Tag Archives: Tactical Survival

FSI09: Strategic Planning & Tactical Choices in Civil Resistance

This was my favorite presentation yet at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict 2009. However, WordPress totally wiped my post half-way through the talk when I tried to save the draft. Grrr. Lesson learned, draft blog posts in a text editor first.

Hardy Merriman‘s excellent presentation drew from Gene Sharp‘s 198 nonviolent tactics, which he classified into three categories: Protest and Persuasion (shift perception); Noncooperation (shift behavior, particularly effective when scaled); and Nonviolent intervention (shift status quo). Tactics can be classified in other ways as well. For example, they can be categorized into intended outcomes; or into concentration and dispersion tactics.

Planning and strategizing is imperative. Many movements fail because they were poorly planned and/or sequenced. In addition, brave actions that get media attention but result in the activist’s arrest are not advised. Tactical innovation is critical such as alternative leadership. This means adapting and keeping the asymmetric advantage.

An interesting conversation ensued regarding the process of defining strategy, operations and tactics in a nonviolent movement.  Unlike the hierarchical, top-down process in the military, resistance movements need to front load the conversation on strategy, to set up a planning committee and de-federalize the decision-making process vis-a-vis operations and tactics. Indeed, these decisions need to be made locally to tap into local knowledge and know-how.

How does one evaluate civil resistance movements? Assess whether tactics advance operational goals and whether the latter converge towards the established strategy. The best case scenario is to devise a series of tactics that don’t appear to be coherent by the adversary but ultimately come together to accomplish the movement’s operational goals and strategy.

The use of technology was also addressed. How does new technology help a civil resistance movement? Does it make tactical decisions easier or more difficult? One participant noted that sometimes one cannot not use these technologies, particularly in countries where physical assembly is illegal.

Another participant cautioned that tactical autonomy is potentially restricted with instant communication between activists engaged in street action and those coordinating the action. He noted a case he was involved in several years ago when he and colleagues took over a police station and secured the police radio equipment. Police officers in the streets who tried to radio for instructions were unable to and were not sure what to do.

One participant also mentioned that activists can use government surveillance to their advantage by spreading misinformation.

The topic of young people came up as well in the context of technology. Young people are often more tech savvy than adults and also early adapters of technology. One participant thus opined that the side with the young people is likely to win over the side without young people.

Another participant referred to the popular book “The Starfish and the Spider” to contrast the organizational structure of repressive regimes versus resistance movements. I’ve got some good notes on this book, so do email me if you’d like a copy of my notes. I’m glad that this book came up as it delves into one of my other passions, the study of complexity science and complex systems.

Patrick Philippe Meier

FSI09: Geopolitical Constraints vs Opportunities in Civil Resistance

This is the second presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict 2009. The presentation focuses on “The Geopolitical Constraints and Opportunities for Civil Resistance.” Note that you can also follow #FSI09 on Twitter.

The thesis of this talk is that changes in geopolitical forces accelerate the frequency of nonviolent conflict. (My question is whether this claim is even falsifiable?).

The use of nonviolent strategies is ascendant and nonviolent movements are influenced by geopolitical forces. Geopolitics describes international politics in geographic terms, i.e., “the term has applied primarily to the impact of geography on politics.”

The weakened role of the state in international politics may in part explain the rise of civil resistance. (Note that I disagree with the argument that states are less significant actors). Fundamental trends in communication technologies and the global media may also explain this rise. In addition, the notion of “soft power” is in line with the strategies and tactics employed in resistance movements.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for me vis-a-vis the rise of nonviolent resistance is the promotion of democracy via global institutions and norms; the focus on democratic peace theory and civil society networks. That said, I’m still not sure how drawing on geopolitics as a framework to situate and explain civil resistance adds to our understanding of nonviolent conflict.

Moreover, as one participant noted, shouldn’t we frame the question as follows: how do social movements influence geopolitics, rather than vice versa?

In any case, I’m glad to note that much of the conversation generated by the presentation focused on the impact of communication technology on geopolitics while keeping a healthy dose of skepticism. One participant made a comment that I make all the time; namely that networks of activists are more likely to learn and adapt to changes in technology than centralized, hierarchical regimes are.

Somewhat surprisingly, the concept of the dictator’s dilemma was overlooked.

The dictator’s dilemma suggests that globalization has produced a lucrative global information economy that repressive regimes are interested in exploiting. However, as they gear the domestic economy to take advantage of the information economy, they give up some control on how technology is used within their borders.

One final note, I think there is an evolutionary dynamic at play, just like there is with warfare. We describe Al Qaeda’s approach as fourth generation warfare, i.e., decentralized tactics, since this give the group an asymmetric advantage over a more centrlaized military power such as the US.

In other words, Al Qaeda’s approach make logical sense. In this same way, perhaps more movements recognize that nonviolent civil resistance is indeed a Force More Powerful.

Patrick Philippe Meier

FIS09: Introduction to Civil Resistance

My notes on the opening presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict 2009. You can also follow #FSI09 on Twitter.

Using the term “nonviolence” is often unhelpful and counterproductive. The term denotes an ethical stance that opens up all kinds of philosophical debates. Instead of using this adjective, we should use the verb “civil resistance” which denotes the use of highly disruptive actions by the many against the few.

Some quotes

“Power concedes nothing and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them,  and these will continue until they are resisted.” – Frederick Douglass

“Any people anywhere, being inclined and having hte power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.” – Abrahm Lincon

Leo Tolstoy predicted that “public opinion” would change the “whole structure of life” making violence “superfluous”.

“England can hold India only by consent. We can’t rule it by the sword.” – Sir Charles Innes

“The sudden dramatic breakdown of power that ushers in  revolutions reveals in a flash how civil obedience-to laws, to rulers, to institutions – is but the outward manifestation of support and consent.” – Hannah Arendt

Gandhi was not shy about using direct analogies to violent conflict, he referred to “nonviolent weapons” such as active interference, protests and resignations. Gene Sharp added the following categories: Protest/Persuasion; Noncooperation; Intervention.

Depriving the oppressor of consent reduces his legitimacy. The refusal to cooperate increases the costs of holding control. The legitimacy of the system drops while costs of maintaining the status quo increases, which prompts enforcers of the system to doubt its endurance (and possibly switch sides).

Nonviolent force was a key factor in 50 of the 67 political transitions between 1970-2005. However, there have been failures in nonviolent action, the most spectacular of which was Tienanmen. Nonviolent action often fails when it has not been planned.

Emergent properties of civil resistance

The following are key emergent properties that each activist should understand and practice.

  • Consent
    • Confers legitimacy
    • Recasts the idea of power
    • Creates space to resist.
  • Reason
    • Respect the citizen’s mind
    • Stimulates creative thinking
    • Persuasion, not coercion
    • Signals honestly, credibility
    • Instills “reason to believe”.
  • Self-Rule
    • Swaraj (ruling yourself)
    • “Constructive work”
    • Self-organization
    • Planning
    • Nonviolent discipline.
  • Representation
    • Acertaining and presenting people’s grievances
    • Listening, delegating and inviting participation
    • Humility, not hierarchy
    • Solidarity of all, not heroism of the few.
  • Resilience
    • Tactical mobilization, strategic sustainability
    • Momentum-driving action
    • Existential stakes: identifying with the cause
    • Certitude of faith in eventual success.
  • Force
    • Strategic/tactical skills
    • Target foe’s capacities
    • Disperse initiative
    • Divide loyalty structure
  • Transformation
    • No monolithic enemies
    • From destruction to debate
    • Justice only by rule of law
    • Everyone as stakeholder
    • Ends reflected in means

There are still those who argue for political violence. These arguments boil down to two points:

  • Necessary as a means to an end. “Oppression cannot be demolished except in a hail of bullets.” Bin Laden
  • Virtuous, as redemption or apotheosis. “Death is truth.” Bin Laden

Proponents of violence always have to find ways to justify death. But death is simply not popular. Nevertheless, there is a market for terror. However, a new study of 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns, 1900 to 2006: violence campaigns succeeded in 26% of cases; Nonviolent campaigns succeeded in 53% of cases.

Questions & Answers

One participant from a repressive country emphasized how important it is to make friends with the security forces, they are not the real enemy, they are simply following orders. If you prevent them from following orders, they get into trouble. So let them know you understand that and simply ask that they do not hit, push, beat as hard as they can. On the contrary, ask them to beat lightly and even pretend.

Nonviolent tactics are also being adopted by groups that do not seek to advance democratic principles and human rights. Does this pose a problem for the future of nonviolent action if repressive regimes begin using nonviolent tactics to repress? Not necessarily since a  repressive regime would not be able to scale these tactics. For these tactics to have impact, they must be viewed by the majority as legitimate and necessary.

In a case like Gaza, how does one increase the appeal of nonviolent action when everyone is armed? The mainstream media and citizen journalists can change the frame of the “logic” of violence. In my opinion, we need more gendered analysis of armed violence. Clearly, the concepts of masculinity and violence are closely tied. Perhaps nonviolence is perceived as more feminine? How do we change this?

A participant emphasized the need to equate civil resistance as guerrilla warfare without the violence. In other words, military discipline is integral to the success of nonviolent action.

One participant countered the argument that violence is attractive. People often turn to violence because they’ve witnessed violence, because they are driven by vengeance. However, fear also drives fear and paralysis. I would add a cost-benefit angle to this. Some groups in the Sudan have turned to organized violence because their options vis-a-vis other livelihoods have virtually vanished, in part because of the ecological crisis.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Peer Producing Human Rights

Molly Land at New York Law School has written an excellent paper on peer producing human rights, which will appear in the Alberta Law Review, 2009. This is one of the best pieces of research that I have come across on the topic. I highly recommend reading her article when published.

Molly considers Wikipedia, YouTube and Witness.org in her excellent research but somewhat surprisingly does not reference Ushahidi. I thus summarize her main points below and draw on the case study of Ushahidi—particularly Swift River—to compare and contrast her analysis with my own research and experience.


Funding for human rights monitoring and advocacy is particularly limited, which is why “amateur involvement in human rights activities has the potential to have a significant impact on the field.” At the same time, Molly recognizes that peer producing human rights may “present as many problems as it solves.”

Human rights reporting is the most professionalized activity of human rights organizations. This professionalization exists “not because of an inherent desire to control the process, but rather as a practical response to the demands of reporting-namely, the need to ensure accuracy of the information contained in the report.” The question is whether peer-produced human rights reporting can achieve the same degree of accuracy without a comparable centralized hierarchy.

Accurate documentation of human rights abuses is very important for building up a reputation as a credible human rights organization. Accuracy is also important to counter challenges by repressive regimes that question the validity of certain human rights reports. Moreover, “inaccurate reporting risks injury not only to the organization’s credibility and influence but also to those whose behalf the organization advocates.”

Control vs Participation

A successful model for peer producing human rights monitoring would represent an important leap forward in the human rights community. Such a model would enable us to process a lot more information in a timelier manner and would also “increase the extent to which ordinary individuals connect to human rights issues, thus fostering the ability of the movement to mobilize broad constituencies and influence public opinion in support of human rights.”

Increased participation is often associated with an increased risk of inaccuracy. In fact, “even the perception of unreliability can be enough to provide […] a basis for critiquing the information as invalid.” Clearly, ensuring the trustworthiness of information in any peer-reviewed project is a continuing challenge.

Wikipedia uses corrective editing as the primary mechanism to evaluate the accuracy of crowdsourced information. Molly argues that this may not work well in the human rights context because direct observation, interviews and interpretation are central to human rights research.

To this end, “if the researcher contributes this information to a collaboratively-edited report, other contributors will be unable to verify the statements because they do not have access to either the witness’s statement or the information that led the researcher to conclude it was reliable.” Even if they were able to verify statements, much of human rights reporting is interpretive, which means that even experienced human rights professionals disagree about interpretive conclusions.

Models for Peer Production

Molly presents three potential models to outline how human rights reporting and advocacy might be democratized. The first two models focus on secondary and primary information respectively, while the third proposes certification by local NGOs. Molly outlines the advantages and challenges that each model presents. Below is a summary with my critiques. I do not address the third model because as noted by Molly it is not entirely participatory.

Model 1. This approach would limit peer-production to collecting, synthesizing and verifying secondary information. Examples include “portals or spin-offs of existing portals, such as Wikipedia,” which could “allow participants to write about human rights issues but require them to rely only on sources that are verifiable […].” Accuracy challenges could be handled in the same way that Wikipedia does; namely through a “combination of collaborative editing and policies; all versions of the page are saved and it is easy for editors who notice gaming or vandalism to revert to the earlier version.”

The two central limitations of this approach are that (1) the model would be limited to a subset of available information restricted to online or print media; and (2) even limiting the subset of information might be insufficient to ensure reliability. To this end, this model might be best used to complement, not substitute, existing fact-finding efforts.

Model 2. This approach would limit the peer-production of human rights report to those with first-hand knowledge. While Molly doesn’t reference Ushahidi in her research, she does mention the possibility of using a website that would allow witnesses to report human rights abuses that they saw or experienced. Molly argues that this first-hand information on human rights violations could be particularly useful for human rights organizations that seek to “augment their capacity to collect primary information.”

This model still presents accuracy problems, however. “There would be no way to verify the information contributed and it would be easy for individuals to manipulate the system.” I don’t agree. The statement: “there would be no way to verify the information” is an exaggeration. There multiple methods that could be employed to determine the probability that the contributed information is reliable, which is the motivation behind our Swift River project at Ushahidi, which seeks to use crowdsourcing to filter human rights information.

Since Swift River deserves an entire blog post to itself, I won’t describe the project. I’d just like to mention that the Ushahidi team just spent two days brainstorming creative ways that crowdsourced information could be verified. Stay tuned for more on Swift River.

We can still address Molly’s concerns without reference to Ushahidi’s Swift River.

Individuals who wanted to spread false allegations about a particular government or group, or to falsely refute such allegations, might make multiple entries (which would therefore corroborate each other) regarding a specific incident. Once picked up by other sources, such allegations ‘may take on a life of their own.’ NGOs using such information may feel compelled to verify this information, thus undermining some of the advantages that might otherwise be provided by peer production.

Unlike Molly, I don’t see the challenge of crowdsourced human rights data as first and foremost a problem of accuracy but rather volume. Accuracy, in many instances, is a function of how many data points exist in our dataset.

To be sure, more crowdsourced information can provide an ideal basis for triangulation and validation of peer produced human rights reporting-particularly if we embrace multimedia in addition to simply text. In addition, more information allows us to use probability analysis to determine the potential reliability of incoming reports. This would not undermine the advantages of peer-production.

Of course, this method also faces some challenges since the success of triangulating crowdsourced human rights reports is dependent on volume. I’m not suggesting this is a perfect fix, but I do argue that this method will become increasingly tenable since we are only going to see more user-generated content, not less. For more on crowdsourcing and data validation, please see my previous posts here.

Molly is concerned that a website allowing peer-production based on primary information may “become nothing more than an opinion site.” However, a crowdsourcing platform like Ushahidi is not an efficient platform for interactive opinion sharing. Witnesses simply report on events, when they took place and where. Unlike blogs, the platform does not provide a way for users to comment on individual reports.

Capacity Building

Molly does raise an excellent point vis-à-vis the second model, however. The challenges of accuracy and opinion competition might be resolved by “shifting the purpose for which the information is used from identifying violations to capacity building.” As we all know, “most policy makers and members of the political elite know the facts already; what they want to know is what they should do about them.”

To this end, “the purpose of reporting in the context of capacity building is not to establish what happened, but rather to collect information about particular problems and generate solutions. As a result, the information collected is more often in the form of opinion testimony from key informants rather than the kind of primary material that needs to be verified for accuracy.”

This means that the peer produced reporting does not “purport to represent a kind of verifiable ‘truth’ about the existence or non-existence of a particular set of facts,” so the issue of “accuracy is somewhat less acute.” Molly suggests that accuracy might be further improved by “requiring participants to register and identify themselves when they post information,” which would “help minimize the risk of manipulation of the system.” Moreover, this would allow participants to view each other’s contributions and enable a contributor to build a reputation for credible contributions.

However, Molly points out that these potential solutions don’t change the fact that only those with Internet access would be able to contribute human right reports, which could “introduce significant bias considering that most victims and eyewitnesses of human rights violations are members of vulnerable populations with limited, if any, such access.” I agree with this general observation, but I’m surprised that Molly doesn’t reference the use of mobile phones (and other mobile technologies) as a way to collect testimony from individuals without access to the Internet or in inaccessible areas.

Finally, Molly is concerned that Model 2 by itself “lacks the deep participation that can help mobilize ordinary individuals to become involved in human rights advocacy.” This is increasingly problematic since “traditional  ‘naming and shaming’ may, by itself, be increasingly less effective in its ability to achieve changes state conduct regarding human rights.” So Molly rightly encourages the human rights community to “investigate ways to mobilize the public to become involved in human rights advocacy.”

In my opinion, peer produced advocacy faces the same challenges as traditional human rights advocacy. It is therefore important that the human rights community adopt a more tactical approach to human rights monitoring. At Ushahidi, for example, we’re working to add a “subscribe-to-alerts” feature, which will allow anyone to receive SMS alerts for specific locations.

P2P Human Rights

The point is to improve the situational awareness of those who find themselves at risk so they can get out of harm’s way and not become another human rights statistic. For more on tactical human rights, please see my previous blog post.

Human rights organizations that are engaged in intervening to prevent human rights violations would also benefit from subscribing to Ushahidi. More importantly, the average person on the street would have the option of intervening as well. I, for one, am optimistic about the possibility of P2P human rights protection.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crowdsourcing in Crisis: A More Critical Reflection

This is a response to Paul’s excellent comments on my recent posts entitled “Internews, Ushahidi and Communication in Crisis” and “Ushahidi: From Croudsourcing to Crowdfeeding.”

Like Paul, I too find Internews to be a top organization. In fact, of all the participants in New York, the Internews team in was actually the most supportive of exploring the crowdsourcing approach further instead of dismissing it entirely. And like Paul, I’m not supportive of the status quo in the humanitarian community either.

Paul’s observations are practical and to the point, which is always appreciated. They encourage me revisit and test my own assumptions, which I find stimulating. In short, Paul’s comments are conducive to a more critical reflection of crowdsourcing in crisis.

In what follows, I address all his arguments point by point.

Time Still Ignored

Paul firstly notes that,

Both accuracy and timeliness are core Principles of Humanitarian Information management established at the 2002 Symposium on Best Practices in Humanitarian Information Exchange and reiterated at the 2007 Global Symposium +5. Have those principles been incorporated into the institutions sufficiently? Short answer, no. Is accuracy privileged at the expense of timeliness? Not in the field.

The importance of “time” and “timeliness” was ignored during both New York meetings. Most field-based humanitarian organizations dismissed the use of  “crowdsourcing” because of their conviction that “crowdsourced information cannot be verified.” In short, participants did not privilege timeliness at the expense accuracy because they consider verification virtually impossible.

Crowdsourcing is New

Because crowdsourcing is unfamiliar, it’s untested in the field and it makes fairly large claims that are not well backed by substantial evidence. Having said that, I’m willing to be corrected on this criticism, but I think it’s fair to say that the humanitarian community is legitimately cautious in introducing new concepts when lives are at stake.

Humanitarian organizations make claims about crowdsourcing that are not necessarily backed by substantial evidence because crowdsourcing is fairly new and untested in the field. If we use Ushahidi as the benchmark, then crowdsourcing crisis informaiton is 15 months old and the focus of the conversation should be on the two Ushahid deployments (Kenya & DRC) during that time.

The angst is understandable and we should be legitimately cautious. But angst shouldn’t mean we stand back and accept the status quo, a point that both Paul and I agree on.

Conflict Inflamation

Why don’t those who take the strongest stand against crowdsourcing demonstrate that Ushahidi-Kenya and Ushahidi-DRC have led to conflict inflammation? As far we know, none of the 500+ crowdsourced crisis events in those countries were manufactured to increase violence. If that is indeed the case, then skeptics like Paul should explain why we did not see Ushahidi be used to propagate violence.

In any event, if we embrace the concept of human development, then the decision vis-à-vis whether or not to crowdsource and crowdfeed information ultimately lies with the crowd sourcers and feeders. If the majority of users feel compelled to generate and share crisis information when a platform exists, then it is because they find value in doing so. Who are we to say they are not entitled to receive public crisis information?

Incidentally, it is striking to note the parallels between this conversation and skeptics during the early days of Wikipedia.

Double Standards

I would also note that I don’t think the community is necessarily holding crowdsourcing to a higher standard, but exactly the same standard as our usual information systems – and if they haven’t managed to get those systems right yet, I can understand still further why they’re cautious about entertaining an entirely new and untested approach.

Cautious and dismissive are two different things. If the community were holding crowdsourcing to an equal standard, then they would consider both the timeliness and accuracy of crowdsourced information. Instead, they dismiss crowdsourcing without recognizing the tradeoff with timeliness.

What is Crisis Info?

In relation to my graphic on the perishable nature of time, Paul asks

What “crisis information” are we talking about here? I would argue that ensuring your data is valid is important at all times, so is this an attack on dissemination strategies rather than data validation?

We’re talking about quasi-real time and geo-tagged incident reporting, i.e., reporting using the parameters of incident type, location and time. Of course it is important that data be as accurate as possible. But as I have already argued, accurate information received late is of little operational value.

On the other hand information that has not been yet validated but received early gives those who may need the information the most (1) more time to take precautionary measures, and (2) more time to determine its validity.

Unpleasant Surprises

On this note, I just participated in the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI)’s Humanitarian Action Summit  (HAS) where the challenge of data validation came up within the context of public health and emergency medicine. The person giving the presentation had this to say:

We prefer wrong information to no information at all since at least we can at least take action in the case of the former to determine the validity of the information.

This reminds me of the known unknowns versus unknown unknowns argument. I’d rather know about a piece of information even though I’m unable to validate it rather than not know and be surprised later in case it turns out to be true.

We should take care not to fall into the classic trap exploited by climate change skeptics. Example: We can’t prove that climate change is really happening since it could simply be that we don’t have enough accurate data to arrive at the correct conclusion. So we need more time and data for the purposes of validation. Meanwhile, skeptics argue, there’s no need to waste resources by taking precautionary measures.

Privileging Time

It also strikes me as odd that Patrick argues that affected communities deserve timely information but not necessarily accurate information. As he notes, it may be a trade-off – but he provides no argument for why he privileges timeliness over accuracy.

I’m not privileging one over the other. I’m simply noting that humanitarian organizations in New York completely ignored the importance of timeliness when communicating with crisis-affected communities, which I still find stunning. It is misleading to talk about accuracy without talking about timeliness and vice versa. So I’m just asking that we take both variables into account.

Obviously the ideal would be to have timely and accurate information. But we’re not dealing with ideal situations when we discuss sudden onset emergencies. Clearly the “right” balance between accuracy and timeliness depends who the end users are and what context they find themselves in. Ultimately, the end users, not us, should have the right to make that final decision for themselves. While accuracy can saves lives, so can timeliness.

Why Obligations?

Does this mean that the government and national media have an obligation to report on absolutely every single violation of human rights taking place in their country? Does this mean that the government and national media have an obligation to report on absolutely every single violation of human rights taking place in their country?

I don’t understand how this question follows from any of my preceding comments. We need to think about information as an ecosystem with multiple potential sources that may or may not overlap. Obviously governments and national media may not be able to—or compelled to—report accurately and in a timely manner during times of crises. I’m not making an argument about obligation. I’m just making an observation about there being a gap that crowdsourcing can fill, which I showed empirically in this Kenya case study.

Transparency and Cooperation

I’m not sure it’s a constructive approach to accuse NGOs of actively “working against transparency” – it strikes me that there may be some shades of grey in their attitudes towards releasing information about human rights abuses.

You are less pessimistic than I am—didn’t think that was possible. My experience in Africa has been that NGOs (and UN agencies) are reluctant to share information not because of ethical concerns but because of selfish and egotistical reasons. I’d recommend talking with the Ushahidi team who desperately tried to encourage NGOs to share information with each other during the post-election violence.

Ushahidi is Innovation

On my question about why human rights and humanitarian organizations were not the one to set up a platform like Ushahidi, Paul answers as follows.

I think it might be because the human rights and humanitarian communities were working on their existing projects. The argument that these organisations failed to fulfill an objective when they never actually had that objective in the first place is distinctly shakey – it seems to translate into a protest that they weren’t doing what you wanted them to do.

I think Paul misses the point. I’m surprised he didn’t raise the whole issue of innovation (or rather lack thereof) in the humanitarian community since he has written extensively about this topic.

Perhaps we also have to start thinking in terms of what damage might this information do (whether true or false) if we release it.

I agree. At the same time, I’d like to get the “we” out of the picture and let the “them” (the crowd) do the deciding. This is the rationale behind the Swift River project we’re working on at Ushahidi.

Tech-Savvy Militias

Evidence suggests that armed groups are perfectly happy to use whatever means they can acquire to achieve their goals. I fail to see why Ushahidi would be “tactically inefficient, and would require more co-ordinating” – all they need to do is send a few text messages. The entire point of the platform is that it’s easy to use, isn’t it?

First of all, the technological capacity and sophistication of non-state armed groups varies considerably from conflict to conflict. While I’m no expert, I don’t know of any evidence from Kenya or the DRC—since those are our empirical test cases—that suggest tech-savvy militia members regularly browse the web to identify new Web 2.0 crowdsourcing tools they can use to create more violence.

Al Qaeda is a different story, but we’re not talking about Al Qaeda, we’re talking about Kenya and the DRC. In the case of the former, word about Ushahidi spread through the Kenyan blogosphere. Again, I don’t know of any Kenyan militia groups in the Rift Valley, for example, that monitors the Kenyan blogosphere to exploit violence.

Second of all, one needs time to learn how to use a platform like Ushahidi for conflict inflammation. Yes, the entire point of the platform is that it’s easy to use to report human rights violations. But it obviously takes more thinking to determine what, where and when to text an event in order to cause a particular outcome. It requires a degree of coordination and decision-making.

That’s why it would be inefficient. All a milita would need to do is fire a few bullets from one end of a village to have the locals run the other way straight into an ambush. Furthermore, we found no evidence of hate SMS submitted to Ushahidi even though there were some communicated outside of Ushahidi.

Sudan Challenges

The government of Sudan regularly accuses NGOs (well, those NGOs it hasn’t expelled) of misreporting human rights violations. What better tool would the government have for discrediting human rights monitoring than Ushahidi? All it would take would be a few texts a day with false but credible reports, and the government can dismiss the entire system, either by keeping their own involvement covert and claiming that the system is actually being abused, or by revealing their involvement and claiming that the system can be so easily gamed that it isn’t credible.

Good example given that I’m currently in the Sudan. But Paul is mixing human rights reporting for the purposes of advocacy with crisis reporting for the purposes of local operational response.

Of course government officials like those in Khartoum will do, and indeed continue to do, whatever the please. But isn’t this precisely why one might as well make the data open and public so those facing human rights violations can at least have the opportunity to get out of harms way?

Contrast this with the typical way that human rights and humanitarian organizations operate—they typically keep the data for themselves, do not share it with other organizations let alone with beneficiaries. How is data triangulation possible at all given such a scenario even if we had all the time in the world? And who loses out as usual? Those local communities who need the information.


While Paul fully agrees that local communities are rarely dependent on a single source of information, which means they can triangulate and validate, he maintains that this “is not an argument for crowdsourcing.” Of course it is, more information allows more triangulation and hence validation. Would Paul argue that my point is an argument against crowdsourcing?

We don’t need less information, we need more information and the time element matters precisely because we want to speed up the collection of information in order to triangulate as quickly as possible.

Ultimately, it will be a question of probability whether or not a given event is true, the larger your sample size, the more confident you can be. The quicker you collect that sample size, the quicker you can validate. Crowdsourcing is a method that facilitates the rapid collection of large quantities of information which in turn facilitates triangulation.

Laughing Off Disclaimers

The idea that people pay attention to disclaimers makes me laugh out loud. I don’t think anybody’s accusing affected individuals of being dumb, but I’d be interested to see evidence that supports this claim. When does the validation take place, incidentally? And what recourse do individuals or communities have if an alert turns out to be false?

Humanitarians often treat beneficiaries as dumb, not necessarily intentionally, but I’ve seen this first hand in East and West Africa. Again, if you haven’t read “Aiding Violence” then I’d recommend it.

Second, the typical scenario that comes up when talking about crowdsourcing and the spreading of rumors has to do with refugee camp settings. The DRC militia story is one that I came up with (and have already used in past blog posts) in order emphasize the distinction with refugee settings.

The scenario that was brought up by others at the Internews meeting was actually one set in a refugee camp. This scenario is a classic case of individuals being highly restricted in the variety of different information sources they have access to, which makes the spread of rumors difficult to counter or dismiss.

Crowdsourcing Response

When I asked why field-based humanitarian organizations that directly work with beneficiaries in conflict zones don’t take an interest in crowdsourced information and the validation thereof, Paul responds as follows.

Yes, because they don’t have enough to do. They’d like to spend their time running around validating other people’s reports, endangering their lives and alienating the government under which they’re working.

I think Paul may be missing the point—and indeed power—of crowdsourcing. We need to start thinking less in traditional top-down centralized ways. The fact is humanitarian organizations could subscribe to specific alerts of concern to them in a specific and limited geographical area.

If they’re onsite where the action is reportedly unfolding and they don’t see any evidence of rumors being true, surely spending 15 seconds to text this info back to HQ (or to send a picture by camera phone) is not a huge burden. This doesn’t endanger their lives since they’re already there and quelling a rumor is likely to calm things down. If we use secure systems, the government wouldn’t be able to attribute the source.

The entire point behind the Swift River project is to crowdsource the filtering process, ie, to distribute and decentralizes the burden of data validation. Those organizations that happen to be there at the right time and place do the filtering, otherwise they don’t and get on with their work. This is the whole point behind my post last year on crowdsourcing response.

Yes, We Can

Is there any evidence at all that the US Embassy’s Twitter feed had any impact at all on the course of events? I mean, I know it made a good headline in external media, but I don’t see how it’s a good example if there’s no actual evidence that it had any impact.

Yes, the rumors didn’t spread. But we’re fencing with one anecdote after the other. All I’m arguing is that two-way communication and broadcasting should be used to counter misinformation;  meaning that it is irresponsible for humanitarian organizations to revert to one-way communication mindsets and wash their hands clean of an unfolding situation without trying to use information and communication technology to do something about it.

Many still don’t understand that the power of P2P meshed communication can go both ways. Unfortunately, as soon as we see new communication technology used for ill, we often react even more negatively by pulling the plug on any communication, which is what the Kenyan government wanted to do during the election violence.

Officials requested that the CEO of Safaricom switch off the SMS network to prevent the spread of hate SMS, he chose to broadcast text messages calling for peace, restraint and warning that those found to be creating hate SMS would be tracked and prosecuted (which the Kenyan Parliament subsequently did).

Again, the whole point is that new communication technologies present a real potential for countering rumors and unless we try using them to maximize positive communication we will never get sufficient evidence to determine whether using SMS and Twitter to counter rumors can work effectively.

Ushahidi Models

In terms of Ushahidi’s new deployment model being localized with the crowdsourcing limited to members of a given organization, Paul has a point when he suggests this “doesn’t sound like crowdsourcing.” Indeed, the Gaza deployment of Ushahidi is more an example of “bounded crowdsourcing” or “Al Jazeera sourcing” since the crowd is not the entire global population but strictly Al Jazeera journalists.

Perhaps crowdsourcing is not applicable within those contexts since “bounded crowdsourcing” may in effect be an oxymoron. At the same time, however, his conclusion that Ushahidi is more like classic situation reporting is not entirely accurate either.

First of all, the Ushahidi platform provides a way to map incident reports, not situation reports. In other words, Ushahidi focuses on the minimum essential indicators for reporting an event. Second, Ushahidi also focuses on the minimum essential technology to communicate and visualize those events. Third, unlike traditional approaches, the information collected is openly shared.

I’m not sure if this is an issue of language and terminology or if there is a deeper point here. In other words, are we seeing Ushahidi evolve in such a way that new iterations of the platform are becoming increasingly similar to traditional information collection systems?

I don’t think so. The Gaza platform is only one genre of local deployment. Another organization might seek to deploy a customized version of Ushahidi and not impose any restrictions on who can report. This would resemble the Kenya and DRC deployments of Ushahidi. At the moment, I don’t find this problematic because we haven’t found signs that this has led to conflict inflammation. I have given a number of reasons in this blog post why that might be.

In any case, it is still our responsibility to think through some scenarios and to start offering potential solutions. Hence the Swift River project and hence my appreciating Paul’s feedback on my two blog posts.

Patrick Philippe Meier

New Tactics in Human Rights

I’ve been wanting to read “New Tactics in Human Rights: A Resource for Practitioners” for a while and finally found the time on the flight back from Geneva. I would definitely recommend reading New Tactics (PDF). The report combines some of my main interests: nonviolent civil resistance, tactical early warning and response, civilian protection, preparedness, technology and complex systems.

I really appreciate the group’s serious focus on tactics since most human rights organizations seem to focus more on grand strategy and advocacy—and this at the expense of tactics.

Tactical innovation is critical to the successful implementation of human rights around the globe. By expanding our thinking both tactically and strategically, the human rights community has the opportunity to be more effective.

There is often a pattern to human rights abuses—they occur in predictable places under predictable circumstances. Recognizing those patterns and disrupting them can be key to protecting human rights.

While intervention tactics are often associated with protest and resistance, some of the most dramatic successes in ending human rights abuses have resulted from negotiation and persuasion.

The report includes numerous tactics and operational examples. I summarize 5 below. I also include a brief note on self-protection and a brief conclusion.


Tactic: Protecting arrested demonstrators by protesting outside police stations where they are being detained. This tactic was employed by the anti-Milosevic student resistance movement, Otpor, in Serbia.

Otpor put substantial time and effort into building a strong, extensive and loyal network that could be mobilized quickly. Extensive planning outlined who would call whom and exactly what each person was to do after the arrests, so that the second demonstration would follow the arrests almost instantaneously. Most contact information for the network was stored on individual members’ mobile phones, so that the police could not seize or destroy the information.

West Bank

Tactic: maintaining a physical presence at the site of potential abuse to monitor and prevent human rights violations. Machsom Watch in the West Bank uses the presence of Israeli women to protect Palestinians passing through Israeli checkpoints to ensure their rights are respected.

Monitors who witness abuses make detailed reports and publish them on their website. They invite journalists, politicians and others to join them at the checkpoints. And they wear tags that read in Arabic “No to the checkpoints!” This show of support is heartening to many Palestinians, who may not have a positive image of Israelis.

Northern Ireland

Tactic: using mobile phones to create a network of communication that can stop violence before it escalates. Like any conflict, there are people on both sides who want to prevent the escalation of violence. So the Interaction Belfast group identified leaders in each community who want to prevent violence and provided them with needed information.

During events that are likely to cause violence […] the network plans ahead to monitor key areas. Volunteers recognize that they are able to intervene most effectively in cases of ‘recreational violence’— youth seeking excitement or responding to rumors […].

When volunteers see or hear of crowds gathering [in potential areas of conflict], or hear of rumors of violence about to occur on the other side, they call their counterparts […]. Volunteers calm crowds on their own sides before the incidents become violent. Since the program began, the phone network has both prevented violence and provided communities on both sides of the interface with more accurate information when violence does occur.


Tactic: creating a single mass expression of protest based on a simple activity that citizens can safely carry out in their own homes. This tactic was used by the “Campaign of Darkness for Light” in Turkey, which mobilized some 30 million people to flick their lights on and to protest against government corruption.

With many citiznes afraid to participate in political action, organizations needed a tactic of low personal risk that would overcome the sense of isolation that comes with fear.

Organizers initially proposed that citizens turn off their lights for one minute each night.  […]. By the second week, communities began to improvise, initiating different street actions, including banging post and pans. By the time organizers halted the action, the campaign had gone on for more than a month.


Tactic: Using the power of the media to send targetted messages to people in a position to end abuses. In this example, journalists in Burundi used radio broadcasts to persuade key leaders to end human rights abuses occurring in hospitals. They secretely interviewed detainees and broadcast their testimonies. “The broadcasts included messages targetted to specific groups and invididuals who had the power to fix the situations.”


Unfortunately, the report’s 2-page section on “Self-Care: Caring for Your Most Valuable Resource,” is not as well developed as the others. The report could have drawn more extensively from civil resistance training and digital activism. There is also much to be learned from survivor testimonies and security training manuals from field based UN-agencies operating in places like Somalia.


That aside, I think the New Tactics group is doing some of the most exciting research in thiearea of tactics for civilian protection for communities at risk. I highly recommend spending time on their website and browsing through the rich materials they provide.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Gene Sharp, Civil Resistance and Technology

Major civil nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to lead to sustainable democratic transitions than violent campaigns. This conclusion comes from a large-N statistical study carried out by my colleague Maria Stephan (PhD Fletcher ’06) and Erica Chenoweth. Recently published in International Security, the study notes that civil resistance movements have achieved success 55% of the time while only 28% of violent campaigns have succeeded.

Another colleague, Chris Walker (MALD Fletcher ’07), wrote in his excellent Master’s Thesis that “techniques associated with strategic nonviolent social movements are greatly enhanced by access to modern information communication technologies, such as mobile telephony, short message service (SMS), email and the World Wide Web, among others.”

It stands to reason, then, that increasing access to modern communication technologies may in turn up the 55% success rate of nonviolent campaigns by several percentage points. To this end, the question that particularly interests me (given my dissertation research) is the following: What specific techniques associated with civil resistance can tactical uses of modern communication technologies amplify?

This is the question I recently posed to Dr. Peter Ackerman—another Fletcher Alum (PhD ’76) and the founding Chair of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC)—when I described my dissertation interests. When Peter suggested I look into Gene Sharp’s work on methods of nonviolent action, I replied “that’s exactly what I intend to do.”

In The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene identifies 198 methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion. The majority of these can be amplified by modern communication technologies. What  follows is therefore only a subset of 12 tactics linked to applied examples of modern technologies. I very much welcome feedback on this initial list, as I’d like to formulate a more complete taxonomy of digital resistance and match the tactic-technologies with real-world examples from DigiActive’s website.

  • Quickie walkout (lightning strike): Flashmob
  • Hiding, escape, and false identities: Mobile phone, SMS

Do please let me know (in the comments section below) if you can think of other communication technologies, Web 2.0 applications, examples, etc. Thanks!

Patrick Philippe Meier