Monthly Archives: January 2011

As Egypt Shuts off the Net: Seven Theses on Dictator’s Dilemma

Egypt’s apparent move to shut off Internet has called for revisiting the so-called “dictator’s dilemma,” i.e. the idea that authoritarian governments cannot have their Internet cake and eat it, too. The dilemma is often framed as this: “If they allow Internet to spread within the country, it poses a threat to their regime. If they don’t, they are cut off from the world–economically and socially.”

China’s successful and widespread filtering of the Internet has caused many people to revaluate whether it was possible to allow the non-politically threatening parts of the Internet through while filtering out material that a regime finds objectionable. Notable, Evgeny Morozov argues that many people underestimate ability of dictatorships to impose a complex regime of filters and censors to keep the Internet from becoming a potential counter-force.

I would like to argue that the dictator’s dilemma is alive and well but, as with many other aspects of this debate, the reality does not lend itself well to simplistic analysis.

1- The capacities of the Internet that are most threatening to authoritarian regimes are not necessarily those pertaining to spreading of censored information but rather its ability to support the formation of a counter-public that is outside the control of the state. In other words, it is not that people are waiting for that key piece of information to start their revolt–and that information just happens to be behind the wall of censorship–but that they are isolated, unsure of the power of the regime, unsure of their position and potential.

2- Dissent is not just about knowing what you think but about the formation of a public. A public is not just about what you know. Publics form through knowing that other people know what you know–and also knowing that you know what they know. (This point was developed through a Twitter discussion with Dave Parry). Yes, all those parts of the Web that are ridiculed by some of the critics of Internet’s potential–the LOLcats, Facebook, the three million baby pictures, the slapstick, talking about the weather, the food and the trials and tribulations of life–are exactly the backbone of community, and ultimately the creation of public(s).

3- Thus, social media can be the most threatening part of the Internet to an authoritarian regime through its capacity to create a public(ish) sphere that is integrated into everyday life of millions of people and is outside the direct control of the state partly because it is so widespread and partly because it is not solely focused on politics. How do you censor five million Facebook accounts in real time except to shut them all down?

4- The capacity to selectively filter the Internet is inversely proportional to the scale and strength of the dissent. In other words, regimes which employ widespread legitimacy may be able to continue to selectively filter the Internet. However, this is going to break down as dissent and unhappiness spreads. As anyone who has been to a country with selective filtering knows, most everyone (who is motivated enough) knows how to get around the censors. For example, in Turkey, YouTube occasionally gets blocked because of material that some courts have deemed as offensive to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of Turkey. I have yet to meet anyone in Turkey who did not know how to get to YouTube through proxies.

5- 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. (In fact, I have not seen any evidence that China is trying to actively and strongly shut down the work-arounds.)

6- Social media is not going to create dissent where there is none. The apparent strength of the regime in China should not be understood solely through its success in censorship. (And this is the kind of Net-centrism Morozov warns against but that I think he sometimes falls into himself). China has undergone one of the most amazing transformations in human history. Whatever else you may say about the brutality of the regime, there is a reason for its continuing legitimacy in the eyes of most of its people. I believe that the Chinese people are no less interested in freedom and autonomy than any other people on the planet but I can also understand why they have, for the most part, appear to have support for the status-quo even as they continue to have further aspirations and desires.

7- Finally, during times of strong upheaval, as in Egypt, dictator’s dilemma roars. The ability to ensure that their struggle and their efforts are not buried in a deep pit of censorship, the ability to continue to have an honest conversation, the ability to know that others know what one knows all combine to create a cycle furthering dissent and upheaval. Citizen-journalism matters most in these scenarios as there cannot be reporters everywhere something is happening; however, wherever something is happening there are people with cell phone cameras. Combined with Al-Jazeera re-broadcasting the fruits of people-powered journalism, it all comes down to how much force the authoritarian state is willing and able to deploy – which in turn, depends on the willingness of the security apparatus. Here, too, social media matters because, like everyone else, they too are watching the footage on Al-Jazeera. Their choice is made more stark by the fact that they know that history will judge them by their actions–actions which will likely be recorded, broadcast and be viewed by their citizens, their neighbors and their children and grandchildren.

P.S. Slightly edited, mostly for typos.

Tunisia, Twitter, Aristotle, Social Media and Final and Efficient Causes

A debate has been raging on the role social media—especially Facebook and Twitter— played in the apparently successful uprising in Tunisia. Most of the discussion seems to be centered around the use of the term “Twitter Revolution.”

Ethan Zuckerman responds that “the Internet can take some credit for toppling Tunisia’s government, but not all of it.” When you read Ethan Zuckerman’s great piece –and he is, along with Jillian C. York—among the few people participating in this debate who were in touch with Tunisian dissidents on the ground not just through this crisis but over the years, it becomes clear that being able to disseminate information using social media was key in multiple respects:

“[In spite of lack of attention compared to the Iranian protests] … the irony is that social media likely played a significant role in the events … Ben Ali’s government tightly controlled all forms of media, on and offline. Reporters were prevented from traveling to cover protests in Sidi Bouzid, and the reports from official media characterized events as either vandalism or terrorism. Tunisians got an alternative picture from Facebook, which remained uncensored through the protests, and they communicated events to the rest of the world by posting videos to YouTube and Dailymotion.” …

His colleague, Jillian C. York wrote a post titled “Not a Twitter, Not a Wikileaks: Human Revolution” argues that the revolution would have happened without the Internet:

Evgeny Morozov’s question–”Would this revolution have happened if there were no Facebook and Twitter?”–says it all. And in this case, yes, I–like most Tunisians to whom I’ve posed this question–believe that this would have happened without the Internet.

Evgeny Morozov is the most die-hard opponent of the idea that social media can bring about positive social change poses another counterfactual: what if it had failed? Then what would be the contribution of social media?:

So let’s assume that the protests in Tunisia had eventually gone the way of the Green Revolution in Iran: the government stayed in power, regrouped, and began a massive crackdown on its opponents. This brings me to a somewhat depressing conclusion: if the dictator doesn’t fall in the end, the benefits of social mobilization afforded by the Internet are probably outweighed by its costs (i.e. the ease of tracking down dissidents – let alone organizers of the protests).

And even while Morozov agrees that social media was important in feeding information to key conduits to the world, Al Jazeera and France 24, he doesn’t think social media was used to organize protests:

I don’t deny that the Internet may have played a role in publicizing the protests in Tunisia; it’s just that the conditions in which the protests took place do not strike me as those where the leaders of the protest movement had to post updates on where to meet and when. Maybe I am wrong, but it all seemed to be somewhat chaotic and decentralized.

So what to make of all of this? I say, let’s bring in Aristotle! Aristotle distinguished between four types of causation: material, formal, efficient and final. I want to specifically bring the notions of material, efficient and final causation into this debate. Here’s Aristotle –from that other Wiki, Wikipedia, which has turned 10 years old this week–:

“Cause” means: (a) in one sense, that as the result of whose presence something comes into being—e.g. the bronze of a statue and the silver of a cup, and the classes which contain these [i.e., the material cause]; … (c) The source of the first beginning of change or rest; e.g. the man who plans is a cause, and the father is the cause of the child, and in general that which produces is the cause of that which is produced, and that which changes of that which is changed [i.e., the efficient cause]. (d) The same as “end”; i.e. the final cause; e.g., as the “end” of walking is health. For why does a man walk? “To be healthy,” we say, and by saying this we consider that we have supplied the cause [the final cause]. (Full text is here )

In this schema, material causes are the substrate of things. Does metal cause cars? In some sense, cars as we know them wouldn’t exist without metals so it meets a “but for” definition of causality. So, in some sense cars are caused by metals in that no metals, on cars–at least in their current form.  However, in everyday usage, most of us tend to use the other two definitions, the efficient cause, i.e. cars are there because someone manufactured them; or the final cause, i.e. cares are there to take us from place A to place B in a speedy (but polluting!) manner.

So, I think most of the people using the term “social media revolution” are using it in the sense of a material cause. As I asked on Twitter during the debate, would we call the French Revolution a printing press revolution? Surely, the invention of the press is a strong antecedent of that revolution. But also surely, that revolution was made by people, through political action. So, the printing press just defines the milieu in which the revolution took place; it is an inseparable part of the French revolution even though it is not the efficient (political uprising) or the final (establishing a republic) cause of the French revolution. But you cannot really imagine a French Revolution, of the kind that happened, without the printing press.

You can see this distinction by looking at Ethan’s objection to the term “Social Media/Twitter/Facebook revolution” as stated by Ethan:

Tunisians took to the streets due to decades of frustration, not in reaction to a WikiLeaks cable, a denial-of-service attack, or a Facebook update.

What Ethan is saying in his piece is that social media facilitated the events in ways that were crucial (material cause), but the revolution was made by the people of Tunisia at great human cost (the efficient cause) and it was aimed at overthrowing to corruption, unemployment and tyranny (the final cause).

And I think this is more and more what we will see; people will be using social media tools as an integral part of politics during those times that politics takes to the frontstage like uprisings and elections. Evgeny Morozov’s argument is that these tools are not the best suited for promoting democracy, especially in authoritarian regimes, because they also strengthen the surveillance, propaganda and censorship. As I argued in many places, however, they also strengthen capacity for political action through multiple means:

1- Social media lower barriers to collective action by providing channels of organization that are intermeshed with mundane social interaction and thus are harder to censor.

2- Social media can help create a public(ish) sphere in authoritarian regimes, thereby lowering the problem of society-level prisoner’s dilemma in which everyone knows that many people are unhappy but the extent to which this is the case remains hidden as official media is completely censored.

3- Social media helps strengthen communities as it is the antidote to isolating technologies (like suburbs and like televison) and community strength is key to political action.

4- Social media seems to have been key allowing the expatriate and exiled community to mobilize and act as key links between rest of the Arab sphere as well as Francophone parts of Europe and ultimately the rest of the world

5- Social media can be a key tool for disseminating information during a crisis. As we saw in the case of Iran, Burma, Moldova, Tunisia and others, the world had a strong sense of what was happening not because there were many reporters on the ground covering the events but because thousands of citizens armed with basic cell phones could record and transmit in real-time the situation on the ground. Yes, such reports are inevitably chaotic, and yes, the ability to disseminate information is not a sufficient cause for success, but it is surely a necessary one.

In that sense, I respect Jillian’s sensitivity to any wording that seems to take the credit away from the accomplishment of the Tunisian people that came at a great human cost. However, as a material cause, as a key part of the media and information substrate in which the events took place, it seems clear to me that social media was crucial. About 20 percent of Tunisians have Facebook accounts which remained uncensored throughout the crisis.

I find it hard to believe that the ability to disseminate news, videos, tidbits, information, links, outside messages that easily, transparently and without censorship reached one in five persons (and thus their immediate social networks) within a country that otherwise suffered from heavy censorship was without a significant impact. (More background here on the particulars of the general political situation in Tunisia). To say that social-media was a key part of the revolution does not necessarily mean that people used GPS-enabled phones to coordinate demonstrations; that is simplistic and misses the point in which social media shapes the environment in general. What it means is that the people acted in a world where they had more means of expressing themselves to each other and the world, being more assured that their plight would not be buried by the deep pit of censorship, and a little more confidence that their extended families, their neighbors, their fellow citizens were similarly fed up, as poignantly expressed by the slogan taken up by the protestors: “Yezzi Fock! Enough!”

Review of the Net Delusion and Response to Jaron Lanier on Wikileaks

My last two pieces were published over at the Atlantic, mostly because Alexis Madrigal has been doing a spectacular job covering some of the recent events, especially those regarding Wikileaks, and I wanted to be part of that conversation.

I reviewed Evgeny Morozov’s new book, The Net Delusion. Excerpt below, the whole review here.

“But I disagree that the reason online protests do not work is that they are online, or they are easy. The reality, at this juncture in history, is that nothing really works. The Internet is not the problem; global citizen disempowerement is. It’s not the technology that is failing politics but it is our politics that has failed. …

Political activism is not failing because people are too busy watching cat videos online, but because of a fundamental collapse of citizen leverage on institutions of power like governments and corporations. I find it ironic that, after correctly warning about the dangers of an Internet-centric worldview in which everything is perceived through the prism of the Net, Morozov himself is caught in a net-centric analysis of political activism’s decline.

If surveillance, censorship and propaganda are the three pillars of authoritarianism, information, organization and leverage are the counter-pillars of citizen power. And the Internet provides the best and most appropriate infrastructure for strengthening all three. Morozov correctly claims that it does not do so in an unmitigated manner but unmitigated is not the same as ineffective or irrelevant.

In this regard, the Internet is the greatest antidote to anti-communitarian forces. Frankly, I find even the most mindless lolcat sites on the Internet to be an improvement over canned-laughter-filled sitcoms. The point of lolcats is not the lolcats themselves, but to share them with friends, comment on them, make more of them, and enter the community via the joke. It’s the community, not the cat, that matters. (If you doubt this, try selling a book of lolcats and see how well it does.) I write this review in the aftermath of an atrocity; the assassination attempt in Arizona on a Congresswoman that claimed the lives of six others including a child. Every Internet community I am part of is roiled and there is widespread discussion on most of them about the event. Fifteen years ago, we’d all be watching TV, not communicating with each other.”

I also responded to Jaron Lanier’s piece about Wikileaks, where he claimed that Wikileaks revealed nerd supremacy. You can read the whole thing here; excerpt below:

“During these past weeks, rather than a nerd takeover, I saw the crumbling of the facade of a flat, equal, open Internet and the revelation of an Internet which has corporate power occupying its key crossroads, ever-so-sensitive to any whiff of displeasure by the state. I saw an Internet in danger of becoming merely an interactive version of the television in terms of effective freedom of speech. Remember, the Internet did not create freedom of speech; in theory, we always had freedom of speech–it’s just that it often went along with the freedom to be ignored. People had no access to the infrastructure to be heard. Until the Internet, the right to be heard was in most cases reserved to the governments, deep pockets, and corporate media. Before the Internet, trees fell in lonely forests.

The Wikileaks furor shows us that these institutions of power are slowly and surely taking control of the key junctures of the Internet. As a mere “quasi-public sphere,” the Internet is somewhat akin to shopping malls, which seem like public spaces but in which the rights of citizens are restricted, as they are in fact private. If you think the freedom of the Internet could never be taken back, I implore you to read the history of radio. Technologies that start out as peer-to-peer and citizen-driven can be and have been taken over by corporate and state power.”