Monthly Archives: December 2010

Will Using ‘Live’ Satellite Imagery to Prevent War in the Sudan Actually Work?

Update: Heglig Crisis 2012, Border Clashes 2012, Invasion of Abyei 2012

The Satellite Sentinel Project has hired private satellites to monitor troop movements around the oil-rich region of Abyei during the upcoming Sudanese referendum and prevent war. The images and analysis will be made public on the Project’s website. George Clooney, who catalyzed this joint initiative between Google, UNOSAT, the Enough Project, Trellon and my colleagues at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), calls this the anti-genocide paparazzi:

“We want them to enjoy the level of celebrity attention that I usually get. If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently than when you operate in a vacuum.”

The group hopes that they can deter war crimes by observing troop buildups and troop movements in advance. If successful, the project would accomplish an idea first proposed more than half-a-century ago  by US President Dwight Eisenhower during a US-Soviet Summit in Paris at the height of the Cold War. Eisenhower announced his plan to “submit to the United Nations a proposal for the creation of a United Nations aerial surveillance to detect preparations for attack.” Interestingly, Eisenhower had crafted this idea five years earlier as part of his Open Skies Proposal, which actually became a treaty in 2002:

“The Treaty establishes a regime of unarmed aerial observation flights over the entire territory of its participants. The Treaty is designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information about military forces and activities of concern to them. Open Skies is one of the most wide-ranging international efforts to date to promote openness and transparency of military forces and activities.”

If you want to find out more about Eisenhower’s efforts, please see my blog post on the subject here.

So there is some precedence for what Clooney is trying to pull off. But how is the Sentinel project likely to fare as a non-state effort? Looking at other non-state actors who have already operationalized Eisenhower’s ideas may provide some insights. Take Amnesty International’s “Eyes on Darfur” initiative, which “leverages the power of high- resolution satellite imagery to provide unim- peachable evidence of the atrocities being committed in Darfur–enabling action by private citizens, policy makers and international courts.”

According to Amnesty, the project “broke new ground in protecting human rights by allowing people around the world to literally ‘watch over’ and protect twelve intact, but highly vulnerable, villages using commercially available satellite imagery.” The imagery also enabled Amnesty to capture the movement of Janjaweed forces. Amnesty claims that their project has had a deterrence effect. Apparently, the villages monitored by the project have not been attacked while neighboring ones have. That said, at least two of the monitored villages were removed from the site after reported attacks.

Still Amnesty argues that there have been notable changes in decisions made by the Bashir government since “Eyes on Darfur” went live. They also note that the government of Chad cited their as one of the reasons they accepted UN peacekeepers along their border.

In my blog post on Eisenhower’s UN surveillance speech I asked whether the UN would ever be allowed to monitor and detect preparations for attack using satellite imagery. I now have my answer given that UNOSAT is involved in the Sentinel Project which plans to “deter the resumption of war between North and South Sudan” by providing an “early warning system to deter mass atrocities by focusing world attention and generating rapid responses on human rights and human security concerns” (Sentinel). But will these efforts really create an effective deterrence-based “Global Panopticon”?

French philosopher Michel Foucault has famously written on the role of surveillance as an instrument of power. “He cites the example of Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon,’ an architectural model for a prison enabling a single guard, located in a central tower, to watch all of the inmates in their cells.  The ‘major effect of the Panopticon,’ writes Foucault, is ‘to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.'”

According to Foucault, the Panopticon renders power both “visible and unverifiable”: Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is being spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. But potential perpetrators of the violence in the Sudan do not actually see the  outline of the satellites flying overhead. They are not being directly harassed by high-powered “cameras” stuck into their faces by the anti-genocide paparazzi. So the power is not directly visible in the traditional sense. But who exactly is the inmate in or connected to Abyei in the first place?

There are multiple groups in the area with different agendas that don’t necessarily tie back to the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The Arab Misseriya tribe has thus far remained north during this dry season to avert confrontation with the Ngok Dinka in the Southern part of Abyei. These nomadic tribes typically carry Kalashnikovs to guard their cattle. So distinguishing these nomads from armed groups prepared to raid and burn down villages is a challenge especially when dealing with satellite imagery. Using UAV’s may be more useful and cheaper. (Note that monitoring the location and movement of cattle could be insightful because cattle issues are political in the area).

If armed groups who intend to burn down villages are the intended inmates, do they even know or care about the Satellite Sentinel Project? The ICC has already struggled to connect the chain of command back to the Sudanese government. Besides, the expected turn-around time to develop the satellite imagery is between eight to twenty-four hours. Getting armed men on a truck and raiding a village or two doesn’t take more than a few hours. So the crimes may already have been committed by the time the pictures come in. And if more heavy military machinery like tanks are rolled in, well, one doesn’t need satellite imagery to detect those.

As scholars of the panopticon have noted, the successful use of surveillance has to be coupled with the threat of punishment for deviant acts. So putting aside the issue of who the intended inmates are, the question for the Sentinel Project is whether threats of punishment are perceived by inmates as sufficiently real enough for the deterrence to work. In international relations theory, “deterrence is a strategy by which governments threaten an immense retaliation if attacked, such that aggressors are deterred if they do not wish to suffer great damage as a result of an aggressive action.”

This means that official state actors need to step up and publicly pledge to carry out the necessary punishment if the satellite imagery collected by Sentinel provides evidence of wrong-doing. The ICC should make it crystal clear to all inmates (whoever they are) that evidence from the satellite imagery will be used for prosecution (and that they should care). There also need to be armed guards in  “the tower” who are proximate enough to be deployed and have the political will to use force if necessary. Or will the anti-genocide paparazzi’s many eyes be sufficient to keep the peace? It’s worth remembering that the Hollywood paparazzi haven’t exactly turned movie stars into alter boys or girls. But then again, they’d probably get away with a whole lot more without the paparazzi.

US spy satellites have no doubt monitored conflict-prone areas in the past but this  hasn’t necessarily deterred major crimes against humanity as far as I know. Of course, the imagery collected has remained classified, which means the general public hasn’t been able to lobby their governments and the international community to act based on this information and shared awareness.

The Sentinel Project’s open source approach changes this calculus. It may not deter the actual perpetrators, but the shared awareness created thanks to the open data will make it more difficult for those who can prevent the violence to look the other way. So the Satellite Sentinel Project may be more about keeping our own governments accountable to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) than deterring actors in the Sudan from committing further crimes.

How will we know if Clooney succeeds? I’m not quite sure. But I do know that the Sentinel Project is a step in the right direction. More evidence is always more compelling than less evidence. And more public evidence is even better. I have no doubt therefore that Eisenhower would back this Open Skies project.

p.s. It is worth noting that the satellite imagery of Sri Lankan forces attacking civilians in 2009 were dismissed as fake by the Colombo government even though the imagery analysis was produced by UNOSAT.

Why Crowdsourcing and Crowdfeeding may be the answer to Snowmageddon

The state response to the massive snow storm in NY was predictably slow and not up to the task. The New York Times reported that “streets across vast stretches of the city remained untouched, leaving tens of thousands of residents unable to get to jobs and many facing long waits for ambulances and other emergency services.” In addition 911 dispatchers fielded tens of thousands of calls with a backlog of more than one thousand at one point and “at least 200 ambulances got stuck on unplowed streets or were blocked by abandoned cars.”

This centralized top-down approach to disaster response is meant to be effective and to save lives, but it has cost lives instead and will continue to do so until we realize that a more distributed and decentralized approach facilitated by digital technology is a better mach for the complexity of disaster response. Indeed, findings from a recent study commissioned by the Red Cross reveal that 75% of people now expect an almost-immediate response after posting a call for help on a social media platform during a disaster.

The Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations are particularly troubled by this figure. They shouldn’t be. It is high time that crisis response organizations start viewing the public as part of the team. One way to do so is to create an open marketplace for crowdsourcing crisis response.

The real first responders are those who are affected by a disaster, i.e., the local residents, not state officials. We could post second responders (official disaster responders) at the corner of every street but this would require tens of thousands of additional responders at a prohibitive cost. Clearly, official response teams can’t always be there. But the crowd, the crowd is always there. One answer to our Snowmageddon woes is therefore to help the crowd help itself.

Hence this Ushahidi deployment:

This kind of service enables affected residents to map their needs and for those less affected to map how they can help. You don’t need to be a disaster response professional to help your neighbor dig out their car. Imagine how many ambulances could have been dug out if the crowd were better connected to swarm the response. Recall the example in Estonia where volunteers organized online to start a mass garbage cleanup campaign. Some 50,000 all showed up on one day and collected over 10,000 tonnes of garbage.

As I’ve written before, there’s a lot that disaster affected populations can (and already do) to help each other out in times of crisis. What may help is to combine the crowdsourcing of crisis information with what I call crowdfeeding in order to create an efficient market place for crowdsourcing response. By crowdfeeding, I mean taking crowdsourced information and feeding it right back to the crowd. Surely they need that information as much if not more than external, paid responders who won’t get to the scene for hours or days.

We talk about top-down and bottom-up approaches. Crowdfeeding is a “bottom-bottom” approach; horizontal, meshed communication for local rapid response. Information of the crowd, by the crowd and for the crowd. For the marketplace to work at the technical level, users should easily be able to map their needs or map the resources they have to help others. They should be able to do this via webform, SMS, Twitter, smart phone apps, phone call, etc.

But users shouldn’t have to keep looking back at the map to check whether anyone has posted offers to help in their area, or vice versa. They should get an automated email and/or text message when a potential match is found. The matching should be done by a simple algorithm, a for crowdsourcing crisis response. (Just like online dating, users should take appropriate precautions when contacting their match). On a practical level, this marketplace will work best if it draws many traders. That’s why the data should be easily shared across platforms.

New Yorkers are a resilient bunch so the City should leverage the goodwill that exists by helping the crowd connect and help itself. They set up an online marketplace for crowdsourcing needs and crisis response and let New Yorkers participate in their own response.

Latest Empirical Findings on Democratic Effects of the Internet

Jacob Groshek from Iowa State University recently published the latest results from his research on the democratic effects of the Internet in the International Journal of Communication. A copy of Groshek’s study is available here (PDF).

Groshek published an earlier study in 2009 which I blogged about here. In this latest set of findings, Groshek concludes that “Internet diffusion was not a specific causal mechanism of national-level democratic growth during the timeframe analyzed,” which was 1994-2003. The author therefore argues that “the diffusion of the Internet should not be considered a democratic panacea, but rather a component of contemporary democratization processes.” Interestingly, these conclusions seem to contradict his findings from 2009.

The purpose of this blog post is to summarize Groshek’s research so I can include it in my dissertation’s literature review. What follows therefore are some excerpts that summarize Groshek’s research design and methodology. I also add my thoughts on the study and the implications of the findings.

Some Background:

“Technological developments, especially communicative ones, have long been positioned — and even romanticized — as powerful instruments of democracy (Dunham, 1938; Lerner, 1958). This tradition goes back at least as far as the printing press and its contribution to democratic movements of past centuries (Schudson, 1999) in relation to conceptions of the public sphere and the fourth estate (Jones, 2000). Over the course of the past century, telegraphs, telephones, radios, and televisions were all introduced as “new” media, and each of these technologies were often ascribed broad potential for enhancing democratic development around the world (Becker, 2001; Navia & Zweifel, 2006; Spinelli, 1996).”

The Methodology:

“Though there are many ways to operationalize democracy and measure the prevalence of media technologies, this study relies principally on macro-level time–series democracy data from an historical sample that includes 72 countries, reaching back as far as 1946 in some cases, but at least from 1954 to 2003. From this sample, a sequence of ARIMA (autoregressive integrated moving average) time–series regressions were modeled for each country for at least 40 years prior to 1994.”

“These models were then used to generate statistically-forecasted democracy values for each country, in each year from 1994 to 2003. A 95% confidence interval with an upper and lower democracy score was then constructed around each of the forecasted values using dynamic mean squared errors. The actual democracy scores of each country for each year from 1994 to 2003 were then compared to the upper and lower values of the confidence interval.”

The Results:

“Based on the statistical findings, three countries that demonstrated democracy levels greater than those statistically predicted  [Croatia, Indonesia and Mexico] were selected for brief contemporary historical analyses to identify whether the Internet acted as a specific causal mechanism that may have contributed to democratization processes. These case study evaluations were basic overviews of historical events, figures, and policies that placed these findings into context to better specify what precise role, if any, the Internet had on the increases in democracy observed in these three countries that were greater than they had been predicted to be, statistically.”

Interestingly, out of the 72 countries studied, the only one with democracy scores significantly below the statistically predicted score was Belarus.

“While the purpose of this study is to more specifically assess the possibility that Internet diffusion might be linked to democratic growth, the case of Belarus provides an important counterbalance to that concept. This is because, starting with 1995, the actual democracy score was less than the predicted democracy score — and it remained below the predicted values through 2003, even though Internet diffusion reached approximately 14% by the end of the time frame investigated. Thus, it is evident that less democratic countries can invest in increasing Internet diffusion and still constrict democratic development.”

What about Croatia, Indonesia and Mexico?

“A circumspect approach to understanding the role Internet diffusion played in Croatia’s democratization is to recognize that, by most accounts, it was an important factor that helped determine the trajectory of political development in this country. It was not, however, the defining feature of this democratic transition, which was set in motion years earlier by a coalescing of events and political figures that also transcended Croatia’s national boundaries (Hampton, 2007).”

“Indonesia had observed actual democracy levels greater than that of the predicted confidence interval from 1999 to 2003. Yet, for nearly all of the timeframe investigated here, Indonesian media development was tightly restricted by the government and subject to severe censorship (Eick, 2007), so it seems unlikely that the diffusion of the Internet would be a critical democratic agent. In addition, the diffusion of the Internet was a paltry 0.44 people per 100 in 1999, when the democracy level spiked through the upper confidence interval of the predicted value.”

“[In the final case, it is] impossible to summarily conclude that Mexico was more democratic precisely due to Internet diffusion than it would have been had the Internet not diffused, at least when considering institutionalized national level democracy. This is because the transnational civil society network pioneered by the Zapatistas was more about élites who had Internet access and how the Zapatistas tapped this group and projected their ideological views through the Internet, even though, in Mexico, the Internet only reached a tiny portion of the general population. Therefore, it was not high levels of Internet diffusion among the Mexican citizens in 1994, but rather influential Internet users that contributed democratic change during that time period.”

In Conclusion:

“The results of the investigations undertaken in this study yield no conclusive evidence that the democratic growth from 1994 to 2003 was due singularly, or even primarily, to the diffusion of the Internet.”

Side note: I personally don’t know anyone or of any empirical study that claims that democratic growth around the world is singularly or even primarily due to the Internet. Do you?

“It is therefore prudent to consider the Internet a potentially potent but underutilized democratic tool, one that is only as useful as the citizens who employ and implement it for political purposes (Schudson, 2003). Thus far, the Internet has not been diffused or activated to an extent that this technology has sustained the third democratic wave (Huntington, 1991). Importantly, virtuosity and democratic agency are not inherent in media technologies, no matter how interactive or participatory. Rather, these exist in individuals, and in the crucial applications and uses they make of communicative technologies (Nord, 2001; Schudson, 1999, 2003).”

“Thus, the general conclusion of this study is that the Internet has not catalyzed transformative, national-level democratic growth, although there is some reason to believe that it may contribute to these changes, as the cases of Mexico and Croatia exhibit. This finding, of course, does not rule out the possibility that there may be national-level democratic effects related to Internet diffusion in the future, nor does it rule out possible effects on personal or other sub-national levels.”

It’s great to see more data-driven research on this topic and be spared (albeit temporarily) anecdote-laden and chronically repetitive popular media reports on technologies being either all-liberating or all-repressive. A possible corollary to Groshek’s  findings is that the use of the Internet by repressive regimes did not lead to a statistically significant decrease in expected democracy scores.  In other words, dictators may love the web, but that romance ain’t having a macro-level impact on the level of repression.

Obviously, multiple factors contribute to democratic processes and transitions. The more interesting questions, in my opinion, are these: what are the underlying drivers of protest movements and how might new technologies accelerate those drivers and/or create new ones? Along these lines, how do tactics and strategies from civil resistance benefit from using new technologies? Does the careful, planned and innovative use of these technologies in social protests provide activists with a competitive edge they didn’t have in the past?

Update: My colleague Mary Joyce makes an excellent point regarding the time span covered by the analysis, i.e., through to 2003. As she rightly notes, major social media platforms used for activism, like YouTube (2005), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006), were created after 2003. See her blog post here for more of her analysis on Groshek’s work.

The Political Power of Social Media

Clay Shirky just published a piece in Foreign Affairs on “The Political Power of Social Media.” I’m almost done with writing my literature review of digital activism in repressive states for my dissertation so this is a timely write-up by Clay who also sits on my dissertation committee. The points he makes echo a number of my blog posts and thus provides further support to some of the arguments articulated in my dissertation. I’ll use this space to provide excerpts and commentary on his 5,000+ word piece to include in my literature review.

“Less than two hours after the [Philippine Congress voted not to impeach President Joseph Estrada], thousands of Filipinos […] converged on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, a major crossroads in Manila. The protest was arranged, in part, by forwarded text messages reading, ‘Go 2 EDSA. Wear blk.’ The crowd quickly swelled, and in the next few days, over a million people arrived, choking traffic in downtown Manila.”

“The public’s ability to coordinate such a massive and rapid response — close to seven million text messages were sent that week — so alarmed the country’s legislators that they reversed course and allowed the evidence to be presented. Estrada’s fate was sealed; by January 20, he was gone. The event marked the first time that social media had helped force out a national leader. Estrada himself blamed ‘the text-messaging generation’ for his downfall.”

“As the communications landscape gets denser, more complex, and more participatory, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action. In the political arena […] these increased freedoms can help loosely coordinated publics demand change.”

See this blog post on Political Change in the Digital Age: The Prospect of Smart Mobs in Authoritarian States.

“The Philippine strategy has been adopted many times since. In some cases, the protesters ultimately succeeded, as in Spain in 2004, when demonstrations organized by text messaging led to the quick ouster of Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, who had inaccurately blamed the Madrid transit bombings on Basque separatists. The Communist Party lost power in Moldova in 2009 when massive protests coordinated in part by text message, Facebook, and Twitter broke out after an obviously fraudulent election.”

“There are, however, many examples of the activists failing, as in Belarus in March 2006, when street protests (arranged in part by e-mail) against President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s alleged vote rigging swelled, then faltered, leaving Lukashenko more determined than ever to control social media. During the June 2009 uprising of the Green Movement in Iran, activists used every possible technological coordinating tool to protest the miscount of votes for Mir Hossein Mousavi but were ultimately brought to heel by a violent crackdown. The Red Shirt uprising in Thailand in 2010 followed a similar but quicker path: protesters savvy with social media occupied downtown Bangkok until the Thai government dispersed the protesters, killing dozens.”

“The use of social media tools — text messaging, e-mail, photo sharing, social networking, and the like — does not have a single preordained outcome. Therefore, attempts to outline their effects on political action are too often reduced to dueling anecdotes.”

Clay picks up on some of my ongoing frustration with the “study” of digital activism. He borrows his dueling analogy from some of my earlier blog post of mine in which I chide the popular media for sensationalizing anecdotes. See for example:

“Empirical work on the subject is also hard to come by, in part because these tools are so new and in part because relevant examples are so rare. The safest characterization of recent quantitative attempts to answer the question, Do digital tools enhance democracy? (such as those by Jacob Groshek and Philip Howard) is that these tools probably do not hurt in the short run and might help in the long run — and that they have the most dramatic effects in states where a public sphere already constrains the actions of the government.”

Reading this made me realize that I need to get my own empirical results out in public in the coming weeks. As part of my dissertation research, I used econometric analysis to test whether an increase in access to mobile phones and the Internet serves as a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests. So I’ll add this to my to-do list of blog posts and will also share my literature review in full as soon as I’m done with that dissertation chapter.

In the meantime, have a look at the Global Digital Activism Dataset (GDADS) project that both Clay and I are involved in to spur more empirical research in this space.

Although the story of Estrada’s ouster and other similar events have led observers to focus on the power of mass protests to topple governments, the potential of social media lies mainly in their support of civil society and the public sphere — change measured in years and decades rather than weeks or months. [We] should likewise assume that progress will be incremental and, unsurprisingly, slowest in the most authoritarian regimes.

I wrote up a blog post just a few weeks ago on “How to Evaluate Success in Digital Resistance: Look at Guerrilla Warfare,” which makes the same argument. Clay goes on to formulate two perspectives on the role of social media in non-permissive environments, the instrumentalist versus environmental schools of thought.

“The instrumental view is politically appealing, action-oriented, and almost certainly wrong. It overestimates the value of broadcast media while underestimating the value of media that allow citizens to communicate privately among themselves. It overestimates the value of access to information, particularly information hosted in the West, while underestimating the value of tools for local coordination. And it overestimates the importance of computers while underestimating the importance of simpler tools, such as cell phones.”

“According to [the environmental view], positive changes in the life of a country, including pro-democratic regime change, follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere. This is not to say that popular movements will not successfully use these tools to discipline or even oust their governments, but rather that U.S. attempts to direct such uses are likely to do more harm than good. Considered in this light, Internet freedom is a long game, to be conceived of and supported not as a separate agenda but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.”

One aspect that I particularly enjoy about Clay’s writings is his use of past examples from history to bolster his arguments.

“One complaint about the idea of new media as a political force is that most people simply use these tools for commerce, social life, or self-distraction, but this is common to all forms of media. Far more people in the 1500s were reading erotic novels than Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses,” and far more people before the American Revolution were reading Poor Richard’s Almanack than the work of the Committees of Correspondence. But those political works still had an enormous political effect.”

“Just as Luther adopted the newly practical printing press to protest against the Catholic Church, and the American revolutionaries synchronized their beliefs using the postal service that Benjamin Franklin had designed, today’s dissident movements will use any means possible to frame their views and coordinate their actions; it would be impossible to describe the Moldovan Communist Party’s loss of Parliament after the 2009 elections without discussing the use of cell phones and online tools by its opponents to mobilize. Authoritarian governments stifle communication among their citizens because they fear, correctly, that a better-coordinated populace would constrain their ability to act without oversight.”

Turning to the fall of communism, Clay juxtaposes the role of communication technologies with the inevitable structural macro-economic forces that lifted the Iron Curtain.

“Any discussion of political action in repressive regimes must take into account the astonishing fall of communism in 1989 in eastern Europe and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Throughout the Cold War, the United States invested in a variety of communications tools, including broadcasting the Voice of America radio station, hosting an American pavilion in Moscow  […], and smuggling Xerox machines behind the Iron Curtain to aid the underground press, or samizdat.”

“Yet despite this emphasis on communications, the end of the Cold War was triggered not by a defiant uprising of Voice of America listeners but by economic change. As the price of oil fell while that of wheat spiked, the Soviet model of selling expensive oil to buy cheap wheat stopped working. As a result, the Kremlin was forced to secure loans from the West, loans that would have been put at risk had the government intervened militarily in the affairs of non-Russian states.”

“In 1989, one could argue, the ability of citizens to communicate, considered against the background of macroeconomic forces, was largely irrelevant. Communications tools during the Cold War did not cause governments to collapse, but they helped the people take power from the state when it was weak. […]. For optimistic observers of public demonstrations, this is weak tea, but both the empirical and the theoretical work suggest that protests, when effective, are the end of a long process, rather than a replacement for it.”

Clay also emphasizes the political importance of conversation over the initial information dissemination effect:

“Opinions are first transmitted by the media, and then get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. It is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed. This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference. As with the printing press, the Internet spreads not just media consumption but media production as well — it allows people to privately and publicly articulate and debate a welter of conflicting views.”

How about the role of social media in organization and coordination?

“Disciplined and coordinated groups, whether businesses or govern-ments, have always had an advantage over undisciplined ones: they have an easier time engaging in collective action because they have an orderly way of directing the action of their members. Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination. The anti-Estrada movement in the Philippines used the ease of sending and forwarding text messages to organize a massive group with no need (and no time) for standard managerial control. As a result, larger, looser groups can now take on some kinds of coordinated action, such as protest movements and public media campaigns, that were previously reserved for formal organizations.”

I’m rather stunned by this argument: “Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination.” Seriously? If a group is unorganized and undisciplined, advocating that it use social media—particularly in a repressive environment—is highly inadvisable. Turning an unorganized and undisciplined mob into a flash mob thanks to social media tools does not make it a smart mob. Clay’s argument directly contradicts the  rich empirical research that exists on civil resistance in authoritarian states.

“For political movements, one of the main forms of coordination is what the military calls ‘shared awareness,’ the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand but also understand that everyone else does, too. Social media increase shared awareness by propagating messages through social networks.”

Top 10 Posts of 2010

Here are the Top 10 iRevolution Posts of 2010!

1. The Future of News: Mobilizing the Masses to Write First Draft of History

2. How to Run a Successful Crowdsourcing Project

3. The Starfish and the Spider: 8 Principles of Decentralization

4. Haiti and the Power of Crowdsourcing

5. The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power

6. The Unprecedented Role of SMS in Disaster Response

7. How Crowdsourced Data Can Predict Crisis Impact

8. My Thoughts on Gladwell’s Piece in The New Yorker

9. WikiLeaks of Mass Disruption: Get Ready for the Clone Wars

10. Maptivism: Live Tactical Mapping for Protest Swarming

Happy Holidays!

Political Change in the Digital Age: The Prospect of Smart Mobs in Authoritarian States

The latest edition of the SAIS Review of International Affairs is focused on cyber threats and opportunities. My Stanford colleague Rob Munro and I contributed a piece on crowdsourcing SMS for crisis response. Colleagues at Harvard’s Berkman Center wrote this piece on political change in the digital age—specifically with respect to authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes. Their research overlaps considerably with my dissertation so what follows is a short summary of their article.

Bruce Etling, Robert Faris and John Palfrey basically argue that policymakers and scholars have been focusing too narrowly on the role of digital technology in providing unfiltered access to the Internet and independent sources of information. They argue that “more attention should be paid to the means of overcoming the difficulties of online organization in the face of authoritarian governments in an increasingly digital geopolitical environment.” The authors thus seek to distinguish between flow of information and social organization facilitated by digital tools.

“While information and organizing are inextricably linked—photographs and videos play an important and growing role in empowering and motivating social activists—it is helpful to consider them separately as the use of technology entails different opportunities and challenges for each.”

They therefore develop a simple analytical framework to describe the interaction between civil society, media and governments in different types of regimes.

They argue that to understand the role of digital tools on democratic processes, “we must better understand the impact of the use of these tools on the composition and role of civil society.” Etling, Faris and Palfrey therefore assess the influence of digital technologies on the formation and activities of civil society groups—and in particular mobs, movements and civil society organizations. See Figure 2 below.

The authors claim that “hierarchical organizations with strong networks—the mainstay of civil society in consolidated democracies—are not a viable option in authoritarian states.” No news there. They write that civil society organizations (CSOs) are therefore easy targets since their “offline activities are already highly regimented and watched by the state.”

The protests in Burma and Iran are characterized by a “grey area between a flash mob and social movement” and efforts at digital organizing in these cases have been largely ineffective, according to the authors. They do have hope for smart mobs, however, given their ability to emerge organically and take governments by surprise: “In a few cases, the ability of a mob to quickly overwhelming unprepared governments has been successful.” They cite the case of Estrada in the Philippines, also the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan. The authors don’t elaborate on any of these anecdotes (see my rant on the use of anecdotes in the study of digital activism here).

As iRevolution readers will know, I’m not an advocate of spontaneous protests in the context of authoritarian states. I have argued time and time again that digital activists need more dedicated training in civil resistance and nonviolent action, which emphasizes planning and preparation. The Berkman authors write that success is “likely determined not by the given technology tool, but by the human skill and facility in using the networks that are being mobilized.” Likely? More like “definitely not determined by the technology.”

The authors also write that successful movements:

“… appear to combine the best of ‘classic’ organizing tactics with the improvisation, or “jazz” that is enabled by new Internet tools; for example, constantly updated mobile mapping tools […]. It is less clear how far online organizing and digital communities will be allowed to push states toward drastic political change and greater democratization, especially in states where offline restrictions to civic and political organization are severe. As scholars, we ought to focus our attention on the people involved and their competencies in using digitally-mediated tools to organize themselves and their fellow citizens, whether as flash mobs or through sustained social movements or organizations, rather than the flow of information as such.”

The Berkman scholars are mistaken in their reference to improvisation and jazz. As anyone interested in music will know, playing jazz—and acquiring the skills for jazz improv—takes years of training and hard work. It is therefore foolhardy to advocate for spontaneous mob action in repressive environments or to romanticize their power. The authors only dedicate one sentence to this concern: “Poorly organized mass actions are highly unpredictable and easily manipulated.”

In closing, I’d like to link this Berkman paper to the ongoing conversations around WikiLeaks. As the authors note, the best illustration of the threat that new information flows pose to authoritarian governments is their reaction to it.

Maptivism: Live Tactical Mapping for Protest Swarming

My colleague Adeel Khamisa from GeoTime kindly shared this news story on how student protesters created a live tactical map to outwit police in London during yesterday’s demonstrations.

Check out these real time updates:

The students also caught the following picture:

The map depicts the tactics employed by the students:

The limits of using Google Maps

As I looked closer at the map, it occurred to me how much this resembles a computer game with moving characters. The strategy employed by the police can be discerned by the pattern below.

But I doubt that students were able to update their Google map in real-time directly from their mobile phones, let alone via SMS, Twitter, Smartphone App, camera phone or Facebook. Nor can they subscribe to alerts and receive them directly via an automated email or SMS. Indeed, it appears they were using Google Forms to “crowdsource” information and this Twitter account to disseminate important updates.

This is why I got in touch with the group and recommended that they think of using Crowdmap (free and open source):

Or GroundCrew (partially free, not open source):

See the following links for more info on Maptivism: