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
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
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