I try to keep an eye on stories about PR and lobbying firms that work on behalf of dictatorial governments, like our oil-rich friends in Equatorial Guinea and the ever-complicated nation of Rwanda. (See this recent piece by Geoffrey York for more on Rwanda’s use of PR firms and lobbyists.) So this piece by Vijaya Ramachandran on the Center for Global Development blog caught my attention. It discusses the complexity of obtaining information on lobbyists working on behalf of foreign governments and points to a tool developed by the Sunlight Foundation and ProPublica, the Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker.
Like many of the tools from the Sunlight Foundation, it’s both very exciting, and a couple of steps away from what I’d hope it could be. You can poke through and find the six different entities connected to Equatorial Guinea that have hired lobbyists… but it would take some serious legwork to compare how much money different nations are spending on lobbying, and who they’re trying to influence.
I got distracted looking at which countries had sought lobbyists in Washington. The answer: pretty much every nation you’ve ever heard of, and a few you’ve probably never heard of. Alongside established, UN-recognized nation-states, there are unrecognized states, like Abkhazia, the Sahwari Democratic Arab Republic, Puntland, Nagorno-Karabagh. Most of those are long-standing proto-states that I can place on a map. But I’d never heard of “The People’s Republic of Nagalim”.
Nagalim is an aspirational state for the Naga people, who are chiefly located in Nagaland, a state in north-eastern India, one of the seven states connected to the rest of the nation by a narrow land bridge (the Siliguri corridor) above Bangladesh. Some of these states are seeking partial or total independence from India, and there’s ongoing violence in the region connected with insurgencies. The organizers of Nagalim.us see the Indian state of Nagaland as insufficient, and are seeking an independent Nagalim including parts of India and Burma.
It’s unclear what form of governance the Nagalim movement is seeking, beyond independence from India. The National Socialist Council of Nagalim – which maintains Nagalim.us – wants to avoid misconceptions about their identity:
To clarify misconceptions: “national socialist” should not be confused with national socialism, or Nazism. “National” refers to the Naga nation. “Socialist” should not be confused with Communism, Eastern European or Chinese-style socialism. Although modern socialist principles have influenced the Nagas – as they have Western democracies (e.g. social security and medicare in the United States), traditional Naga society emphasized certain collective social principles – sharing, cooperation, lack of a class structure, etc. It is these ideals which the Nagas wish to retain and reinvigorate as they build a modern nation.
Some of the supporters of the Naga people’s aspirations would add an additional term to “national” and “socialist”: “Christian”. American Baptist missionaries were highly active in Nagaland in the late 19th and early 20th century. As a result of their efforts, the Naga people are roughly 90% Christian, and the vast majority (75% of the population of Nagaland State) are Baptist, making Nagaland the most Baptist state in the world, well ahead of strongholds like Alabama or Mississippi. Evangelist and former Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson wonders whether we should refer to Nagalim as “The Baptist Tibet”. The plight of the Naga is a popular topic for ASSIST news services, a service that strives to document persecution of Christians around the world.
The lobbyist representing The People’s Republic of Nagalim in Washington is Grace Collins, who is referred to on some Nagalim websites as Honorary Ambassador from Nagalim to the US. She doesn’t seem shy about using Baptist-influenced language to offer her blessings to Nagalim on the occasion of the nation’s 62nd independence day in 2008 (I’m assuming this is independence from the British…) A profile on Naymz.com explains that Ms. Collins began her cultural diplomacy for Nagalim in 1997, and was asked by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim to represent the nation, full-time, in 2003.
And according to her lobbying records, she’s been busy. Lobbying disclosures are usually pretty formulaic. Here’s an example, from McDermott, Will and Emery, lobbying on behalf of Equatorial Guinea: “to gather information in order to better advise the Foreign Principal on ongoing reforms. Registrant did not advance a specific policy position.” That same text is cut and pasted several times into the database – most lobbying disclosures are carefully constructed lawyerspeak, designed to ensure compliance.
Ambassador Collins seems less concerned about compliance, which makes her disclosures a far more interesting read:
On behalf of GPRN/NSCN I attended networking functions that exposed me to a high level of professional. I also hosted the President and his cabinet, talked with congressmens offices, met NGO leaders, and churches. I attended many inauguration parties and committee functions. I am constinuing to raise awareness for the Naga orphans through the Malcolm Project. I went Ramstein, Germany and met with some US army people in order to tie in the Wounded Warriors of our government with the Nagas army. Tha Nagas are creating a goodwill guilt as a way of showing support and honoring our troops as the Naga fought side by side in WI and WII against the Japanese occupation.
The “goodwill guilt” appears to be a quilt, made from remnants of Naga shawls: “Sent Nancy Shinder $100 plus shawl remnants to make a quilt from the Naga government to our US Army in Ramstein, Germany”. Cultural diplomacy also involves attempts to make a film:
I decided to break out of lobbying on the Hill and start branching out to Hollywood celebrities to help me. I have been searching for the right script writer and publicists to find a celebrity to champion the Naga cause. I have spoken at the International Society of the Arts Salon in Los Angeles and hosted a Nagalim Discovered Event in Hollywood. Because I was planning to go to Nagaland in February and initially the Indian government gave me a visa, I purchased four tickets and then the Indian government, with no explanation, revoked my visa. I decided to take the Film documentation and Continental Airlines to Small Claims court in Los Angeles for not reimbursing me the cost of my air tickets. The Judge Judy Show found my story and asked me to appear on the show. I did this in order to back door the Nagalim story to 10 million audience.
Collins did appear on the Judge Judy Show, according to a transcript from December 29, 2009, though it’s not clear whether the dispute over a canceled airline ticket forwarded the Naga people’s cause.
It’s easy to poke fun at Collins’s disclosures, particularly when they include her cat: “Clarence is my cat. We are putting him in the Wounded Warrior program.” But her accounts read like the work of someone trying very, very hard to figure out how best to gain recognition for a country no one has ever heard of.
It’s not an easy problem to figure out – state recognition, ultimately, is up to the decisions of other states. Sometimes it’s pretty easy for states to make up their mind – Sudan holds a referendum, the majority of people in Southern Sudan vote for independence, and other states recognize the new state. Sometimes, it’s much, much messier – Abkhazia is recognized by Russia and by other Russian-aligned self-declared states, including South Ossetia and Transnistria, but not by many other nations. Nagalim is evidently seeking recognition from the US as a main strategy for independence, both because religious ties make recognition more likely and because US recognition might well lead to pressure on India to offer a path to independence.
For those less inclined to improvise, there are firms that focus on helping unrecognized states get recognized. Independent Diplomat specializes in representing states like Somaliland and Western Sahara, as well as the now-recognized Southern Sudan. A profile in the New York Times offers some background on the founder of the organization, and the reasons nations might need to hire a non-profit diplomatic corps.
I have no doubt there are more important stories contained within the data contained within the Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker, and that most of them are less quirky and more depressing than this story. But sometimes the beauty of data is the snippet that catches your eye, the American Baptists seeking recognition for a state in South Asia through films, cats and quilts.
Robert Neuwirth is bringing new insights to familiar (for him, unfamiliar for most of us) territory in his book, “Stealth of Nations“. His previous work, “Shadow Cities” was a plea to take squatter cities and informal settlements seriously, rather than dismissing them as slums. (My review of Shadow Cities is here.) His mission in this new book is for us to reconsider the “informal economy”, which he rebrands “System D”.
“System D” is an abbreviation for “l’economie de la débrouillardise”, a tern coined in French-speaking Africa to refer to a system of “resourceful and ingenious” people who make their livings outside the formal, taxed and regulated economy. Neuwirth rejects the term “informal” because the coiner of that phrase, British anthropologist Keith Hart, included the criminal underground in his term, “the informal economy”. Neuwirth wants to celebrate the energy and ingenuity of people who make their living outside formal economic structure, but distinguish those he celebrates from those who are selling drugs or running prostitution rings. The heroes of System D may avoid taxes, smuggle goods or operate without permits, but Neuwirth sees them not as criminals but as hardworking people trying to make a living in systems that are broken and corrupt.
Neuwirth’s great strength is as a traveler and storyteller. Like “Shadow Cities”, “Stealth of Nation” is packed chock full with stories from the communities he’s visited in Brazil, Paraguay, Nigeria, China and the United States. We meet street merchants selling pens and cakes in São Paolo, a handbag manufacturer in Guangzhou and the baker of high-end (if unlicensed) olive oil cake in New York City. He takes a particularly deep dive in Lagos, a megalopolis he describes as “a System D city”, where virtually no infrastructures are provided by the state, and where basic services like power, drinking water and public transit are provided by private industry and workers’ collectives, who build systems that function with limited licensing, taxation or oversight.
This wealth of narratives helps make the case that System D is massive and pervasive. Working from numbers from the World Bank and using the insights of Austrian economist Friedrich Schneider, Neuwirth offers an estimate that System D is responsible for roughly $10 trillion in goods and services bought and sold annually. That makes “Bazaristan” the second largest economy in the world, behind the United States. He further argues that System D provides employment for a majority of adults in many developing nations. Whether or not we approve of the activities of System D, Neuwirth argues, we need to take it seriously because of the large number of individuals it impacts.
Neuwirth’s inquiry is extremely broad in scope, both in terms of the subjects he considers and the timescale he examines. Chapters look at phenomena like piracy and counterfeit goods, and smuggling across international borders, which Neuwirth examines primarily via Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este, a urban center that exists primarily so Brazilian citizens – and merchants – can avoid paying taxes. To provide a historical context for these sorts of trade, Neuwirth calls on classical economists, including Adam Smith, as well as histories from the 18th century to demonstrate the ongoing demonization and dismissal of System D merchants. For me, these excursions into the past are less enjoyable that the wealth of contemporary examples he provides, though they’re helpful in establishing that System D is a very old system as well as a new one.
The danger in both of Neuwirth’s books is that he loves his subject so much, he occasionally celebrates it uncritically. “Shadow Cities” occasionally read to me as a marketing brochure for Brazilian favelas, suggesting we abandon traditional urban planning and invite urban entrepreneurs to rewire the electrical grid to meet their needs. “Stealth of Nations” is more careful, and Neuwirth engages with the ways in which Lagos can be a nightmare for the people who live there, not just a creative laboratory for urban innovation. At the same time, he urges us to take seriously the miracle that Lagos works at all, a miracle that can be hard to see underneath the diesel smog, caught in an hours-long go-slow.
This appreciation for the complex systems that compose System D can push Neuwirth towards a sort of conservatism that’s familiar to readers of Jane Jacobs. Neuwirth’s Robert Moses is Lagos State governor Babatunde Fashola, who Neuwirth lambasts for clearing street merchants from busy intersections and setting up formalized markets in inconveniently located parts of the city. Neuwirth is right to point out that Fashola, and other urban planners, have a tendency to undervalue the contributions of street merchants, and tend to propose unworkable alternatives to current systems. But celebrating contemporary Lagos in the ways that Jacobs celebrated the Lower East Side seems to miss two critical points. First, to the extent that Lagos works right now, it just barely works – Neuwirth acknowledges as much when he points out that some of Lagos’s most impenetrable traffic jams are caused by the tendency of merchants to turn roadways into markets. Second, Lagos is growing at a ferocious pace, and Fashola seems to be taking seriously the challenge of allowing the city to continue functioning as a megalopolis, likely to soon be one of the world’s largest cities. One possible response to Neuwirth’s criticism is to point out that Fashola was just re-elected with 81% of the vote in a poll most observers saw as free and fair.
Neuwirth is a journalist and documentarian, not an economist or an urban planner, and it may be unreasonable to ask him to solve the thorny problem of bringing System D and the formal economy into closer partnership. Neuwirth examines Hernando de Soto’s work on formalizing System D through property rights. De Soto’s most helpful intervention is the observation that the poor have wealth – homes, businesses, assets – but few ways to access them. By creating a paper trail, establishing ownership over houses and other real estate, de Soto argues that the poor can access their wealth, borrowing against their homes and using the loans to start new businesses. Neuwirth looks at de Soto’s native Peru and concludes that formalization hasn’t done much to help System D. The problem is the banks, who are perfectly willing to accept deposits from System D entrepreneurs, but unwilling to lend to them. Neuwirth’s anger is rightly placed, and his solution – that communities and governments need to demand that banks serve the communities they are located in, not just their shareholders – is timely and correct, even if difficult to implement.
The solutions Neuwirth offers for strengthening and legitimating System D are, by his own admission, modest in scope. Merchants should work together to regulate their activities, settling disputes within mediation mechanisms. They should take responsibility for the physical spaces they inhabit and work to make them clean and safe. They should consider systems that review product safety and ensure the quality of goods sold. Neuwirth isn’t opposed to regulatory involvement in this space – he looks closely at the “pure water” industry in Nigeria, where entrepreneurs drill wells, pump water and purify it under government standards before selling it in single-use sachets to thirsty customers. The system could be a health nightmare if minimum health standards are not enforced. The Lagos government can’t provide clean drinking water to its citizens, so it has found a way to work with System D to ensure that people have water and the water doesn’t kill them – for System D advocates, there’s potential in that story and a model other governments might follow.
But the pure water story also reveals the apparent limits of System D. “Pure water” usually won’t kill you, but it’s an environmental nightmare, as millions of nylon bags clog the Lagos sewers. It’s a wonderful thing that Lagosians can drink safe water, but a system where thousands of school-age girls sell sachets of water because you can’t drink the water out of the pipes isn’t a system any sane planner would advocate for. System D can get Lagos’s citizens to work, but it’s never going to build affordable and environmentally sound public transportation. If merchants follow Neuwirth’s advice, they may collectively buy bigger diesel generators, but they’re unlikely to fix Nigeria’s laughably inadequate power grid.
The people Neuwirth celebrates are – rightly – frustrated by their governments. They avoid paying taxes both because those taxes can be arbitrary and unaffordable, and because they see very few government services in exchange bought with those revenues. But governments need revenues to build infrastructures. And, as economist Paul Collier argues, they need taxes – and need to put those taxes to use in productive ways – in order to have legitimacy. System D seems like a local maximum in an equation – when it works well, it’s amazing what entrepreneurial people can accomplish against impossible odds. But the solutions created are convoluted and incomplete, and it’s reasonable to worry that System D may prevent more formal systems from providing more complete solutions to societal problems.
I don’t actually disagree with Neuwirth on this point – I wrote an essay some years back about incremental infrastructure, an idea I’d had from studying African mobile phone markets, that suggested that systems like power grids and roadways might be built by the cooperation of entrepreneurs when governments failed. My proposal suffers from the same weaknesses I’m criticizing Neuwirth for: it’s hard to see how a collective of merchants builds a railroad, and sometimes a railroad is what’s really needed for economic development.
But that’s an awfully big problem to demand that Neuwirth tackle – if you want to understand precisely how complicated that problem is, try this thought piece from Collier, proposing a possible solution to railroad construction in sub-Saharan Africa. Neuwirth’s job isn’t to solve the problems of System D. What he does – compellingly, readably, engagingly, and frequently, brilliantly – is give the reader a picture of how the world’s economies actually work, and a convincing argument that we need to respect and understand these economic systems. It’s a good read and an important book.
When you pick up Neuwirth’s new book, also consider grabbing a copy of Gordon Mathews’s “Ghetto at the Center of the World”, a remarkable ethnography of a single building in Hong Kong, Chungking Mansions. Chungking Mansions is a nondescript and somewhat run-down tower block in one of the more crowded corners of Kowloon. Inside is a remarkable market, where Chinese, Pakistani and sub-Saharan African merchants interact with one another in a microcosm of global trade. Mathews refers to this economic phenomenon as “low-end globalization”, and his book unpacks the history, mechanics, personalities and motivations in a way that is absolutely fascinating.
Chungking Mansions exists because of a peculiarity of Hong Kong’s visa policies. Tourist visas to Hong Kong are easily obtained by citizens of many nations – residents of countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya often have difficulty obtaining visas to Europe, the US or China, but are able to travel to Hong Kong for anywhere between 7 and 90 days, depending on the discretion of the immigration officer. As China became a major manufacturing power, Chungking Mansions became a critical interface between Chinese factories and developing world markets. The upper floors of the building feature low-cost guesthouses that cater primarily to traveling merchants, and restaurants that offer home cooking for the African and South Asian migrants who work out of the building.
On the ground floor, dozens of stalls feature Pakistani merchants selling Chinese-made mobile phones to African middlemen. Mathews documents the trade in intimate detail, explaining the ownership of the individual stalls (they are generally rented from Chinese owners who are rarely present in the building, but have a powerful owner’s association that governs the working on the market), the provenance of the phones sold (including the difference between original phones, 14-day phones – original phones returned to the vendor by dissatisfied customers, good fakes and bad fakes) and the economics of importing phones into sub-Saharan Africa. Mathews posits (without much data to back this claim) that up to half the mobile phones in Africa come through Chungking Market and enter African markets through the luggage of entrepreneurs.
I found Mathews’s account so compelling that Chungking Mansions was my first stop when visiting Hong Kong a few weeks ago. Based on his explanation of Chinese perceptions of the building (as a dangerous place filled with drug addicts and criminals), I expected a much shadier place than I actually found. Chungking Mansions is immediately familiar to anyone who’s bought electronics in the developing world – it’s cleaner and better organized than markets I’ve been to in Nairobi and New Delhi, but in some ways, functionally the same place. Walking through the stalls, I experienced a tesseract, a folding of space that let me move between Hong Kong, Pakistan and West Africa over the course of a few meters. I dropped into one of the few non-phone stores, a clothing store featuring street fashions, including a wide array of Yankee caps. I gave the merchant grief about not stocking Red Sox hats, quickly figured out that he was Ghanaian, greeted him in Twi, and was warmly embraced and invited upstairs for fufu and groundnut soup. It wasn’t at all hard to figure out why Mathews had fallen in love with the place – if you’re interested in how globalization is transforming economies, Chungking Mansions really is one of the centers of the world.
I had the chance to meet Mathews when we lectured together at the University of Hong Kong a few days later. He’s as wonderfully crazy as you’d imagine him to be, and told me that he’d written the book in a bar across the street from his research site. “The key is that the bar has roasted peanuts in the shell. I’d shell a peanut and think, then write a sentence, then sip my beer. That writing pace is just perfect as long as you remain under three beers.” Rarely have I learned so much from a single ethnographer – how to smuggle phones into Ghana in my luggage, the best strategies for overstaying my Hong Kong tourist visa, how to befriend Nepali heroin addicts, and how to pace my writing.
I’ve been pushing Mathews’s book on the ethnographers I know because it’s an amazing example of the power of the deep dive. It’s possible that no one on the planet understands Chungking Mansions as thoroughly as Mathews does based on his decade of research. But his insights are profoundly helpful not just for understanding this one wonderful and strange building, but for understanding globalization as it is actually practiced. Where Neuwirth takes a broad view, considering economies on four different continents, Mathews rarely leaves the confines of a single building and still manages to tell a story that’s global in scope and impact.
Azerbaijan is far from an easy place to be an independent journalist – the nation ranks 152nd in Reporters Without Borders 2010 survey on press freedom. Even given a hostile press environment, Eynulla Fatullayev has had a particularly rough experience as editor of Russian language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and Azeri language daily Gündəlik Azərbaycan, two of the nation’s most critical and outspoken newspapers. In 2004, he was beaten on the streets of Baku in an apparent response to his criticism of the government. He faced a number of defamation suits filed by government officials, and in 2006, he was forced to suspend publication of his papers when his father was kidnapped. His abductors threatened to the man and the rest of Fatullayev’s family unless he stopped criticizing Azerbaijan’s interior minister.
Fatullayev moved to publishing online, but continued to face scrutiny of the Azeri government and supporters. In 2007, he was accused of slandering the Army in an interview about the Khojaly massacre, a tragic episode in the Nagorno-Karabakh War. He was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison, and an additional 2 1/2 years when prison officials allegedly found a small amount of heroin in his cell. Numerous press freedom organizations have condemned his arrest, and in 2009, Committee to Project Journalists awarded him the International Press Freedom Award to recognize his efforts to open the press environment in Azerbaijan.
Eynulla Fatullayev at home after his release from Azeri prison
On Tuesday, Amnesty UK – which has been advocating on Fatullayev’s behalf since his arrest – launched a campaign to demand the editor’s release from prison. Represented by Jon Snow of Channel 4 and John Mulholland of The Observer, the campaign urged Twitter users to take a picture of themselves holding signs asking “@presidentaz” to release Fatullayev from prison.
By one metric, the campaign wasn’t much of a success – despite the presence of such high profile British journalists, only 800 or so people sent messages or retweets to the Azeri president. (We did our part to promote the campaign, with an article on Global Voices by Onnik Krikorian, our remarkable Caucuses editor.) Most participants didn’t take photos – they retweeted messages sent by Amnesty, Snow or Mulholland.
But those messages clearly attracted attention within Azerbaijan. A few Azeri nationalists, including some affiliated with the İRƏLİ Public Youth Union, responded angrily to the tweets. Some responded by photoshopping images of British journalist Ian Hislop holding a sign demanding Fatullayev’s release, edited to criticize Amnesty’s campaign. One modified sign read “Azerbaijan is not USSR! No double standards!” This tweet from @Vetenim illustrates some of the hostility towards Amnesty: “@amnesty This campaign was enough for Azeri Twitter users to see the real face of @AmnestyUK behind the mask. #Amnesty #Eynulla #Azerbaijan”
Krikorian reports that the İRƏLİ Public Youth Union, and particularly Secretary General Rauf Mardiyev have been posting heavily to Twitter tags used by progressive activists in Azerbaijan, potentially to silence or hide dissident voices in the country over the past few months. We’re seeing this phenomenon in different corners of the Twittersphere. Oiwan Lam reports that the #aiww (Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, now in custody) tag is heavily used by pro-government spammers, with two particularly prolific spammers responsible for 45% of all recent messages on the tag. Anas Qtiesh investigated a set of Twitter accounts that been flooding the #Syria tag with old sports scores, links to Syrian television programs, and random photos on Flickr tagged #Syria, making the tag dramatically less useful for activists. Qtiesh linked the abuse of Twitter to the Bahraini company Eghna Developement and Support, which advertises their work on behalf of Syria on their site. Eghna has denied that they are abusing Twitter in any way, but the tweets associated with these accounts no longer appear in searches for the #Syria tag, suggesting that Twitter may disagree. (Neal Ungerleider has a good overview of the Syria story on Fast Company.)
While these examples are a good illustration of the ways in which social media is becoming a contested space during political conflicts, this use of each other’s hashtags is nothing new to American political activists – activists on the left and right routinely use each other’s preferred tags to insert their views into the other side’s dialogs. What’s been interesting is the volume of these actions – traffic on tags like #Syria or #aiww is lots lower than on popular US political tags, which makes heavy use of the tags to provoke the other side far more visible than in US examples. The utility of hashtags as an easy way to share information with those who share your political perspectives is counterbalanced by the fact that these tags are open channels, and may be as useful to those opposed to your views.
So the Twitter action focused on the Azeri government generated less than a thousand tweets and some of those messages were from government supporters seeking to subvert the campaign. Remarkably, two days after Amnesty launched the campaign, Fatullayev was released from prison under a presidential pardon.
Azerbaijan’s winning entry in Eurovision 2011. Warning: video includes the sort of song that wins Eurovision contests.
Amnesty, understandably, is celebrating their campaign’s role in Fatullayev’s release, and the journalist has thanked Amnesty for their advocacy throughout his detention. As Azeri social media users digest the news of his release, there’s speculation that another factor may be at work as well: Azerbaijan’s recent victory in the Eurovision song contest. Azeri singers Eldar Gasimov and Nigar Camal won the prize, which is both coveted and ridiculed within Europe, but always widely watched. The victory drew attention to a corner of Eurasia many Europeans pay little attention to, and it’s possible that the Azeri government didn’t want to spoil their moment in the sun with Amnesty’s critical campaign.
So is Amnesty responsible for Fatullayev’s release? Is Twitter? Eurovision? And if social media can claim partial responsibility for the release of a prisoner of conscience, will we see this campaign technique used again? Will it be as successful the next time around?
Mary Joyce of the Meta Activism project has warned that a key factor in successful online activism appear to be novelty – it’s hard to articulate “best practices” because one of the best practices is to be the first to try a particular technique. If we take the lesson from Fatullayev’s release that Twitter campaigns, focused on individual public figures who use Twitter, leveraging offline media attention are a useful strategy, it seems likely that campaign organizations will adopt the technique and use it to the point where future implementations aren’t worth an article or a blog post.
Or perhaps directly addressing people in positions of power via Twitter has a directness and immediacy that other forms of media lack. See this recent confrontation between journalist Ian Birell and Rwandan President Paul Kagame via Twitter over Kagame’s statement that the international media has no moral right to criticize the repressive political climate in Rwanda given their silence about the 1994 genocide. As this report on the exchange points out, it’s hard to imagine this exchange taking place in an era before microblogging. Perhaps the sort of unvarnished dialog that Kagame, his supporters and Birell engage in here motivated Azeri president Ilham Aliyev to reconsider the arrest of journalists in his country. My guess – I don’t think it’s that simple, and I think we’re going to have to try a lot more online activism before we know what works, what doesn’t and how new capabilities lead to new dialogs.
I spent the past two days in Cambridge, primarily around MIT, and almost exclusively talking about the “Arab Spring” and what we’ve learned about social media and protest in authoritarian states. Early Wednesday morning, the MIT Museum hosted a “soapbox” session, which put Dr. Marlyn Tadros and me in dialog with Egyptian protesters and bloggers, including Mahmoud “Sandmonkey” Salem, who I was thrilled to meet virtually. Events via video are tricky, and there were some issues with sound quality for the folks watching in Cambridge, but the resulting video of the event is excellent.
The highlight of the two days in Cambridge was an event I hosted at the MIT Media Lab yesterday afternoon, a conversation called “Civic Disobedience“, which featured three of my favorite people, who also happen to be three folks extremely knowledgeable about social media and the Arab Spring.
Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor of sociology at UMaryland Baltimore County, where she studies social networks on and offline. Her blog, Technosociology, has become required reading with very insightful essays on Wikileaks, the Arab Spring and other recent intersections between online and offline social networks.
Clay Shirky has been doing some of the most interesting writing and thinking about the internet and human relationships, since 1996. He teaches at NYU in both the journalism department and in the Interactive Telecommunications Program, writes extensively online and has published two key books about the internet, participation, groups and social change.
Sami ben Gharbia is the director of Global Voices Advocacy, the free speech arm of Global Voices Online. He’s the co-founder of Nawaat.org, one of the central actors in the Tunisian dissident media space. He was exiled from Tunisia 13 years ago and returned home for the first time a few weeks ago, in the wake of Tunisia’s successful revolution. He is also one of the smartest critical thinkers about the limitations of our current understandings of internet and social change – his essay, The Internet Freedom Fallacy and Arab Digital activism, should be required reading for anyone expressing an opinion about “internet freedom”.
With these three folks on stage, I had virtually nothing to do as moderator. So I took notes, which I’ll share here, to tide you over until the session video is posted.
Sami opened the conversation by giving his view of how social media had helped enable protests in Tunisia. He offers three-part model that treats social media as part of a more complex ecosystem, involving Facebook as a publishing platform, multiple curation platforms (Nawaat, Global Voices, Twitter, Posterous) and broadcast platforms (AlJazeera and France24).
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.
Censorship, in general, because a unifying force in the Tunisian online sphere. Reacting to censorship taught Tunisians how to disseminate information through alternative paths and helped them use social media for advocacy in a time of crisis. For all the disagreements Tunisians have with one another, they can agree on censorship as a common enemy. This is why, when Ben Ali offered a final set of concessions to his people on January 13th in a desperate bid to hold onto power, one concession was the elimination of online censorship.
Facebook was an important platform for Tunisians for publishing, mobilizing and organizing, Sami tells us. But it’s a very limited platform. It’s closed, both technically and socially, which can make it extremely difficult for journalists to find people to interview about stories. And Tunisia can be linguistically closed, even to other Arabs – the Tunisian dialect is a mix of French, Berber, Italian and Arabic that can be very hard to penetrate. While Facebook was used to share videos, it also made it very hard to figure out the origins of those videos – when were they originally published and by whom? For Facebook to be useful for a wider audience than Tunisians, you needed Tunisian users to identify key pages and profiles and bring them out of Facebook’s closed system and into the open web.
That’s what curators did. Sites like Nawaat were critical in identifying content posted on Facebook, tagging, timestamping and categorizing it and making it accessible to other media organizations. Both Nawaat and Global Voices translated key pieces of content, and Nawaat used a Posterous blog to identify over 400 videos, many of which were used by Al Jazeera.
Once content made it onto Al Jazeera, it began filtering back into Tunisia, letting Tunisians who weren’t looking for content online understand what was unfolding. Jazeera has a huge audience in Tunisia, though it’s never been allowed to report there. (I’d been telling people that Jazeera had been forced to stop operating in Tunisia by Ben Ali – Sami tells me Ben Ali never let them in at all…) Jazeera, Sami argues, became an extension of the internet, publishing user-generated content and using it to educate Tunisian citizens about what was going on in their own country, and eventually the whole region. Tunisians knew how important Jazeera was once police officers began heading into cafes and begging owners to switch their TVs to another channel.
This three part model created an information cascade that Sami believes directly led to the revolution. He cites some key events that gave the media disproportionate power. One was the Tunileaks/Wikileaks cables. Tunileaks received cables about Tunisia sent from a dissident within Wikileaks who was upset that the group was cooperating only with mainstream media and not citizen media. Tunileaks released these cables well before Wikileaks released their archive of cables. (I asked Sami, “You’re involved with Tunileaks, right?” His response: “I am Tunileaks.” :-) Sami and friends used Google Appspot to publish the cables, knowing that the service rested on a set of IP addresses used by several other key Google services. This meant that, in blocking the cables, the Tunisian government was forced to block other key services, raising attention to the cables and encouraging more people to use firewall circumvention tools to access them.
Sami also cites the Anonymous attacks on Tunisia as another key turning point. They weren’t especially effective, but the story was so sexy, American media had to start paying attention.
Expanding on Sami’s analysis of the ecosystem, Zeynep offers the idea of analyzing social media and revolutions in terms of “meso-level causal mechanisms”. (After offering that phrase, Zeynep gives a disclaimer that she’s early in her analysis and just “thinking out loud”. That her thinking out loud includes phrases like “meso-level causal mechanisms” gives you a sense for why she’s so worth reading.) There’s a temptation, she says, to view social media as like other media, just faster. But that fails to see some of the key nuances.
There are network effects that come from social media. The shape of connectivity networks changes – people are more directly connected to one another, rather than being clustered into separate groups, linked by bridge figures. Tunisia, in particular, has an online social network “with one giant component, one big, heavily linked space, probably related to the anti-censorship campaigns Sami spoke about.” This network is big, tightly connected and fast, and information passes through it much more quickly than it passes through offline social networks.
There are field effects as well. When media reaches a broad audience, either through social media or through broadcast, it’s possible to affect the mood of the country all at once. And we see network to field effects: information cascades. The experience of Tunileaks was, in part, the revealing of hidden preferences. Tunisians knew they weren’t fond of Ben Ali, but discovering that no one liked him, including the US, had an important effect. When Egyptians looked at Tunisia and said, “We can do this, too!”, that’s also a network to field effect.
The meso-level mechanisms include increased participation. We don’t always like what we get when we see increased participation. Increases simply accelerate and strengthen dynamics that are already in place. In a polarized situation, increased participation often means increased polarization, which is what we may be seeing in Bahrain. That makes it hard for participation to lead towards coordinated action. In Egypt, near the end, “Mubarak’s dog didn’t like him. Much as we wish it was, that’s not the case in Iran or Bahrain…”
Another meso-level effect is faster information diffusion. This can mean the ways audiences are segmented change as well. Information that might have been accessible only to a literate class is not accessible to non-literate people as well. In much of the Middle East, there’s a big divide between the literate and non-literate public spheres – when those distinctions collapse, there’s the possibility of coordination between those two groups. On the other hand, the Habermasean pubic sphere (which may never have been as calm and reasoned as Habermas wished it was) can get downright emotional. The emergence of Mohamed Bouazizi as a rallying point helps show the emotional nature of the narrative in Tunisia.
One way to understand how big these changes are is to watch the shift in “coup etiquette”. In her native Turkey, Zeynep tell us, you can tell a coup based on what song is playing on the radio. “If you hear this one specific patriotic song, you know it’s time to go buy bread.” That’s because coup planners traditionally seized the radio and television stations first. In Egypt, there was a debate amongst Tahrir protesters about seizing a television station – in the end, they decided not to bother. The emergence of social media makes broadcast less relevant, though probably not irrelevant.
Authoritarian states are very experienced at trying to silence dissent, Zeynep reminds us. They are very good at playing whack a protest, and most of the time, they’re successful, using a “quarantine” model to separate protesters from the rest of the state. She cites a protest in Tunisia in 2008 in the mining town of Gafsa, which the Tunisian government successfully defeated, by surrounding and isolating the protesters. In Sidi Bouzid in 2010, enabled in part by social media, a very similar crackdown failed to stop the spread of the protest “virus”.
Sami added a key note to Zeynep’s model, pointing out that the Sidi Bouzid protesters appealed to the rest of the nation for support with their demands. The protesters in Gafsa focused their grievances on a local mining company, which made it very hard for the rest of the nation to join in supporting them. “They quarantined themselves, in a way.”
Given Clay’s extensive writings about social media and protest, I asked him to evaluate what he got right and wrong, in light of events in Egypt and Tunisia. Warning us that four months isn’t long enough to understand what’s actually gone on with these protests, Clay explains that he feels recent events have confirmed his thoughts about the importance of synchronizing groups. “Governments aren’t afraid of informed individuals – they’re afraid of synchronized groups.” In particular, they’re afraid of groups that have shared awareness.
With authoritarian states, there are three possible states. In the first, everyone knows the government is corrupt. In the second, everyone knows that everyone knows the government is corrupt. In the final stages, the ones where governments collapse, everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows. Clay argues that autocratic regimes can survive the first and second phases for years – that third stage, where shared awareness leads to synchronization, is more dangerous for autocrats.
What he got wrong, he says, was overemphasizing the use of tools for coordination for protest. “I concentrated too much on using tools to get people out into the streets. It turns out that bringing people out into the streets only works if it’s the end of a long process. It’s not a replacement for that process.” This, he believes, is why Egyptian protests were successful – they leveraged long-standing networks like Kefayah. But without those networks, going into the streets can be very dangerous. He cites an example worthy of Evgeny Morozov – when Sudan feared a revolution, “they used Facebook to call a revolution againt itself, then arrested everyone who came out, as they were the people most likely to make trouble.”
Referring to Zeynep’s mechanisms for action, Clay says he believes that social media “synchronizes opinion, coordinates action, and documents results.” The medium is less relevant than these processes – it’s not about mobiles versus Facebook versus Jazeera. If you want to know how seriously to take these effects, Clay suggests you look at the fact that both insurgents and autocrats believe these tools matter, and take risks to act on these beliefs. He offers the example of Libyan officials searching people fleeing across the Tunisian border for digital cameras and USB sticks. “Even Qaddafi doesn’t like letting documentation of murder reach the rest of the world.”
Clay shifts the conversation to the issue of “internet freedom”. Noting how influential Sami’s essay was on his thinking, Clay suggests that the US overestimates the value of access to information and underestimates the value of access to each other. If we wanted to promote internet freedom, we need to think more about synchronization and less about information in considering these tools.
I asked Sami if he’d softened his stance on US involvement with internet freedom from his earlier writings. He points out that US support for the Iranian protests helped Ahmedinejad make the argument that protests were instigated by outside agitators, when they were actually a legitimate domestic movement. “In Tunisia, we fought very hard to keep our movement independent from foreign interference, including avoiding those who were collaborating with the government.” That said, Sami acknowledges that there’s a big difference between public statements by the US State Department and actions behind the scenes, which is often very productive and positive. What Sami would like to see the US doing publicly is controlling the sale of censorware, not advocating for freedom while allowing some of the key filtering technologies to be sold to repressive governments. He notes that individuals are also capable of taking effective steps in solidarity with dissidents – hosting video archives and mirroring key content to help make it visible in Tunisia, smuggling communications hardware into Egypt and Yemen, even calling attention to protests through actions like those of Anonymous.
Zeynep suggests that we not dismiss the Iranian green revolution as a failure. Much as the failed Dean campaign helped elect Obama, the Iranian protests helped us understand how to use social media for revolutionary change. While she supports efforts to get the US to be more consistent on internet policy, she suggests the larger problem is getting US foreign policy to shift from supporting dictators. “I’m betting most, if not all, will be gone by the end of the decade.”
Clay suggests that watching other country’s revolutions matters enormously, in terms of bearing witness, moral support, and in the case of US citizens, influencing the policy of a superpower. He’s happy to admit an normative bias for democracy and free speech and to support a foreign policy that respects this. But this demands we push for consistency.
“I urge my students not to try to pay attention to the whole world, but to start by picking a country to care about. Mine is Bahrain, and I believe we need to make visible the tension between our politices and our current support for Bahrainm which is becoming an apartheid state run by Saudi Arabia.”
Clay doesn’t believe the US should stay out of fields like internet freedom. “We can’t. We need bilateral relationships with everyone.” But we need to recognize that we’ve lost the ability to speak in three separate voices – one directly to other states, one to the public and one to the cognoscenti. Twitter and Wikileaks have collapsed these channels, and as a result, the US may need to speak a lot less, at least in public.
As the discussion moved into question and answer, it became significantly more free-flowing, and I had to moderate rather than taking notes. I will mention a couple of exchanges that stuck in my memory:
- A questioner asked whether we’ll see social media playing an important role in governance as well as in revolution, suggesting that the social media revolutions that elected Deval Patrick and Barack Obama have been disappointing in terms of participatory governance. Sami made the point that Tunisians need to rebuild a vast range of institutions – an independent media, NGOs, transparency organizations, political parties, and that all were being rebuilt using new media and social media tools.
- A good deal of our discussion involved analogies to previous revolutions. Sami made a key point – the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were not trying to overturn existing systems of government – both states have been constitutional democracies. The revolution wasn’t to change the form of government, but to get it to be respected.
- Professor Ian Condry suggested that, if these revolutions took ten years to unfold, we need to think through what ten-year changes might be underway now. Clay pointed to Paul Ford’s essay “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” and suggests that the assumption of participation may be a key ten-year change.
- Nitin Sawhney pointed the audience to three examples that appear to contradict the relationship between communications technology and democratic revolution. The Islamic Revolution used a new technology – cassette tapes – to lead to non-democratic change. The Palestinian first and second intifadas were organized with virtually no technology and were effective forms of resistance. And in Bahrain, being heavily wired hasn’t led to a successful revolution. In each case, American foreign policy seems to have mattered more than communication technology. The panel responded by acknowledging that none think that communications was the key or sole factor in the changes in Tunisia and Egypt – however, Clay argued that states try to keep an equilibrium state between the utility of new tools and the inability of citizens to syncronize protest, and that new technologies may destabilize that equilibrium and offer an opportunity for change.
We should have video for this session soon – I will post it once it becomes available. Sincere thanks to my three friends for their wonderful talks and to the audience for a great conversation.
I was at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD yesterday, at the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference, a remarkable institution that I confess I knew nothing about before accepting an invitation to speak here. For 51 years, the Academy has opened its doors to students from the other service academies, political science students from non-military institutions, and to military cadets from other countries for annual discussions about foreign policy and international affairs. The conference is organized primarily by the naval midshipmen and it’s one of the best-run academic conferences I’ve attended. I had the great pleasure of delivering the opening keynote for the conference Tuesday morning – I’ll try to post those notes later this week – and these notes reflect my liveblogging from the audience of a very interesting conversation.
Evgeny Morozov has emerged as one of the leading critics of the idea that the internet is a useful tool for social change, suggesting in his provocative book “The Net Delusion” that the internet can be more useful for dictators than for activists. He’s found himself answering some sharp questions in the wake of the Arab Spring protests, which appear to have used social media quite productively in changing governments in Tunisia and Egypt. One of the leading commentators who’s tried to unpack what effect the internet has and hasn’t had in the Arab Spring is Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She’s been doing some of the most important work in unpacking theory around social networks and examining those theories about network effects in connection to events in Egypt and Tunisia.
Their conversation is moderated by technology journalist Brendan Greeley. Brendan now writes for Bloomberg Businessweek, and formerly wrote on technology for the Economist, the New York Times and pretty much an all-star list of US journalism outlets. Brendan suggests that theorists about political change are no longer looking to Clausewitz, but to Star Trek for their inspiration. We’re in an age of algorithmic culture – we want to know specifically how something, like the Arab Spring protests, transpired and we care about the details of which tools, which actors and which legal jurisdictions, because these details have consequences for those who’d try to use the same methods in different circumstances. He suggests that it’s not insignificant that Zeynep and Evgeny are from outside the US (he’s from Belarus, she from Turkey), because we’re seeing a shift in media from questions about what the world thinks of America to questions about what the world thinks about itself.
Evgeny opens his remarks noting that the question, “How does the Internet affect democracy?” leads to answers that are very abstract. It’s difficult to quantify democracy. The internet is bound to have different impacts on democracy in the US, versus Thailand or Kyrgyzstan.
He notes that his views on the internet and democracy are informed by his perspective as a Belarussian – calling his home nation “the last tyranny in Europe” is an understatement. His exposure to issues surrounding the internet came through the frame of democratization. He suggests that the internet is only one of many tools available to policymakers who would like to spread democratization – they could train journalists, develop political parties, nurture civil society. “I’m not trying to bash the internet for being evil or bad… I’m focused on opportunity costs.” This leads him to ask “what we can do better, but also what are ways in which the internet could make our job of promoting democracy more challenging.”
Evgeny rejects deterministic explanations, assertions that the internet will lead to a particular outcome based on a rigid, theoretical understand of design and architecture. There’s an assumption, he argues, that because the internet runs on decentralized networks and protocols, it will lead to a decentralized political culture. This argument disregards the context, the political environments, which can differ radically country to country. Russian nationalists are taking advantage of the internet to promote their views, more than the liberals. It’s the opposite in Belarus, despite the fact that the nations share a border. The political and social effects of the internet are rooted in political and social environments. Notions like internet freedom tend to disregard the specifics of local political situation and culture.
He warns that we have a tendency to disregard adaptability of authoritarian states. We’ve tended to assume that they would either need to shut down the internet and experience severe economic consequences, or open it up: the dictator’s dilemma. This model fails to consider the ways dictators can use the internet for their own ends. They won’t use it successfully in every single situation, but we need to be open to the idea that certain features of the contemporary internet make it easier for authoritarian governments to increase control of cyberspace through surveillance, censorship, and propaganda. Governments can use DDoS as a tool for censorship. They can surveil traffic via social networks, and use the information users reveal to make maps of connections between activists. This isn’t to say that the dictators are bound to win – instead, his goal is to make policymakers alert to the ways in which the internet is used to surpress democracy.
Who wins – the activists or the dictators – won’t be clear for decades to come, he asserts. It’s a mistake to argue that you can’t achieve anything useful towards a democracy agenda on Facebook. There are useful things the Internet can deliver. But if we take the long-term view, we need to ask what services like Facebook are doing to our political culture. The solution to the problem of dictatorship in Belarus is not to create an online opposition that’s separate from the existing opposition. Online activists deface pictures of the president and publish them online – it can be funny, and maybe it’s building a culture of resistance. But these developments seem to be separate from the offline, mainstream political organizations working for change in Belarus. And ultimately, he believe change will come from the streets, not from online.
In the Middle East, we’re lucky that people weren’t just turning their Twitter avatars green or joining Facebook groups. We don’t need to give credit to Facebook for bringing people into the streets. Online activism can be effective, he argues, but we need to find ways to ensure it happens in conjunction with offline politics. We don’t want to turn the internet into a ghetto where the youth blow off steam, which makes the government happy, as it’s not leading to real change. Our challenge is to design policies that connect the internet to more substantive political change, bridging between these two worlds.
Brendan points out that Evgeny was one of the first thinkers to challenge the idea that the most important controls to online speech were technical. What does it mean that key blocks to discourse are social as well as technical?
Evgeny suggests that, in the Middle East, there’s very little tolerance from governments for alternative opinions expressed online. In China and Russia, there’s more of an attempt to defend and shape positions online. Bloggers in China paid by the government try to legitimate the government’s positions. In some countries, the government is trying to limit the utility of tools like Facebook by infiltrating groups used by the opposition. One tactic is to join those groups, upload pornographic content then report the group and get it banned. Attacks that make a website unavailable, even for a few days at a time, will over time break down the communities that would develop around those tools.
Brendan mentions that Evgeny considers himself a reformed cyberutopian. What was his conversion experience?
Earlier in his career, Evgeny explains, he worked for an eastern European NGO that worked for political change through the internet. His work as an internet evangelist helped him understand how well-intentioned projects can cause more harm than good. US government projects come into countries like Belarus, hired the local talent, distorted the economy and had little impact on real political change. He began systematically doubting the NGO mindset. So much attention was being paid to the Chinese firewall, and not enough attention to how governments were controlling online space through creating entertainment content to distract from political content.
Zeynep introduces herself as a former software developer, “a lifetime ago”. She paid her way through college taking care of legacy technical systems. In the 1990s in Turkey, there were a lot of technology managers who didn’t understand how these things worked. She tells the story of a boss who came to her and asked “Can it tell if I’m lying?”, pointing to the computer in the corner. She gave him the irresistible answer: “Yes.” People who look inside the black box, she explains, don’t ask these questions – people who don’t understand them do.
As a careful academic, Zeynep explains, she’s reluctant to make broad generalizations about what kind of world we might be living in one or two decades from now. But she promises to put some of that nuance aside and offer more forceful predictions than she might in a peer-reviewed paper.
The first of these predictions is that we’re now likely looking at a world where promiting other people’s democracy is no longer on the agenda – they’re promoting their own agenda. She references a tweet a friend posted from Cairo: “The people in Tahrir Square greet themselves as liberators.” The question of how best to promote democracy may be an archaic question. Instead, we may need to focus on understanding the changing media ecology and the ways in which it’s changing social relationships.
Zeynep mentions that she was reviewing a pre-released copy of Evgeny’s book in November, when Wikileaks became a dominant news story. The argument in the first half of his book about the US State Department’s enthusiasm for the internet looked less germane now that the State Department seemed to be having second thoughts about the utility of the internet when used by leakers of government documents. The second half of the book is about dictators using the internet, and then Tunisia and Egypt dominated the news agenda. She wonders whether this was the best timing an author’s ever experienced.
Responding to the core argument in Evgeny’s book, Zeynep wonders whether the analogy of the printing press is a helpful one. The first two major uses for the printing press were printing bibles and dispensations and indulgences. One might have assumed that the new technology would empower the Catholic church. But a technology that threatened the monopoly on the written word threatened those monopolists, in the long term.
She suggests that we’re seeing two major changes brought about by internet adoption. First, the shape of our connectivity networks is changing. There are two major types of networks in modern, mass-media societies. There’s a person to person social network, and the one to many network of broadcast media. What’s emerging now is many to many connectivity, which lets people talk to each other in ways that didn’t exist previously. There were some ways in the past that individuals could spread ideas to a mass of people, but they were much more difficult and much smaller in scale than the tools we’re exploring now.
Second, the speed of information diffusion has implications for the efficacy of protest movements. The recent Koran burning in Florida led, as we all know, to riots in Afghanistan. But it took four days from the burning to the riots. In part, this is because fewer than 1% of all Afghans are online. The protests didn’t break out until President Karzai condemned the Florida pastor’s actions on television.
Zeynep tells us that there’s reason to think that the rapid spread of information via social media could be changing political outcomes in the Middle East. In Tunisia in 2008, corruption around an exam designed to hire mining engineers led to a massive trade union protest. The Ben Ali government engaged in one of their favorite tactics: “Whack-A-Protest”. They surrounded the town, kicked out the journalists and arrested the trade unionists. Some women and children remained protesting, but it’s very hard to sustain a protest without attention, support or a sense that your actions could lead to change. The protest fizzled out, just as the Ben Ali regime had planned.
At that time, Zeynep reminds us, fewer that 28,000 Tunisians were on Facebook. Two years later, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi triggered protests in Sidi Bouzid and a near-identical response from the Ben Ali government. But Tunisia had 2 million Facebook users by January of 2011, and cellphone video cameras were pervasive. While no journalists were allowed into Sidi Bouzid, citizen media was able to document the protests, and disseminate their reporting to activist networks that had been working to challenge the regime. Those networks were able to disseminate the information before Whack-A-Protest was successful. States are resource-constrained actors, Zeynep continues. When protests spread rapidly through social media, they may not be able to react in time.
The effectiveness of a government crackdown has a great deal to do with whether a regime can rely on any support from citizens, or whether they are universally despised. By the end of his reign, Mubaak was so unpopular, he couldn’t even pay people to say positive things about him. It’s different in Bahrain or Syria, she posits, where regimes have more indigenous support. In a situation where there is unity against a dictator, social media may sweep away a dictator. In a polarized society, social media might lead to increased tensions. Social media doesn’t lead inexorably to democracy – it does lead to participation, which can be divisive in an already divided society.
She ends her opening remarks with a direct critique of Evgeny’s analysis, which she sees as making an unhelpful contrast between online and offline activism. “Talk to anyone who’s engaged in activism and they see one, integrated online and offline world, not separate spaces.”
Brendan acknowledges that a particular media narrative has emerged around Evgeny’s book: “It was cyberutopians versus Evgeny. Several revolutions later, Evgeny is wrong.” It’s rare that academics get a test case like the Arab Spring – what have we learned and what’s been a surprise since January 1?
Evgeny tells us that he wasn’t surprised that the internet was used by social movements. He argues that Zeynep is misinterpreting his distinction between online and offline activism. “In certain cases, we do see isolated groups of young kids who are acting online only, with no integration into social movements. This doesn’t mean social movements shouldn’t use online media.” But celebration of online media may give too much hope to people who believe change can come purely through the internet, and that would be a sad thing to do. Returning to Brendan’s question, he notes that the revolutions were surprising geopolitically, not technologically. “It’s an overly deterministic mindset to conclude that the internet favors dictators or activists.”
Brendan pushes further, asking whether Evgeny was surprised that Tunisia, which has displayed high levels of technical sophistication in censoring the internet, was unwilling or unable to control the internet in the face of protests. Evgeny argues that technological sophistication doesn’t determine political outcomes. He explains that he was surprised that Egypt’s government didn’t attack the Khaled Said Facebook group, noting that Chinese or Russian authorities might have. But his general argument is that technology is a less effective sphere of analysis than analyzing politics and economics.
Zeynep notes that she had just offered an example where similar protests in Tunisia were crushed in 2008 and succeeded in 2010. That example doesn’t deny that the revolution was a people’s movement, but it does suggest that technology was a factor. Evgeny retorts that it’s unreasonable to pick an anecdote and make the broader argument that technology was a key factor. Zeynep clarifies: she’s not arguing that technology is sufficient to lead to change, but it is a significant factor. In Egypt, activists have been developing online skills since 2005. Tunisian activists have developed great unity around the topic of anti-censorship. In both cases, we’ve seen the development of a digital public sphere that’s had an influence in recent events.
She explains that her surprise in 2011 is that people continue to refer to Iran’s Green Revolution as a failure. For people in the middle east, she argues, the Green Revolution was an “aha” moment. People could portray their dissent to the rest of the world. The movement was crushed, but it continues to be an inspiration.
Brendan suggests that the debate has shifted from whether the internet can have an effect on democracy to whether we can generalize those effects or whether we have to consider each country as a separate case. Are there generalizations that are safe to make?
Evgeny argues that we can generalize that there’s a reduced cost of access to information and reduced coordination costs. But this doesn’t inherently lead to democratization. States are getting better at creating “a semi-governed digital public sphere.” In these states, the “independent media” is state controlled, NGOs are really GONGOs (Government-owned NGOs). It’s not unreasonable to believe that they’ll be able to extend the concept of a “sovereign managed democracy”, a phrase used in Russia, using a variety of techniques, some borrowed from western advertising agencies, “to control the post-Habermas public sphere.”
Zeynep suggests that we can generalize that the internet increases participation, but not necessarily democracy. The values people bring to the table govern whether that participation is democratic or not. She suggests that control of democratic institutions via advertising and media doesn’t just happen in China – it happens in the US as well. China is able to get away with controlling a public sphere because it can stand on amazing economic growth and on passionate nationalism. “If those faltered, I think they will find level of censorship is not sustainable in the face of collective action.”
The dictator’s dilemma, she argues, is about the intensity and the unity of dissent. In a divided society with some legitimacy to a government, you can get away with some silencing of dissent, even if it causes damage to some commercial interests. In an autocracy that’s almost in complete opposition to the populus, it’s much harder to get away with. The era of the autocrat who is almost universally despised is over, she says, perhaps not today but in the near future. This has real implications for US foreign policy. The US has had a corrupt bargain with autocrats. It’s brought us neither democracy or stability, and we won’t be able to return to that bargain/
Evgeny suggests that Zeynep’s view is internet-centric. He agrees that the era of the dictator is over, but suggests that this isn’t due to technology, but due to discourses of human rights, the rise of globalization and other factors. He suggests her example of the printing press – talking about the printing press and not about Martin Luther – was technocentric.
“There were two workshops to train bloggers in Cairo in 2009, one supported by the US government.” Perhaps they deserve some of the credit for the Egyptian revolution. We need to pay attention to these training efforts, not just to the technology. And we need to recognize activists who don’t use technology. He offers the story of Alaa Abdel Fatteh, a celebrated young activist who’s active both online and offline. Evgeny notes that his parents are seasoned Egyptian dissidents. “Alaa spent five weeks in jail, his father spent five years,” but Alaa got more attention because he’s a blogger. “This doesn’t mean that cyberactivism is not important, but that we tend to fetishize it.”
At this point, I had to duck out and join a conference call – I’m sorry to have missed questions from the audience.
I was grateful for the chance to hear these two thinkers engage in a debate, though I feel like the points of disagreement in this discussion were harder to identify than in Zeynep’s review of Evgeny’s book. I think Evgeny’s presentation of his arguments has become softer and more careful in the wake of recent events than it was in his book. While I don’t think the Arab Spring invalidates all of Evgeny’s points – I agree strongly with his critique of technocentrism – I think it’s harder to make the case that technology is likely to favor dictators over activists. Evgeny has wisely shifted and now argues that technology doesn’t necessarily favor dictators or democrats and that we need to consider both options. That’s a wiser stance, in my opinion, but perhaps one less likely to draw the widespread attention some of his more confident assertions have garnered.
I thought Zeynep’s analysis regarding participation was extremely helpful. In a case like Egypt, where there was little support (at least in online circles) for Mubarak, a participatory space quickly became an activist space. In Bahrain, where there’s support and opposition to the government online, participation may be increasing polarization and conflict. I’ll be fascinated to see whether her argument that “speed is different” holds up – will governments be able to catch up and play Whack-a-Mole against new, network enabled protests? The Arab Spring may give us one set of test cases, and recent Chinese crackdowns on online dissent, another set.
One way or another, it was great to see three smart folks onstage trying to work through these issues. Thanks to NAFAC for making it happen.