A Wake-up Call For Despots

By Lee Bryant


The world might have forgotten the name of Mohamed Bouazzi but the young generation in the Arab world never will. While the majority of their parents’ generation were forced into submission and silence by fear, young Arabs are vocal, articulate and daring. In particular they see through the hypocrisy of governments who have long claimed that the only alternative to them is chaos and radical Islam. Tunisia and Egypt proved this wrong.

In his article Lee focuses of whether and how social technologies are impacting on our governments and us as citizens. It’s a debate about the power of transparency, the increasing ease with which people are able to coordinate collective action, but it’s also about the changing nature of distributed leadership and coordination.


Lee Bryant
… co-founded Headshift in 2002 to focus on the emerging area of social software and social networking. He’s played around with words and computers since the age of 10, and has a strong belief in the empowering potential of the internet. He is also a board member of a social enterprise, Involve, and a trustee of the Foundation for Science Technology and Culture.


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The Guardian’s innovative timeline of events in the Arab world shows just what a snowball effect was set off by the happenings in Tunisia at the end of 2010 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2011/mar/22/middle-east-protest-interactive-timeline). These events, which are ongoing and by no means complete, have re-ignited the debate about whether and how social technologies are impacting on political protest and the future role and behaviour of governments. It is a debate about the power of transparency, the increasing ease with which people are able to co-ordinate collective action; but it is also about the role of hard and soft power in international affairs and the changing nature of distributed leadership and co-ordination.

In Tunisia, the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi was the spark that lit the fire of protest against a corrupt regime, but the impact of the earlier Wikileaks revelations about the behaviour and finances of President Ben Ali and his family cannot be underestimated as it fuelled the underlying anger that Bouazizi’s protest ignited (http://wikileaks.ch/cable/2008/06/08TUNIS679.html).

Inspired by events in Tunisia, Egyptians began their historic Tahrir Square occupation that would eventually lead to the ousting of President Mubarak and significant change in the national government. Whilst it was the military that played the key role in tipping events towards a change of regime, the Facebook group set up by a local Google employee played an important role in the initial mobilisation of the protest (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12400529).

In both Tunisia and Egypt, and to an extent in Libya as well, the main impact of social technology was probably the way in which it allowed ordinary people to both send and receive information about the protests without being limited by mainstream and government media. The contrast between the pathetic attempts at old-fashioned propaganda and the raw reality of mobile phone videos, tweets and other snippets from people on the ground perhaps also reminded citizens of Tunisia and Egypt just how wide was the gulf between their Twentieth Century leaders and the culture and behaviour of young people in these countries today. There were, of course, attempts to shut down the internet and other desperate measures, but services like Google’s speak-to-tweet and others managed to create alternative routes to the internet for those brave or motivated enough to use them.

But how much of a role did social media really play in these events? There has been a long and sometimes polarised debate about the importance or otherwise of online social tools in revolutions and political change over the past few years. Clay Shirky, whose book Cognitive Surplus quotes examples of protests in South Korea and other places to demonstrate the new reality of online people power, has been seen as an advocate of the power of the internet to effect political change, although his position is far more nuanced and well-informed than critics suggest (http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67038/clay-shirky/the-political-power-of-social-media ). On the other side of the debate, Evgeny Morozov represents the school of thought that says the internet is simply another tool or technology that can be used for good or ill, and in that sense it is no different from previous technologies that have been assimilated by both protestors and regimes alike (http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morozov_shirky10/morozov_shirky10_index.html). Less well informed about international affairs, but perhaps better known, is Malcolm Gladwell, who has also contributed to this debate. During the Egyptian uprising, he wrote:

“But surely the least interesting fact about [the protests] is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along.” (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/02/does-egypt-need-twitter.html )

This is precisely the kind of article Jay Rosen recently referred to when he wrote his excellent and detailed roundup of this debate and its limitations on his PressThink blog (the “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” article). Rosen points out that Gladwell and others are setting up a straw man to knock down when they claim that many commentators are too uncritical and excitable in their view of the role of social media in political change. He also points out that many of these articles are based on the idea that social media is not a primary cause of protest, but fails to acknowledge its importance as one among many factors that contribute to it, and he quotes David Hume on the mystery of how governments stay in power to highlight the point that causality is rarely clear or obvious in these matters: (http://pressthink.org/2011/02/the-twitter-cant-topple-dictators-article/)

“Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.”

This quote touches on where I think much of the potential of social technology to democratise societies can be found. Hard power is concentrated in military and police forces. The soft power of opinion may be stronger in aggregate, but it is highly distributed. Perhaps the most exciting capability of social technology is the way in which it can aggregate lots of small, low-cost individual actions at scale to produce network effects. If we look at the role of Facebook in helping co-ordinate protests, it provides a low-risk, low-cost way of gently registering disapproval and an intent to protest, thus lowering the barriers that might put off all but the bravest and most committed. But when you see tens of thousands of people demonstrating the same level of commitment and intent, the network effect becomes a source of courage and support for those who decide to take their protest onto the streets. So it becomes easier to test the waters with a low commitment action, and also easier to approximate aggregate levels of support and commitment before taking action.

Othman Laraki, who works for Twitter, tried to express this in an equation that seeks to identify the point at which the perceived costs of repression are outweighed by the perceived mass of protestors ready to make a stand (http://zarnotes.blogspot.com/2011/03/economics-of-dissent-how-twitter-and.html ). In his blog post outlining the equation, Othman argues that social media reduces the cost of dissent, whilst increasing the cost of suppression.

But even this use of social technology to organise protests is a point of contention, with Morozov and others arguing that is also exposes protestors to state scrutiny. At the SXSW Interactive festival in Texas in March 2011, Morozov he gave a talk about his book The Net Delusion, where he defended his argument, clarified a few misconceptions about his views and shared some very interesting and informative observations about the way technology is being appropriated by regimes as well as protestors. For example, he said the Chinese government aims to mobilise its online supporters within two hours of an online protest bubbling up, in order to guarantee containment. The fact that they have rapid response teams ready to do this so quickly obviously testifies to how much importance they place on the internet, but it also shows how they are able to leverage their power advantage to suppress dissent, even online. Morozov also responded to Clay Shirky’s point about the so-called ‘dictator’s dilemma’ (http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/15/us-usa-internet-clinton-idUSTRE71E0P120110215) – the fact that shutting down the internet in response to protests can also cost the state billions in lost revenues – by saying that in cases such as Libya, where the stakes are very high, losing $10-15bn by shutting down the net is not a big deal, and so we should not count on this logic.

More worryingly, Morozov quoted a number of examples where regimes are using social technology to crack down after protests, for example by going through Flickr groups and crowdsourcing the identification of individuals in photographs to gather intelligence and to punish them for taking part. He said that the Iranian government is believed to be working on the use of facial recognition software to speed up this process, which would be a frightening way to turn the transparency of social tools against protestors.

Morozov is a well-informed thinker on international relations, and despite the gaps in his knowledge about open source software, security, crytopgraphy and other areas highlighted by Cory Doctorow in a Guardian article critiquing Morozov’s book (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/jan/25/net-activism-delusion?cat=technology&type=article), he is somebody to be taken seriously. But he is so focused on institutions in the inter- national system that he perhaps misses the countervailing force of people power that the internet is helping to orchestrate. Morozov fears that if the US State Department buys into what he regards as hype about the liberating potential of the internet, then it might be used as a political tool against regimes the US disagrees with. As someone who was part of the Praguebased Transitions Online, and presumably with exposure to the Voice of America in Europe, Morozov understands the fine line between “foreign” funding of independent media and outright propaganda intended to bring about political change acceptable to funding countries. There is clearly a danger that the United States and other governments could do more harm than good by funding and supporting internet initiatives intended to foster unrest in other countries, and we have already seen at least one example of how this basic idea could be misapplied, with the outsourced mass ’sock-puppetry’ of the US government’s Operation Earnest Voice (http://boingboing.net/2011/03/17/us-military-launches.html ). Morozov is quite right to warn against this kind of stupidity.

So what have we learned from these events about leadership and forms of organisation?

First, I think the blunt instrument of Wikileaks’ approach to transparency has provided a wake-up call for diplomats and leaders of all kinds. Of course diplomacy and leadership sometimes require different messages for different audiences, and being economical with the truth is probably a fact of life. But from now on, any leader or diplomat behaving in an outright immoral or duplicitous way will know that at some point their words (assuming they are written down) can come back to haunt them. Just as Othman Laraki suggests that social media are lowering the cost of protest and increasing the cost of repression, so has Julian Assange argued that his mission is to dramatically increase the cost of bad behaviour, thus incentivising leaders to close the gap between what they say and what they do. This can only be a good thing, in my view.

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I think of Wikileaks as doing for transparency what the war crimes process has done for the rules of war.

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It is an imperfect, blunt instrument, selectively applied, but it does mean that a commander (or a diplomat), when asked to do something they know to be wrong, might have in the back of their mind the possibility that one day they could be called to account.

Second, we have seen the huge power of transparency to disrupt the cosy web of business and political rela- tionships that has grown up around corrupt regimes throughout the world. As the BBC’s Robert Peston argued in a blog post about corporate deals with undemocratic governments, there is almost always a public interest in transparency for large corporate contracts with governments, but this can sometimes come into conflict with perceived national interests that are often disguised in opaque international deals (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/robertpeston/2011/03/does_transparency_kill_99_of_d.html ).

The flip side of this, of course, is that leaders who are capable of using social networks to amplify their own influence and vision can succeed in new and interesting ways. Whilst the internet is partly a vehicle for celebrities, it can also occasionally catapult real people with compelling stories into the global limelight, and this can be a powerful force for those who lack conventional hard power in the international system. Leadership in a networked world is a complex question, and many emerging political or protest movements tend to either eschew the idea altogether in favour of continually negotiated co-ordination, or they vest authority in a figure deemed to be widely respected and often at a stage in their career when they are not seeking the trappings of office, such as Alexander Dubcek during the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Dubček ) or, more recently, Mohamed ElBaradei in Egypt (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohamed_ElBaradei ). I suspect we will see new hybrids of strong networked leaders combined with distributed, democratic systems in the future, as all the evidence of history suggests there is still very much a role for leadership in promoting and sustaining change.

Third – and this is what gives me most hope – people outside the Middle East are starting to learn through their exposure to real people and raw information that this region is not populated exclusively by cartoon extremists or angry, disempowered but uninformed masses. Instead, we have seen the sophistication and subtlety of the political views of young people who are little different from ourselves in terms of their aspirations and behaviours. Far from bringing conservative Islamists to power, which was an argument used by those who wanted to prop up corrupt leaders, these events are likely to lead to a blossoming of different positions. Islamists are likely to play a key role, as indeed our own conservatives do in Europe and the United States, but if you want a vision of the future of this region then look instead to the rapidly growing ranks of confident, productive and connected young people in Egypt or Turkey who are finding their voice, and combining old and new, secular and religious, local and global ideas to make sense of the modern world.

The past six months have been a period of breathtaking change, and from Wikileaks to Facebook groups and Twitter, social technology has been at the heart of events as a key factor, if not necessarily a cause. But whilst it is becoming easier for people to join together to represent their common interests, and turn weak ties and small acts of commitment into powerful network effects, we should not get carried away. Under extreme conditions, it is possible for threatened regimes to turn the internet off almost completely in certain areas of the world. Until we have peer to peer mesh networks (http://techcrunch.com/2011/02/27/humans-are-the-routers/) or some other form of truly distributed connectivity, the existence of the internet should not be taken for granted.

But what we have not yet seen is how social technology can play a role in constructing and maintaining post-protest organisations, networks and civil society structures that can spawn democratic institutions for the future. In many so-called Western states, we are facing Twenty-First Century problems with old, creaking Twentieth Century bureaucratic institutions that do a very poor job of utilising people power as a fuel for service delivery, collective action and the smooth running of society.

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In Egypt and Tunisia, the question is how to maintain the positive energy of the protest movements rather than just use it to elect new faces to the old institutions. This is a longer term challenge, but one that might yet demonstrate a potential for social technology that is much wider and deeper than what we have seen so far in stimulating and supporting democratic movements.

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Who Is Leading WikiRevolutions? (Don Tapscott)
Leadership In A Flat Organization (J.P. Rangaswami)
Political Leadership Goes WE! (Sabine Donner)
You’ve Got To Be The Change You Want To See! (Ismael Khatib)
Doing It The Wiki Way (Frank Roebers)
Facebooked? (Klaus Doppler/ Andreas Nau)




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