the perspective of activists who wish to challenge censorship, the best option is to create “dilemma actions” (lose/lose situations for the government) in which either:

  1. Citizens are incited to seek access to a service that is currently censored or
  2. A popular and currently accessible service is shut down.

Put another way, I suggest that Chinese activists post the next Hong Kong film star sex tape on Facebook and start posting hilarious political satire on RenRen. Censorship may not be the solid foundation of Internet control that regimes thought it was.

Conference Tweets on Egypt’s Democratic Transition

The (conference about the Egyptian) revolution will be tweeted! A full-day conference is being held today at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law on the theme of “Democratic Transition in Egypt” and the proceedings will be tweeted. See below or follow @StanfordCDDRL and the hashtag #ARDEG (Arab Reform and Democracy – Egypt).

The Religious Element of Egypt’s Secular Revolution

For a peaceful demonstration organized within a police state to gain sufficient momentum, a critical mass of demonstrators must be mobilized. This critical mass of demonstrators can most easily be mobilized through existing social structures even if it is instigated within novel networks and communication technologies. In different socio-political contexts appropriate social structures will vary, but in Egypt the clear choice for organizers of the January 25th uprising was the congregation of Friday prayers.

It is no coincidence that each pivotal day of the demonstrations – the “Day of Rage,” the million man march, and the threatened ten million man march (that was eventually quelled by President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation) – all happened on Fridays, the Sabbath day in Islam. Friday is a day off for most of the employed, meaning traffic is very limited and more of the population is free to attend demonstrations, but it is also a day of Friday prayers where millions gather across Cairo to pray and listen to sermons from imams. Numbers at mosques swelled, likely because of the attendance of secular demonstrators, imams discussed the demonstrations in sermons (some to dissuade congregations from attending, others to encourage engagement), and at the close of prayers marches began at mosques and moved toward key areas – bridges, squares, and ultimately Tahrir.

By calling for demonstrators to gather at mosques on Twitter, Facebook, and SMS before protests, the organizers made it possible for demonstrations to continue even in the event of a media shutdown. By localizing meeting points – mosques are in every neighborhood in Cairo – and choosing a meeting point guaranteed to have a large number of people that could potentially be apolitical, organizers allowed for a cover of anonymity that could take the place of communication confirmation of the actualization of a planned protest.

Though mobile telephony was completely disrupted in Cairo on the Day of Rage — undoubtedly a turning point in the uprising — a critical mass of demonstrators gathered at mosques and marched on Tahrir.

Though the Muslim Brotherhood did not engage in the January 25th demonstrations until they gained momentum after the first few weeks, the meeting points chosen by demonstrators were initially politicized and given a veneer of radicalization by some western media outlets. The trope that the two choices for Egypt are autocracy or theocracy was reiterated and the use of mosques in the demonstrations put forward as proof.

In analyzing the mobilization of populations for change, particularly in the wake of well orchestrated digital media campaigns, it will become increasingly important, particularly in police states, to assess the social structures that are de facto off-limits from crackdown. These structures, that can rationalize the gathering of many under apolitical guise, are likely to be interesting points of focus during uprisings that are subject to media crackdowns. When communication capability is unplugged, organic social and community structures become critical to the mobilization of many and cater to a movement built of a population with radically different levels of risk-aversion and commitment.

The 7 Ways Digital Tech Helps Activists

The pro-democracy activists in Egypt have been granted their first demand: Hosni Mubarak, dictatorial president for 30 years, has resigned. It is too early to do a post-mortem on the Egyptian revolution as a decapitation at the top cannot cure the corrupt and dictatorial Egyptian state. The activists in the streets know this, know their work has only just begun.

Yet it is an appropriate time to begin a post-mortem of the unprecedented mass mobilizations that brought Egypt to this previously unimaginable moment, particularly the role of digital technology. Just now the complex interplay of online and offline activism and organizing is becoming clear, elucidated by recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, as well as first-person testimony by digital activist Wael Ghonim, who has become a central spokesperson for the youth movement that organized the protests.

In the coming days, people will attempt to assign all kinds of roles to digital technology: organizing, mobilizing, coordinating on Facebook, spreading the word, shaping the narrative on Twitter, exerting pressure, generating citizen journalism, capturing abuses on video, and vague “empowerment”. Doubtless technology will be given credit for achievements it was incapable of and will be downplayed in the role it did play.

In order to focus the discussion, below is a framework for considering the way digital technology assisted the activists in Egypt, or indeed anywhere. While many people think that digital technology can be used for an almost unlimited number of purposes, on closer analysis we can actually distill that list to seven activist uses of digital technology, which are described below.

1) Documentation

One of the most basic capacities of digital technology is to document, to encode information into a digital format from which unlimited copies can be made. This documentation ranges from the recording of human rights information in a secure database like Benetech’s Martus to the recording of a cell phone video of police abuse or the typing of an SMS message. Documentation occurs whenever digital content is created.

2) Synthesis

Digital applications also have the ability to refine raw information into a more useful form by grouping it or connecting it to other information in a format called a “mashup“. Patrick Meier has put together a collection of digital maps that mash up information on the Egyptian protests with geographic information on where those protest occurred. While these maps are among the most visual kinds of mashups, less visual data synthesis is also important. With applications like Constant Contact and Kintera, nonprofits in the US link donor data with demographic information to send targeted emails to their supporters.

3) Resource Transfer

Digital technology can also be used to transfer resources, most specifically money. While micro-donations have played key roles in raising funds for political campaign like Barack Obama did with online donations in 2008 and humanitarian campaigns like the Red Cross’s mobile donations for Haiti in 2010, this practice is far from globally pervasive. While it is one of the reasons that many nonprofits in the West got online, it is only one of the activists uses of digital technology, and there is little evidence that it played much of a role in Egypt.

4) Co-Creation

The next three uses are all forms of coordination, and are listed from the strongest to the weakest form. In the strongest form, co-creation, a usually small group collaboratively plans and designs an action or product, such as a protest march or campaign strategy. Co-creation requires repeated back-and-forth communication, in which the product is refined through input by multiple creators. In Egypt, we saw the organizers of the Khaled Said and April 6th Facebook groups using Google chat to coordinate together, as well as using covert offline meetings.

5) Mobilization

The next strongest form of coordination is mobilization, in which a call to action in transmitted to supporters through digital means. Here the April 6th and Khaled Said Facebook groups were useful while the Internet was still on, as well as Twitter and simple SMS. The activists also used paper flyers to spread the word about the January 25th protest in poorer neighborhoods that were not online.

In mobilization, communication is unilateral, from a small planner group to a larger group of supporters who are asked to take the action created by the planners. It is a weaker form of coordination than co-creation because the supporters did not play a role is designing/planning the action. They are presenting with the call to action and then must make a binary decision to participate or not.

6) Broadcast

Broadcast is the weakest and also the most common form of digital coordination: a piece of information is transmitted to a group in an effort to create a shared understanding of a public issue, but with no specific call to action. This type or information-sharing to an audience not asked to take any particular action accounts for much of the chatter on Twitter related to the protests, even the live tweeting from Tahrir. While this type of information is critical to creating a sense of shared identity among protesters, it demands less of participants than co-creation or mobilization.

7) Protection

Digital technology not only helps activists to work together, but also protests them by helping them circumvent censorship blocks and evade surveillance. Activists can use a proxy server or applications like Tor, Ultrasurf, and Freegate to access forbidden information, or send email using HTTPS for encrypted person to person communication. The increased digital savvy of repressive governments like Egypt, which track the actions of dissidents on Facebook and Twitter, made these anonymizers ever more important.


This framework does not define how Egyptian activists used digital technology in their work, but it does draw a boundary around what is and is not possible. The case study of Egypt has changed our understanding of what is digitally possible in an authoritarian regimes and there will likely be useful lessons emerging for a long time to come.

Hey, Frank Rich, Why not Listen to Egyptians?

In his New York Times op-ed piece last weekend, Frank Rich came out will all guns blazing. He had so many arguments to make: against US media isolation, again the demonization of Islam, against US cable providers, against Donald Rumsfeld. And also against members of the media who said that digital technology was important in the Egypt protests. He critique just drips with disdain:

Three days after riot police first used tear gas and water hoses to chase away crowds in Tahrir Square, CNN’s new prime-time headliner, Piers Morgan, declared that “the use of social media” was “the most fascinating aspect of this whole revolution.” On MSNBC that same night, Lawrence O’Donnell interviewed a teacher who had spent a year at the American school in Cairo. “They are all on Facebook,” she said of her former fifth-grade students. The fact that a sampling of fifth graders in the American school might be unrepresentative of, and wholly irrelevant to, the events unfolding in the streets of Cairo never entered the equation.

And his crowing declaration that digital technology doesn’t matter is pompous:

The social networking hype eventually had to subside for a simple reason: The Egyptian government pulled the plug on its four main Internet providers and yet the revolution only got stronger. “Let’s get a reality check here,” said Jim Clancy, a CNN International anchor, who broke through the bloviation on Jan. 29 by noting that the biggest demonstrations to date occurred on a day when the Internet was down. “There wasn’t any Twitter. There wasn’t any Facebook,” he said. No less exasperated was another knowledgeable on-the-scene journalist, Richard Engel, who set the record straight on MSNBC in a satellite hook-up with Rachel Maddow. “This didn’t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “This had to do with people’s dignity, people’s pride. People are not able to feed their families.”

No one would deny that social media do play a role in organizing, publicizing and empowering participants in political movements in the Middle East and elsewhere. But as Malcolm Gladwell wrote on The New Yorker’s Web site last week, “surely the least interesting fact” about the Egyptian protesters is that some of them “may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.”

Anyone actually interested in the empirical study of digital activism/digital repression could tell Mr. Rich that both operate along a tactical continuum (image link) of digital advantage and disadvantage (full post). Yet I don’t think Mr. Rich is interested in making that argument, which admits the accurate observations on both sides and argues for more study rather than making declarations about winners and losers. It is an argument that does not lend itself to bombast.

However, one thing Mr. Rich is interested in is how American views of Egyptian digital activism and repression reflect a cultural chauvinism:

The talking-head invocations of Twitter and Facebook instead take the form of implicit, simplistic Western chauvinism. How fabulous that two great American digital innovations can rescue the downtrodden, unwashed masses.

The real evidence of Western chauvinism, however, is Mr. Rich’s comfort with defining the use of digital technology without referencing the opinion of even one Egyptian in his article. If we listen to Egyptians and their allies, who are frequently interviewed on Al Jazeera English‘s live stream at and who broadcast their own opinions through the Twitter hashtag #Jan25 and put their photos on Flickr, we see a more subtle picture. Are the Egyptians in Tahrir Square using Facebook iconography in their signs (like the one above) because they are absorbing Western chauvinism? No, they are using these symbols because they have resonance, because they are useful to them. Facebook did not cause the revolution, but that is a straw-man argument that not even the so-called cyber-utopians believe. But, as even Mr. Rich’s own newspaper reported:

While it is almost impossible to isolate the impact of social media tools from the general swirl of events that set off the popular uprisings across the Middle East, there is little doubt that they provided a new means for ordinary people to connect with human rights advocates trying to amass support against police abuse, torture and the Mubarak government’s permanent emergency laws allowing people to be jailed without charges.

Facebook and YouTube also offered a way for the discontented to organize and mobilize — and allowed secular-minded young people to seize the momentum from Egypt’s relatively neutered, organized opposition.

But wait, Mr. Rich agrees with this perspective too:

No one would deny that social media do play a role in organizing, publicizing and empowering participants in political movements in the Middle East and elsewhere.

So why is he arguing in the first place? Maybe he just likes to argue.

It Could Happen To You

In a world of insta-analysis that demands predictions, many commentators looked at the Tunisian revolution and argued that it was an isolated affair, and that structural factors would prevent the rest of the Arab states from suffering similar fates. In a particularly incoherent article containing some gobbledygook about the Roman Empire in the New York Times, primordialist du jour Robert D. Kaplan argued that the unrest was unlikely to spread to Cairo and beyond and plainly stated his admiration for dictators like the late Habib Bourgiba of Tunisia (who he hilariously referred to as “one of the lesser-known Great Men of the twentieth century”). The American political class’s love affair with cooperative dictators is obviously alive and quite well. This journalist consensus reflects what I consider to be an increasingly smug agreement in American political science about the entrenched nature of authoritarian rule in the Middle East – a consensus that both empties social science of any moral obligations, and gives license to the political class to continue dealing with reprehensible tyrants as if they will be around forever.

In any case, last week’s predictions are moot, as the unrest has now demonstrably spread to Egypt (and to Yemen, where I will defer to others). The regime is frightened enough that it has reportedly shut down the Internet across Egypt. And this is not just Cairo – credible reports are rolling in that the regime may be losing control in places like Sallum, on the border with Libya. The Muslim Brotherhood, probably the most organized opposition force in the country, has finally joined the fray and promised to join in demonstrations after Friday prayers tomorrow, whose slogan is now, according to al-Masry al-Youm, “No Retreat and No Surrender” (AR). The unrest has its own unique Egyptian causes, most notably a longstanding campaign against police brutality and torture that intensified with the Khaled Said campaign, but it is also undeniably influenced by events in Tunisia.

There is no way to know what role digital technologies have played in the unrest, but certainly it appears that people are relying on them for coordination. We are privy to video footage of the kind that would not have been possible ten years ago, like this already-iconic video of a single protester bravely castrating a water gun being fired on him by cowards in an armored vehicle. Shutting down the Internet may interfere with Egyptians’ sense that the unrest is national, which is where international activism can play a role by relaying reports from contacts inside Egypt. The question is – will they shut down the mobile networks too? Unless they do, the intrepid will manage to ensure that the Tweet goes on.

I would personally like to take a break from trying to parse the events and wish my friends in Egypt safety and good luck. I was lucky enough to meet dozens of kind, bighearted people during my research in Egypt, earnest and thoughtful young people who yearned for a voice, and for democratic change, many of whom had been to prison for the crime of free expression. They deserve better, and I am in awe of their courage. I certainly hope that if nothing else, we refuse to continue countenancing the sacrifice of their rights at the altar of geostrategy.

Digital Activism & Power

The Big Question

Digital activism is a field is search of a central question. There are many possibilities being bandied about, and the nature of the question varies according to who is asking. Activists ask “how do I use digital activism in my campaign?”, which too often devolves into “how do I use digital tools in my campaign?” and a focus on the device or app of the moment. Academics, in turn, ask how digital activism affects not individual campaigns but systems: American politics or repressive regimes, for example.

The problem with multiple questions is that they obscures the fact that all these people are actually asking the same question: “Does digital infrastructure change the dynamics of power?” Each of the groups above would add their own modifier, or course. The activists want to know how digital activism will change the dynamics of power of their campaign, giving them the upper hand over their opponent. Academics want to know how digital activism changes the dynamics of power in Iran or China, a question that Patrick Meier, a member of our Strategy Group, has termed the “Tom vs. Jerry” debate.

Nevertheless, for all involved the central question is power. Because this topic is fundamental to all other questions of digital activism – its value, its legitimacy, its development – I will devote a series of posts to presenting different answers to this question and different ways to conceptualize it. This post is the first and answers the question according to a certain definition of power.

Defining Power

If we seek to answer the question “does digital infrastructure change the dynamics of power” we need to first define “digital infrastructure” and “power”. “Digital infrastructure” can be defined as the networks, devices, and applications that are engaged in the production and dissemination of digitally-encoded content. It is a deliberately broad term. The argument of digital activism is that the global digital network is fundamentally different from previous communications systems and we should appreciate this new system in all its complexity and reject the temptation to be reductionist. We cannot determine the effect of digital activism on power if we only talk about a handful of applications, like Facebook and Twitter.

The definition of power we will use in this post was developed by political scientist Steven Lukes‘ of New York University and is the most nuanced and broadly applicable definition of power I have yet come across. It is called the “three faces of power“. The three faces are:

1) Decision Making Power
2) Non-Decision Making Power
3) The Power to Define Interests

The first face of power, Decision Making Power, is the one we are most familiar with. It is the power to make and implement decisions. For example, when Proposition 8 came onto the ballot in California, it showed that those opposing gay marriage had greater power than those who supported it, because the referendum was decided in favor of same-sex marriage opponents. Those who opposed gay marriage implemented this decision by compelling same-sex marriage supporters to do something they would not do otherwise: cease same-sex marriages. This formulation of power – the ability to force someone to do something they otherwise would not do – is the most common conceptualization of power, but is actually only the most visible.

The second face of power, Non-Decision Making Power, is the ability to prevent an issue from even entering a decision-making phase. In the same-sex marriage example, this refers to the long period of time when same-sex marriage was not considered a valid public issue, and was kept off the political agenda.

The third face of power, The Power to Define Interests, is the most subtle. It refers to the ability of those in power to convince those they have power over to make decisions against their own interests. Examples include women supporting patriarchal systems, gay people opposing same-sex marriage rights, or poor people opposing universal health care. In all three cases, the powerless have been convinced to act in the interest of the powerful, rather than in their own interest. This form or power is perhaps the most insidious because, as long as those who are harmed by a policy align their interests with those benefit from it, there will not be any pressure to put the issue on the political agenda (face two) or to have a vote or similar open contest on the issue (face one).

How Digital Infrastructure Affects Power: Defining Interests

Digital infrastructure affects the mechanics of power by making it easier for activists to spread information (influencing interests) and to mobilize around that information (influencing the public agenda and decision-making). To demonstrate this, I will start with the third face of power and work up to the first since the power process actually begins with the third face (definition of interests) and ends with the first (deciding public contests). Continue reading

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