Prospect Magazine just published the final back-and-forth between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky on digital activism. The debate followed Evgeny’s cover story in Prospect published last November, which I responded to (and disagreed with) at length here: Why Dictators Love the Web or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Say So What?! And here: Digital Activism and the Puffy Clouds of Anecdote Heaven.
I enjoyed reading the final exchange between Morozov and Shirky. Here’s where I agree and disagree with both authors.
Agree with Morozov
- Growing Internet censorship in Iran is a logical reaction from a “rational-thinking” government concerned with possible revolution.
- Only focusing on who controls communication networks may not be terribly helpful since Iran has other ways to control the internet. “One unfortunate consequence of limiting our analysis of internet control to censorship only is that it presents all authoritarian governments as technophobic and unable to capitalise on new technologies,” which is hardly the case.
Disagree with Morozov
- Protests are not necessarily rare in repressive states. According to a study in 2006, “group protests in China have risen at a rate of at least 17% a year.” In 2005, there were an estimated 241 group protests per day. In Pakistan, local Field Monitors with Swisspeace coded 54 individual protests during 2007. Compare this with Reuters coverage of Pakistan, which only reported 7 protests that same year. If it’s not in the news does not mean it’s not happening.
- The regime in Tehran may very well have the ability to turn off mobile phone coverage in public places where protests are organized but remember those things called land line telephones? Iran has 24.8 million of those (2008 est.) and is ranked 12th (above South Korea and Canada) in number of land line phones (ref). And besides, we’ve clearly seen that mobile phones are increasingly used for more than just communication. The tragic video footage of Neda (along with hundreds of other pictures) were all captured on mobile phones.
- The fact that the Iranian regime has become more authoritarian following the post-elections protests does not automatically imply the regime has become stronger. As I have written elsewhere, citing Brafman and Beckstrom’s The Starfish and the Spider: “when attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized.” A more centralized and paranoid regime, however, doesn’t mean a more powerful regime. Greater repression is a typical reaction by a threatened regime during a revolution and often before a change of power.
- The increased repression can also backfire. As mentioned in this previous blog post, “Backfire occurs when an attack creates more support for or attention to what/who is attacked. Any injustice or norm violation can backfire on the perpetrator.” For further research on this issue, I recommend reading this piece on “Repression, Backfire and the Theory of Transformative Events,” by David Hess and Brian Martin.
- One should also take into consideration the organizational topology of resistance movements. Brafman and Beckstrom argue that “when attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more decentralized.” This may make it more difficult for the regime to identify and crack down on the resistance movement in Iran.
- I don’t think Burma serves as a valid comparison with Iran. In addition, the fact that there were no major democratic changes in Burma following the Saffron revolution in 2007 hardly means that the situation has been static since. I recently spoke with two colleagues who were in Burma a few months ago and was taken aback by some of the changes they observed.
- Morozov asks what is to be gained if the ability to organize protests is matched or even overpowered by the ability to provoke, identify and arrest the protesters and possible future dissidents? A good question but one that seems to assumes a static and linear state of affairs. As I have argued elsewhere, tactical innovation, organizational learning and technological change means that this is unlikely.
Agree with Shirky
- Just like the Protestant Reformation was shaped by the printing press, the Iranian protests were and is being shaped by social media, rather than simply Twitter. Perhaps “the real revolution was the use of mobile phones, which allowed the original protesters to broadcast their actions to other citizens and to the wider world with remarkable speed and immediacy.”
- I’m including the following paragraphs in full as they are relevant to my dissertation research. For me the key words here are “synchronized public.”
“The basic hypothesis is an updated version of that outlined by Jürgen Habermas in his 1962 publication, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. A group of people, so Habermas’s theory goes, who take on the tools of open expression becomes a public, and the presence of a synchronised public increasingly constrains undemocratic rulers while expanding the rights of that public (the monarchies of Europe, in Habermas’s telling, become authoritarian governments within the contemporary scenario).
Put another way, even taking into account the increased availability of surveillance, the net value of social media has shifted the balance of power in the direction of Iran’s citizens. As Evgeny notes, however, that hypothesis might be wrong. Or, if it is right, the ways in which it is right might be minor, or rare, or take decades to unfold.
- Iran is unlikely to become a permanent Burma since “the kind of information shutdown required to keep all forms of public assembly from boiling over will be beyond the authorities in Iran.”
Disagree with Shirky
- On the Habermas reference to the “synchronized public”, Shirky overlooks the fact that a centralized, command-and-control organization is likely to have the upper hand on synchronization. He also forgets that repressive regimes do not face the same collective action problem that resistance movements face (c.f. information cascades). Granted, the “public” may be quicker in adapting to relatively rapid and small-albeit-important changes in the political environment but this needs to be tested in more depth.
- Shirky agrees with Evgeny regarding the possibility that Iran may move towards the Burmese model of steady control. Put this way, I also agree with the possibility that the sun may not rise tomorrow. Neither Shirky, Morozov or myself are Iran specialists or have any inside information on the internal politics of the country. So best not to rely on any of us for expert political commentary on Iranian politics.