Tag Archives: Helsinki Commission

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Education and Security

My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. I blogged about the opening remarks of each panelist here. But the key issues really came to fore during the Q/A session.

These issues addressed Ushahidi and data validation, security and education. This blog post addresses the issues raised on the latter. The text below includes my comments on some key points by panelists.


Nathan Freitas (NYU)

  • Now, I’m fortunate to be teaching at NYU’s Interactive Tele- communications Program, the course titled:  “Social Activism using Mobile Technology.” This is a one of the first of its time courses and I believe more education opportunities like this should be given to students to understand the alternative opportunities they have coming out of school.
  • [W]e need to have more opportunities to educate students that they can have  a career in using technology to support a variety of causes, and not just focus  on Wall Street or going to work at Google.  So I’m working on that, and I hope some of you will as well.

Me: I couldn’t agree more. This is why my colleague Joshua Goldstein and I co-taught a full-semester undergraduate course on Digital Democracy last semester. All the courseware is open and available here.


Evgeny Morozov (Georgetown)

  • I think that reaching out to Twitter was the most terrible thing that the State  Department could have done at that point, in part because it did confirm the  thesis of David Inoshoradis (ph) that Twitter is being used as a platform for fomenting the next revolution.
  • I think we see, now, looking at the trials happening in Tehran, that the authorities do perceive the information technology as a threat.  Whether it is actually a threat or not doesn’t really matter […]
  • [T]here will always be the human factor involved here, and you would never, no matter how secure your technology is and no matter how many trainings you run, you still run into basic problems, particularly in authoritarian regimes, where torture is much cheaper than hacking.

Me: I completely agree, which is why my Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments addresses both technology tactics and non-technology tactics. Lets also not forget that successful civil resistance movements existed before Twitter.

Chris Spence (NDI)

  • In a lot of ways, the Internet tools that we’re talking about are black boxes to a lot of people.  They don’t know if, okay, I’ve got this image on a phone or got this video on a phone, what am I going to do now?  […] Is it safe for me to transfer it? Is it safe for me to put it up on YouTube?
  • All of those decisions have to be made on a very personal level and I think that’s one part of the discussion that gets a little bit missed, when you think about these people using these tools.

Me: I share Chris’s concern and agree that this discussion is at times overlooked. Groups like DigiActive and Digital Democracy, Tactical Tech specifically focus training individuals on how to use new media and digital technology in secure ways. See also my *Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments.

Nathan Freitas (NYU)

  • I’ve learned an important lesson in working with the Tibetan independence movement and others: It’s that we can’t presume what people are willing – are or are not willing to do for their own freedom and liberty and democracy.

Me: I completely agree.

Chiyu Zhou (GIF)

  • [A]n any-day user has no computer knowledge at all, even.  As long as he knows how to get Internet, then he can use the little tool and double-click it, and then he can penetrate the firewall. So that’s the very, very challenging work.

Me: Fully agreed, again. I’m relying on tech savvy activists like Chiyu to make censorship circumvention tools that are as easy as just surfing the web. The importance of achieving this goal cannot possibly be over-stated.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Ushahidi and Data Verification

My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. I blogged about the opening remarks of each panelist here. But the key issues really came to fore during the Q/A session.

These issues addressed Ushahidi, data validation, security and education. This blog post addresses the issues raised around Ushahid and data validation. The text below includes my concerns with respect to a number of comments and assumptions made by some of the panelists.

Nathan Freitas (NYU):

  • It’s [Ushahidi] a crisis-mapping platform that  has grown out of the movement in Africa after the Kenyan elections.  It’s akin  to a blog system, but for mapping crisis, and what’s unique about it is it allows you to capture unverified and verified information.

Me: Many thanks to Nathan for referencing Ushahidi in the Congressional Briefing. Nathan’s comments are spot on. One of the unique features of Ushahidi is that the platform allows for the collection of both unverified and verified information.

But what’s the difference between these two types of information in the first place? In general, unverified information simply means information reported by “unknown sources” whereas verified tends to be associated with known sources of reporting, such as official election monitors.

The first and most important point to understand is that both approaches to information collection are compatible and complementary. Official election monitors, like professional journalists, cannot be everywhere at the same time. The “crowd” in crowdsourcing, on the other hand, has a comparative advantage in this respect (see supporting *empirical evidence here).

Clearly, the crowd has many more eyes and ears than any official monitoring network ever will. So discounting any and all information originating from the crowd is hard to justify. One would have to entirely dismiss the added value of all the Tweets, photos and YouTube footage generated by the “crowd” during the post-election violence in Iran.

  • And what’s interesting, I think we’ve seen the first round, the 1.0 of a lot of  this election monitoring.  As these systems come in place, they’ll be running  all the time, and they’ll be used in local elections and in state-level  elections, and the movement for – these tools will be easier, just like blogs.   Everyone blogs; in a few years, everyone’s got their own crisis-mapping  platform.

Me: What a great comment and indeed one of Ushahidi’s goals: for everyone to have their own crisis mapping platform in the near future. That’s what I call an iRevolution. Nathan’s point about the first round of these systems is also really important. The first version of the Ushahidi platform only became downloadable in May of this year; that’s just 5 months ago. We’re just getting started.

Daniel Calingaert (Freedom House):

  • [T]here’s a very critical component […] often  overlooked in these kinds of programs:  The information needs to be verified. It is useless or even counterproductive to simply be passing around rumors, and  rumor-mongering is very big in elections, and especially Election Day.

Me: Daniel certainly makes an important point although I personally don’t think that the need for verification is often overlooked in election monitoring. In any case, one should note that  rumors themselves need to be monitored and documented pre, during and post-elections. To be sure, if the information collection protocol is too narrow (say using only official monitors are allowed to submit evidence), then rumors (and other important information) may simply be dismissed and go unreported even though they could fuel conflict.

  • So it’s  important as part of the structure that you have qualified people to sort through the information and call what is credible reporting from citizens from very unsubstantiated information.

Me: Honestly, I’m always a little weary when I read comments along the lines of “you need to have qualified people” or “only experts should carry out the task.” Why? Because they tend to dismiss the added value that hundreds of bystanders can bring to the table. As Chris Spence noted about their operations in Moldova, NDI’s main partner organization “was harassed and kicked out of the country” while “the NDI program [was] largely shut down.” So who’s left to monitor? Exactly.

As my colleague Ory Okolloh recently noted, “Kenya had thousands election observers including many NDI monitors.” So what happened? “When it came to sharing their data as far as their observations at the polling everyone balked especially the EU and IRI because it was too “political”. IRI actually released their data almost 8 months later and yet they were supposed to be the filter.”

And so, Okolloh adds, “At a time when some corroboration could have prevented bloodshed, the ‘professionals’ were nowhere to be seen, so if we are talking about verification, legitimacy, and so on … lets start there.”

Chris Spence (NDI):

  • Monitoring groups – and this kind of gets to the threshold questions about Ushahidi and some of the platforms where you’re getting a lot of interesting  information from citizens, but at the end of the day, you’ve really got to  decide, have thresholds been reached which call into question the legitimacy of  the process?  And that’s really the political question that election observers and the groups that we work with have to grapple with.

Me: An interesting comment from NDI but one that perplexes me. I don’t recall users of Ushahidi suggesting that they should be the sole source of information to qualify for threshold points. Again, the most important point to understand is that different approaches to information collection can complement each other in important ways. We need to think less in linear terms and more in terms of information ecosystems with various ecologies of information sources.

  • And there’s so much involved in that methodology that one of the concerns about  the crisis mapping or the crowdsourcing [sic] is that the public can then draw interpretations about the outcome of elections without necessarily having the  filter required.  You know, you can look at a map of some city and see four or  five or 10 or several violations of election law reported by citizens who – you  know, you have to deal with the verification problem – but is that significant in the big picture?

Me: Ok, first of all, lets not confuse “crisis mapping” and “crowdsourcing” or use the terms interchangeably. Second, individuals for the large part are not thick. The maps can clearly state that the information represented is unfiltered and unverified, hence may be misleading. Third (apologies for repeating myself), none of the groups using Ushahidi claim that the data collected is representative of the bigger picture. This gets to the issue of significance.

And fourth, (more repeating), no one I know has suggested we go with once information feed, i.e., one source of information. I’m rather surprised that Chris Spence never brings up the importance of triangulation even though he acknowledges in his opening remarks that there are projects (like Swift River) that are specifically based on triangulation mechanisms to validate crowdsourced information.

Crowdsourced information can be an important repository for triangulation. The more crowdsourced information we have, the more self-triangulation is possible and the more this data can be used as a control mechanism for officially collected information.

Yes, there are issues around verification of data and an Ushahidi powered map may not be random enough for statistical accuracy but, as my colleague Ory Okolloh notes, “the data can point to areas/issues that need further investigation, especially in real-time.”

  • [I]t’s really important that, as these tools get better –  and we like the tools; Ushahidi and the other platforms are great – but we need  to make a distinction between what can be expected out of a professional  monitoring exercise and what can be drawn from unsolicited inputs from  citizens.  And I think there are good things that can be taken from both.

Me: Excellent, I couldn’t agree more. How about organizing a full-day workshop or barcamp on the role of new technologies in contemporary election monitoring? I think this would provide an ideal opportunity to hash out the important points raised by Nathan, Daniel and Chris.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Remarks by Global Internet Freedom

My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. Here are the highlights from the Global Internet Freedom (GIF) Consortium’s  opening remarks along with my critiques:

  • The Internet censorship firewalls have become the 21st century Berlin Walls that separate our world. Amid the darkness of the Internet censorship in closed societies, a thread of light still remains.  It is the Internet life lines offered by the anti-censorship systems like that of [GIF], which has been providing millions in closed societies for free access to the Internet for years.
  • It is our firm belief that free flow of information is the most effective and powerful way to peacefully transform a closed society and promote human rights and civil liberties.
  • During the Saffron Revolution in Burma, in late August 2007, we experienced the three-fold increase in average daily traffic from Burma.  Many Burmese use our system to post photos and videos of the crackdown to the outside blogs and Websites.  The Burmese government had to entirely shut down Internet to stop the outflow of information about the oppression.
  • Perhaps, the best example of the role of GIF software was during the Iranian election this past June, when our traffic from Iran increased by nearly 600 percent in one week. On the Saturday of June the 20th, an estimated 1 million Iranians used our system to visit previously censored Web sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google. The Iranian users posted videos, photos and messages about the bloody crackdown.
  • Internet freedom has the potential of transforming the closed societies in a peaceful but powerful way that must not be underestimated. The operation of our system is very efficient. It only needs a few dollars to support a user in closed societies for an entire year. Moreover, for every dollar we spent, China and other censors will need to spend hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars to block us. The information warfare over the Internet has now boiled down to the battle of resources. We have technology and the commitment.

Me: This is spot on. I have often described the situation as an “Information Race” with dynamics that hark back to the arms race of the Cold War. So the conclusion that it all boils down to the battle of resources is fascinating—especially since one of Reagan’s strategies was to bankrupt the Soviet Union with the arms race.

What the panelist should have added is that time is money. And the issue of time is central to the field of nonviolent action. Each side, citizens and repressive regimes have equal amounts of hours available to them. But regimes are by definition composed of elites, i.e., a minority, whereas citizens will always form the majority. This suggests that citizens have an inherent advantage if they know how to manage their time and remain on the offensive.

  • With a modest amount of resources, there is capacity to tear down the 21st-century Berlin walls. When Congress passed the Internet Freedom Provision in the fiscal year 2008 appropriation act, it declared that, quote, “ensuring the freedom of Internet communication in dictatorships and autocracies throughout the world is a high and critical national interest priority of the United States,” end quote.
  • And I really like the idea of using citizen observers and giving them the tools and technology to sort of go out there and report things on election day, but –and I know that they’re– the missions do go out there and observe any sort of foul play beforehand, but is there planning to do any activities or any ongoing activities right now to sort of utilize the same sort of strategy before the elections?

Me: This is an important question and one that I and colleagues are right now addressing vis-à-vis several upcoming elections.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Remarks by NDI

My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. Here are the highlights from Chris Spence’s opening remarks along with my critiques:

  • [T]he introduction of new media and other technologies should not be seen as a  panacea for democratic development nor goal in and of itself. These technologies, paired with effective methodologies, can help organizations make significant contributions toward advancing democratic process in authoritarian states.
  • Activists and civic groups have demonstrated remarkable ability to adapt new technologies and when combined with traditional organizing principles, can create moments of opportunity for democratic gains and enhanced channels for political engagement in authoritarian states.
  • The key is not only to employ effective technologies but to pair the technologies with strategies and approaches that are developed for the political environment in which the technologies are being used. This approach can help activists get out ahead of authoritarian regimes and make relative gains and even game-changing democratic gains when periods are identified where such innovations can rapidly be put to use.

Me: I’ve been advocating for this two-pronged approach, nonviolent action and digital activism, for a while now. Indeed, my dissertation research is founded on the premise that a combined strategy is imperative if activists are to gain the upper hand in authoritarian states. See also this blog post on Digital Resistance: Between Digital Activism and Civil Resistance.

  • While regimes make quickly catch up or clamp down by employing technologies and other techniques to bolster their regimes, gains made during the gap between early adoption and governmental response can have long-term, positive consequences for democratic activists. The strengths of the early uses of new media for activism have been in communication and in sharing information about political developments.

Me: This hypothesis is identical to one that I have advanced in my dissertation research. One needs to accelerate activists’ learning curve and early adoption of new technologies and tactics. Hence the importance of DigiActive’s mission and my Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Regimes.

  • However, […] the tools have been less effectively utilized for the organizing required that can lead to constructive political outcomes.  In some situations, information has been produced by citizens using innovative new media tools that initiate the process of change, but the process is stalled due to a lack of the organizations or institutions in the country required to capture the interests and channel the process toward purposeful, strategic and peaceful direct action.  Assisting organizations in these countries to build this capacity is an important component in leveraging new media tools toward political reform.

Me: This is precisely why nonviolent tactics and strategies need to inform digital activism. More about this here.

  • One set of institutions that are particularly well-suited to this role but are often overlooked in international circles are political parties. Relatively little attention is paid to the important role that parties play in aggregating citizen interests and channeling them into constructive and peaceful means toward democratic reform.
  • One area of opportunity, with tremendous potential in countries where NDI works, is to provide more new media technology assistance to political parties, especially in autocratic states where the regime often has access to considerable state resources and controls the organs of state communication.
  • [W]e believe our partners have made contributions that have prevented post-election violence or identified and raised important concerns about the electoral process that have led to more democratic and peaceful outcomes.
  • The field of domestic election monitoring has improved significantly in the last several years, partly due to improved methods and strategies and certainly enabled by these new technologies and replicated by the role of international organizations.
  • Citizen reporting is another method by which citizens have been able to communicate various aspects of their Election Day experiences using new media tools, usually text messages and Tweets. The information reported by citizens is typically collected and made accessible to the public on a Web site or online map in raw form. The value of this approach is to increase citizen participation in the election process. But to date, the challenge has been putting the information to good use.

Me: Ushahidi is probably the most well known example of citizen-based election monitoring. Full disclosure: I am Director of Crisis Mapping and Strategic Partnerships at Ushahidi. The value of this approach is more than to increase citizen participation. The approach can also increase pressure for transparency and accountability in a way that has not been possible previously.

In terms of putting the information to good use, the challenge is simply due to the fact that Ushahidi is still new to many activists. As Chris himself noted above, “The strengths of the early uses of new media for activism have been in communication and in sharing information about political developments.” First comes communication and sharing. Second comes strategizing and action.

Another important point that often gets overlooked is that the various groups that have deployed Ushahidi for the election monitoring have usually done so “at the last minute”, i.e., with just weeks prior to election day. This is  starting to change now, with groups taking an advanced-planning approach to deploying Ushahidi. Indeed, I am in touch with several partners who are already planning for elections taking place more than half-a-year from now.

  • Tools are being developed to evaluate the authenticity and filter this incoming information so that organizations can then be prepared to put this powerful crowd-sourcing methodology to work during election periods. However, even as the tools and methods improve, citizen reporting promises to be a useful tool towards some electoral goals but won’t be a substitute for election monitoring in situations where assessing the overall legitimacy of an election is required.

Me: One example of a tool being developed to validate crowdsourced information is Swift River. Again, full disclosure: Swift River is one of my priority projects at Ushahidi. In terms of the promises of citizen reporting, I find Chris’s comment surprising. I have never heard anyone suggest that citizen-based election monitoring is a substitute for election monitoring.

  • The challenges faced by activists in autocratic nations are immense.  And these challenges are not only technical in nature but also legal and political.
  • [W]indows of opportunities for political reform can be created by the use of new media in authoritarian states with a combination of good technology tools, effective strategies and methodologies – put into use  by organizations or institutions that can channel the energy of the public and  the information they produce toward construct and peaceful political activities.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Remarks by Evgeny Morozov

My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. Here are the highlights from Evgeny Morozov‘s opening remarks along with my critiques:

  • I’m increasingly concerned with both how well some of the societies  have themselves managed to adapt to the Internet threat and how poorly some of  the digital activists, journalists and even some policymakers understand the  risks of trying to promote democracy via the Internet.

Me: This is exactly the point I make in my blog posts on Digital Resistance, Human Rights and Technology and why I wrote this Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments. This is also why the work by groups like DigiActive and Digital Democracy is so important.

  • [N]ew media will power all political forces, not just the forces we  like.  Many of the recent Western funding and media development efforts have  been aimed at creating what’s known as, new digital public spaces, on the  assumption that these new digital spaces would enable the nascent actors or  civil society to flourish on blogs, Twitter and social networks.
  • So in a  sense, promoting this new digital spaces entails similar risks to promoting  free elections.  It’s quite possible we may not like the guys who win.
  • We have to  realize that authoritarian governments themselves have developed extremely  sophisticated strategies to control cyberspace and often those go beyond  censorship.  It’s a mistake to believe that these governments wouldn’t be able  to manipulate these new public spaces with their own propaganda or use them to  their own advantage.
  • Many authoritarian governments are already paying  bloggers and Internet commentators to spin the political discussions that they  do not like.  It varies from the Russian approach, where the government is cooperating with  several commercial start-ups which are creating ideological, social networking  and blogging sites that support the pro-Kremlin ideology.
  • To the Chinese  approach, where the party has created a decentralized network of what’s come to  be known as 50 Cent Party, which is almost 300,000 people who are being paid to  leave comments on sites and blogs that the government doesn’t like and thus,  try to spin those discussions. Even the Iranian clerics have been running blogging workshops, particularly  aimed at controlling religious discourse targeting women.  And they’ve been  doing it, actually, since 2006, much before we began talking about the Twitter  revolution.
  • [A]uthoritarian governments are increasingly eager to build  short-term alliances with digital groups that sometimes their goals.  For  example, one of the reasons why Russia has emerged as the most feared player in the field of cyber warfare is because it always acts indirectly, usually by  relying on numerous, nimble, underground gangs of cyber criminals.
  • [W]e do not fully understand how new media affects civic engagement.  And we  don’t have to pretend that we do.  We still assume that established unfettered  access to information is going to push people to learn the truths about human rights abuses or the crimes of the governments and thus make them more likely  to become dissidents.

Me: Evgeny and I discussed this very point the last time we met to discuss my dissertation research (he is one of my informal dissertation committee members). Agreed, we do not fully understand the impact of media on civic engagement, but we do understand some! There has been considerable academic research in this area. I do agree, however, that organizations like USAID, for example, still assume that full access to information will spur civil disobedience. See my blog post on this very issue here.

  • Most likely, lifting the censorship lid, at least in the short term, would  result in people using this opportunity to fill in other gaps in their  information vacuum.  Those may have to do with religion, culture, socializing  and so forth but not necessarily with political dissent.  Political activism  and active citizenship would probably only come last in this pyramid of cyber  needs, if you will.
  • The creators of tools like Psyphon and Tor which do allow anonymized access  to the Web, often report that many users in authoritarian states actually use  those tools to download pornography and access sites which that government  doesn’t want them to access – not necessarily political ones.  In fact, there is a growing risk that hundreds and thousands of this digital  natives in these countries would actually be sucked into this endless cycle of  entertainment, rather than have their political commitment increase and full  political life.
  • Finally, what I should mention is that current U.S. government  restrictions on the export of technology to sanctioned countries often actually  thwart and impede the adoption of new media technologies. I would like to point out that the current sanctions against governments like  Cuba, Iran, North Korea and several others make it significantly difficult for  other ordinary citizens, as well as well established activists and NGOs, to  take full advantage of the opportunities that the Internet and social media  offers.

Me: Leave it to Evgeny to make that last point at a US Congressional Briefing. The point he makes, however, is really critical and spot on. US policy makers need to know that some embargoes are self-defeating vis-a-vis democratization.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Remarks by Nathan Freitas

My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. Here are the highlights from Nathan Freitas‘s opening remarks along with my critiques:

  • A bit of history on Twitter – the roots of this new media technology wave and  specifically, Twitter, began in 2004 with an open source Web service called  TXTmob. […] So Twitter was born out of an activist movement,  so it’s no surprise that it’s come full circle and is being used that way again.
  • During the Second World War and the Cold War, inventors, mathematicians used  the first digital computers to play a critical role in the Allies’ efforts to  stay in front of the Axis.  During the Civil Rights movement the use of telephones, telegraphs and  traditional social networks in churches and universities created a foundation  to mobilize supporters throughout the South.  And in recent years, hackers,  nerds and geeks like myself have gravitated towards the social justice,  environmental and human rights movements.
  • So the idea of two guys in a garage in Silicon Valley has translated into teams  of activists around the world using Skype, Facebook and Twitter to innovate and  develop new systems to use the same grassroots organizing and non-violence  techniques that have come from Gandhi, but in a new era.
  • The fascinating  thing about what happened in Burma in 2007 was the emergence of the video  journalist.  Someone with a very cheap digital camera broadcasting their  message using the Internet:  instant messaging, FTP file transfer – and ending  up on the BBC.  […]  The idea that they could do that to cover  their movement and even though the Saffron Revolution wasn’t  successful, the impact they left in the world of activism about the possibility was very successful.
  • The power  of the moving image is unavoidable.
  • In many cases, authoritarian states’ powers prove too formidable for new media  technology.  We saw this with Tibet in the uprisings last March.  The only view  that the world had of the uprising was from the Chinese state media.  Internet  was cut off, phone was cut off, reporters from around the world were blocked  from accessing an area the size of Texas.
  • However, the use of these tools brings  serious risk to the user, their friends, family and broader movement. […] So we need to spend more time focusing on protecting activists, protecting  these generations that take 20 years to rebuild if they’re decimated.

Me: Just one comment on this last point, the issue of risk and protection is why I wrote up this Guide on How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Remarks by Freedom House

My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. Here are the highlights from Daniel Calingaert’s opening remarks on behalf of Freedom House along with my critiques:

  • New media has created significant  opportunities for advancing freedom in countries ruled by authoritarian  regimes.  It has expanded the space for free expression and facilitated civic activism.  But authoritarian regimes have pushed back.
  • While new media plays an important role in expanding free expression and  facilitating citizen engagement, it does not drive political change.  New media  alone cannot undermine authoritarian regimes.  Authoritarian regimes in the  former Soviet republics and elsewhere continue to repress their citizens, and  this repression extends to digital media.

Me: Absolutely, which is why I keep repeating the following point: we need to cross-fertilize the fields of digital activism and civil resistance. Lessons learned and best practices need to be exchanged. See my post on Digital Resistance: Between Digital Activism and Civil Resistance, which I wrote back in December 2008.

  • In Belarus, authorities conduct surveillance on Internet users, and they  require cyber cafés to register each user’s browsing history.
  • Authoritarian regimes use a variety of methods  to limit online freedom of expression.  The United States therefore has to  respond in multiple ways.
  • The Internet is a medium for communication.  Its impact in authoritarian regimes ultimately depends less on the medium itself than on the messages it  conveys and on the messengers who use it to drive progress towards democracy.

Me: I really wouldn’t frame the issue in such a dichotomous way. The Internet is a new and different type of medium for communication. One that is radically different from previous communication typologies of one-to-many broadcasting. The medium, message and actors are all important.

  • We should not only invest in anti-censorship technology, but also  support the creation and distribution of pro-democracy content and back the  courageous and creative activists in repressive environments who are struggling  to bring about political change.

Me: This last point is especially important and the reason why I wrote this blog post on Content for Digital Activism and Civil Resistance three months ago. I had been advising a large scale digital activism project and was increasingly concerned by the lack of importance placed on content.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Summary of Congressional Briefing

My colleague Chris Doten sent me the following email on September 25th:

Hey Patrick-

I’m currently working for the US Helsinki Commission, which as you probably know is a semi-congressional human rights watchdog. They’ve asked me to put a briefing together on the role of new media technology in democratization – very exciting opportunity for me, and I hope to do it justice. I thought you might have thoughts on experts to whom I could talk in the field, or potential panelists we should call.

Thoughts? Hope you’re doing well!


Needless to say, I couldn’t have been more excited to learn that the topic of my dissertation research and consulting work would be the subject of a Congressional Briefing. I emailed Chris right back for more details. He put it simply:

“If you were in the driver’s seat for such a panel,
where would you go?”

What a treat. I’ve been studying the role of new media and digital technology in authoritarian regimes for a while now, and I’m on the Board of Advisors of DigiActive and Digital Democracy. I’ve also served as New Media Advisor on a major USAID project that seeks to foster peaceful transition to democratic rule in a certain authoritarian state.

So I suggested to Chris that he contact my colleagues Evgeny Morozov (Georgetown), Nathan Freitas (NYU), Rob Farris (Berkman Center), Emily Jacobi and Mark Belinsky (Digital Democracy), and Mary Joyce (DigiActive). While Rob’s schedule didn’t allow him to be a the Congressional Briefing last Thursday, my other colleagues were indeed there. Chris Spence (NDI), Daniel Calingaert (Freedom House) Chiy Zhou (GIF) were also present.

Both DigiActive and Digital Democracy also submitted written remarks for the record here and here. Here is a copy of the full 30 page transcript of the Congressional Briefing. Since reading through 30 pages can be quite time consuming, I have summarized the briefing using annotated excerpts of the most important points made by panelists. You’ll note that while I agree with some of the comments made by the panelists, I clearly disagree with others.

Opening Remarks & My Critique

Q/A Session & My Critique

Patrick Philippe Meier