A New Type of Documentary for a New Type of Documentation

I have been lucky enough to spend this week at the Sundance Film Festival. One of my favorite films so far has been “The Green Wave,” a documentary about the the 2009 post-election uprising in Iran. It was wonderful and deeply affecting and, even as someone who watched events closely at the time and read subsequent analysis, Ilearned much I had not realized,particularly about the scope and brutalityof the goverment response.

What I want to write about here, however, is the way in the film was created, which represents a new mode of documentary creation appropriate to the digital age. The film’s creator, Ali Samadi Ahadi, and his collaborators, were living in Germany when the elections occurred and he felt that, even afterwards, it would be too dangerous either to go to Iran to shoot footage or to ask a local to shoot on his behalf.

Instead, he decided to create his documentary froma mix digital content created by Iranians who lived through the protests and documented their experiences, some through grainy cell phone video and some through beautifully-written and heart-rending blog posts, translated into English and illustrated in dark yet striking animation, like the image at left. We hear from aMousavi campaign worker, a young manwho istaken into custody and tortured with dozens of others, of a woman whose cousin isa Basiji militiaman recounting his crimes and guilt.

These firsthand accounts are inter-cut with the kind of talking-head interviews one expects in a documentary, but it is the digital content that strikes the heart. I did not at any moment feel that the documentary lacked for footage or insight. More that telling the story himself, Samadi Ahadi, was a vehicle for letting the people of Iran tell their own story in their own wordsand images. It is a new and appropriate role for a documentary film-maker, recognizingthe increased capacity of ordinary people to document their own lives in the digital age.

The 4 Ways Tech Can Change Politics

How can people use digital technology to change politics? Starting from within political institutions and moving outward, people can use technology to change politics in the following four ways:


This is e-government – people inside government using technology to change government, usually to make it more efficient, but occasionally to make it more accountable and democratic. On the efficiency side you have e-filing of income taxes and clearinghouse sites like USA.gov. On the accountability and democracy side you have Recovery.gov and Data.gov, efforts to give people the information they need to hold government to account.

An interesting sub-group of insiders are those who use digital technology not only as a means of government reform, but as a model for how government should function. This is the idea of “government as a platform” or Government 2.0. As a recent post on O’Reilly Radar put it, “Gov 2.0 is about a transformation process involving innovation for transparency, collaboration, and/or participation,” it “does not exist in a government vacuum…. To the extent that it serves or interacts with citizens, those citizens serve as an operating environment for government.”

The country that is trying this Government 2.0 approach most seriously is Great Britain, where thePrime Minister David Cameron’sBig Society program is cutting back on social services and asking citizens to step in and co-create British society. Practically, this means collaborative budgeting and unfunded local initiatives like people building a bike path in their village. A recent New Yorker article said of the Big Society, “This is Wikipedia government, collectively created by the impassioned, the invested, and the bored.” Without money (the country isin adebt crisis), access toinformation is the currency of this new endeavor. “Transparency is the Cameronian fetish; government is meant to be a ‘co-production’ of citizen and state.”

2. Entrants

Political institution can be changed not only by people already in government, but by helpingnew types of people enter government who previously would have been doomed to failure by their outsider status. The prime example here is without question the 2008 election of Barack Obama, where thousands of online micro-donations allowed the campaign tofund itselfwithout relying on the traditional big donors and PACs and for supporters to communicate with one another and self-mobilize without the direction of the campaign through social media tools like MyBarackObama.

Two other prominent examples of digital technology helping outsiders into office by reaching out directly to self-organizing supporters arePresidentRoh Moo Hyun in South Korea in, whose supporters mobilized online and via text messaging in 2002, and President Victor Yushchenko of Ukraine, whom the Orange Revolution brought to power, through the help of mobile technology and online citizen journalism in 2004.

The post-election atmosphere into which these candidate step is rarely peaceful. President Obama is brutally attacked from the conservative right and disappointed left. Yushchenko oversaw various government crises, including two dissolutions of Parliament, before losing the election of 2010. Roh’s story is surely the saddest. After a dramatic fall from grace he committed suicide in 2009. The difficulty these outsider candidates face once they enter formal political institutions is less a mark of personal failure than an indication of how truly threatened the old guard feel by these new insiders and how viciously they will fight to thwart them.

3. Pursuaders

The third group, pursuaders, seek to influence political institutions from the outside. This group refers not only to the digital activists that are the common theme of this blog, but also more traditional nonprofits and, perhaps most forcefully of all, business interests. In the persuader (or advocate or lobbyist) role, these groups have no interest in being members of the government, but seek to convince those in government to act and legislate according to their interests.

There are many types of pursuader individuals, from paid lobbyists to nonprofit employees to passionate volunteers. However, it is the least well-connected that are most likely to rely heavily on technology to make their voices heard and to mobilize supporters to take action on their behalf. To a corporate lobbyist with the Senator’s home phone on speed dial, creating an active Facebook group or trying to raise awareness of an issue through creating a hashtag on Twittermay seem not worth the effort. However, as the rise of astro-turfing has made clear, even the well-connected sometimes need a popular front to reinforce the legitimacy of their claims.

Even though digital activists are often seen as radical, and are jailed and harassed in repressive countries, they are actually operating within the existing political environment. They access the basic institutions of government and, even when they seek a leadership change, go about it through the proper institutional channels of elections. In the case of issue advocacy they are even less radical, asking only that those already in power side with them on a particular issue. Digital activists are not the radicals of this spectrum.

4. Usurpers

The true radicals here are the usurpers, those who use technology in their attempts to take political power, usually through violence. Though this site does not address violent activism often, its role in changing politics cannot be ignored.The Mumbai terrorists used encrypted Blackberry phonesto coordinate with one another during the 2008 attacks and seek information about the progress of the attacks, which has caused a backlash against encrypted mobile data not only in India but also in the Middle East.

In Somalia, the Islamist insurgency group Al-Shabaab uses their web forum, Al Quimmah, tocommunicate with the Western media and recruit fighters internationally. Their desire for power is serious, and they have been successful. According to Wikipedia, as of summer 2010 the group controls most of the southern and central parts of the country, including significant portions of the capital, Mogadishu. Where it controls territory it changes political institutions by Islamacizing them, enforcing the harsher tenets of Sharia law.

Once in power, these usurpers become insiders, butwithout the benefit of popular legitimation through elections. This insecurity causes them to use technology repressively to maintain control, as the once-revolutionary Communist Party does in China and the once-revolutionary mullahs do in Iran. Though in many cases usurpers limit technology use by their citizens rather than use it proactively to assert their power, the more creative governments use digital technology and social media offensively, such as China’s 50 Cent Party, Iran’s online identification of protesters, and Hugo Chavez’s heavy use of social media to maintain his popularity in Venezuela.


For those interested in exploring the intersection of politics and technology, it is important to understand the full spectrum. From the most conservative bureaucrat automating some of his tasks to the most radical terrorist using the Internet to legitimize himself internationally, digital technology is at play at all political levels, from the institutional center to the revolutionary edge. We will only understand how technology affects politics if we understand the interplay of its diverse manifestations.

image: ceBIT Australia

LibTech: Return of Practitioners’ Panel

Disclaimer: I have done my best to transcribe the comments of these speakers at the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes, and I apologize for any errors.

Here are a few of the most interesting tidbits from the second practitioners’ panel:

  • Carl Gershman of the National Endowment for Democracy: I’m skeptical of big bureaucratic democracy-building initiatives. I’m more in favor of helping people do what they are already doing, out of the limelight. But I don’t want to let the US government off the hook in taking action in this area. (Paraphrased)
  • Carl Gershman of the National Endowment for Democracy: Freedom of the Internet or freedom by the Internet? I think we should be for both. (Paraphrased)
  • Bob Boorstin of Google: It’s dangerous to promise big with regard to Internet freedom without a big plan for realization. Policy movement in any administration is very difficult. (non-panelist commenter)
  • Ali Akbar Mousavi formerly of the Iranian Parliament: Iranian government jams satellite signals, supposedly to prevent the broadcast of pornography. The Cuban government assisted in this, but later stopped.
  • Ali Akbar Mousavi formerly of the Iranian Parliament: Companies like Nokia-Siemens, Ericsson, Huawei, and ZTE sell wire-tapping, tracking and filtering technology to Iran. Third-party companies also play a role, acting as middle-men.
  • Ali Akbar Mousavi formerly of the Iranian Parliament:The Iranian government has gained access to activists’ Yahoo email accounts, but apparently not yet to Gmail accounts. This may be a result of security features or collaboration with authorities.
  • Nathan Freitas of Guardian Project: If Balatarin.com is the Digg of Iran, is Caucasian Knot the Huffington Post of the Caucasus? (non-panelist commenter)
  • Gregory Shvedov of Caucasian Knot: Crowdsourcing is not the same as crowd-sharing. Crowdsourcing is a pull from the center (“You, member of the crowd, give me info”), crowd-sharing is a push (“I, a member of the crowd, want to share this info.”)
  • Carl Gershman of the National Endowment for Democracy: On the issue of Liu Xiaobo, China is in the position to really humiliate itself. Why is he still in prison? We should increase pressure on this issue.
  • Troy Etulain of USAID: The $15 million of funding for Internet freedom which the State Department has now was initiated by Congress. The State Department did not request the money. (non-panelist commenter)

LibTech: Mehdi Yahyanejad on Iran

Disclaimer: I have done my best to transcribe the comments of these speakers at the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes, and I apologize for any errors.

Mehdi Yahyanejad was a post-doctoral researcher at Stanford as well as being a trained physicist and software developer. One popular project, Balatarin.com, is similar to Digg and covers politics and social news in Farsi. He begins with a background on the 2009 elections, noting that Mousavi and Karoubi were the reformist candidate, while Ahmedinijad was the conservative incumbent, all with strong revolutionary credentials.

Facebook and Twitter were unblocked in January of 2009, for unknown reasons. Possible motivations include the desire to track conversations and to present a more open facade to western journalists. Though SMS was used for campaigning, these services were shut down on election day. When Ahmedinejad was announced the winner with 63% of the vote citizens, particularly in more progresstive Tehran where Mousavi was popular, believe some fraud has occurred. The key here was again an information cascade. The Internet was not shut down. Though being suspicious of an election outcome was not unusual, the Internet allowed people to know that their fellow citizens shared their skepticism, giving strength to their own feelings and leading to further expressions of dissent.

Protests began on June 15th and the government crackdown on the 20th, the day Neda Agha Sultan was shot. Street protests ended but action did re-emerged on days when sanctioned public rallies occurred. such as the official annual anti-Israel rally. These protests were organized through the Internet, particularly to distribute news and coordinate. The Internet still provides some sense of anonymity.

Next he specifically addresses the idea of the “Twitter Revolution.” He argues that YouTube was actually the more critical technology. The mainstream media had two poles, human interest stories from more liberal journalists and nuclear stories from conservative ones. YouTube, particularly the Neda video, brought attention to human rights issues and to native opposition. It took only three hours between Neda’s murder to its posting on YouTube. Another video, which showed how the militia (Basij?) were attacking Mousavi’s headquarters showed the viciousness of the government reaction. The Iranian government has reacted by slowing Internet speed, attacking sites with DDoS attacks, and arresting webmasters.

Tactical vs. Strategic Success: Why Both Matter

by Mary Joyce

Imagine you want to win a race. You begin training every day, change your diet, and greatly reduce your time. You’re in the best shape of your life. However, on the day on the race, you finish two seconds late and lose the race. Instead of being the guy in the middle leaping over the finish line, you’re the guy in the white shirt who almost made it. Was this a success or a failure?

In digital activism, this kind of situation occurs all the time. Activists are successful in completing the tactics they have laid out for themselves (getting thousands of people in the street, developing a coherent message, building a flexible organization) but they fail in their ultimate goal (overthrowing a dictatorial government, throwing out the results of a rigged election). The 2009 post-election mobilization in Iran is a perfect example: successful mobilization, failure in goal of overturning election results.

Currently the value of a digital activism is in the eye of the beholder. The optimists say that the mobilization made it a success. The pessimists and skeptics say that the mobilization was a failure because they did not achieve their ultimate goal.

But both sides can be right if we look at this empirically as tactical success vs. strategic success. A strategy is a plan that includes a series of actions taken to achieve a goal. Each action is a tactic. So if your goal is to win a race, your tactics would be to train, to go on a special diet, to measure your times to track your progress. Likewise, if your goal is to overturn an election result, you may decide that taking to the street, to show the government that you do not accept the result, is a good tactic. Maybe you are wrong.

Often, when a digital tactic succeeds, the technology worked, but the strategy was somehow flawed. We need to know how and when the technology works so that best practices can be replicated. We need to pay attention to tactical successes. But we also need to remember that tactical success + strategic failure is not good enough. Digital technology provides that means for activists to record, process, reveal, co-create, request, and aggregate in a way never before possible. But technology doesn’t solve the strategic questions of target, audience, message, opportunity structure, alliance-building, isolation of opponents… the list goes on.

A failure of strategy of is not a failure of technology. It just reveals technology’s limits.

image: Danimal1802/Flickr

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