Human rights lecture on ‘The Arab Spring and social media’, delivered at Atlanta Tech on 15 September by James Harkin

First of all we need to know where the idea of ‘internet freedom’ came from and the answer, at least within policy-making circles, is that it arose from the dying embers of the Bush administration in this country, at a time when the idea of bringing real freedom and democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan was beginning to run out of steam. Under diplomats like James Glassman and young turks like Jared Cohen in the State Department, the idea of hitching America’s banner to the cause of internet freedom seemed like a win-win. It allowed America to continue to champion freedom, after the failure of Operation Iraqi Freedom, while simultaneously been non judgemental – and very cheap. The doctrine that America should stand behind internet freedom was subsequently worked up by Hillary Clinton and Anne-Marie Slaughter at the State Department, and eventually backed by Barack Obama. The idea, bluntly put, is that online information is a good thing, that extremists and authoritarians can’t really deal with it, and that with enough of it going around the place might lead to real political freedoms. To the incoming secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and her senior advisers the idea of doing foreign policy on Facebook threw up intriguing possibilities. Stripped of its air of gung-ho propagandising and reworked as a campaign for internet freedom in places like Iran, American outreach would sit very nicely with Obama’s campaign pledge to put a friendlier face on American power. ‘Twenty-first-century statecraft’, Hillary Clinton said in a series of choreographed speeches in 2009, was about using the internet to work from the ‘bottom up’: it was less about telling people what to think than about encouraging them to stand up for their right to talk among themselves and, if they wished, to the United States. Just as America’s Cold Warriors had used Radio Free Europe and the Congress for Cultural Freedom to tear down the Berlin Wall, went the argument, the campaign for internet freedom could help tear down the firewalls authoritarian regimes have erected around their populations, and throw a lifeline to the dissidents inside.

Now there were good reasons for thinking that something was afoot, in 2009. First of all in Moldova and then in Iran, protesters and dissidents took to the streets and seemed to using social media to organise and outwit the police. To many technophiles hovering around State Department policy-making circles, the excitement was palpable. And not only there.In a series of blog posts fired off within hours of the demonstrations breaking out Iran, the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan proclaimed Twitter “the critical tool for organizing the resistance in Iran”; he even threw in a little electronic agitprop, declaring that “the revolution will be twittered.” Another prominent cheer-leader was Clay Shirky, a prominent internet evangelist and Professor of Telecommunications in NYU. Shirky is the smartest and most articulate of the internet gurus, and in his book Here Comes Everybody he makes an important claim, that from now on freedom of association and the freedom to publish things online were going to be central to protecting our political liberties. “To speak online is to publish, and to publish online is to connect with others. With the arrival of globally accessible publishing, freedom of speech is now the freedom of the press, and the freedom of the press is freedom of association.” Taking the example of a group of Belorussian activists who’d outflanked the secret police by organising their demo on a blog, Shirky predicted that the internet would prove especially useful in regimes which keep a tight rein on the means of communication, because dissidents could use it to give the authorities the slip. “The government can’t intercept the group members in advance, because there is no group in advance.”

Now this is the first error which I think is made by the cause of internet freedom – to equate the freedom to write things on Facebook with real and substantial freedoms like freedom of speech and freedom of association. Because what happened in Iran in 2009? Well for one thing, if you read the reports of Iranian expatriates and books like Death to the Dictator, the internet wasn’t quite as important as the internet gurus claim. Only a vanishingly small number of people in Tehran actually use Twitter, for example – 60, according to one survey. Many more use Facebook and mobiles, but they did so cautiously. It turns out that the activists involved in those demonstrations had a much more healthy scepticism about the power of the internet to liberate them, because they knew full that the Iranian government was taking steps to shut down and monitor social media. If the Iranian protesters were a little paranoid about mobile phones and the net, they had every reason to be. While some demonstrators were busy rounding up virtual support from the outside world, the police were scanning social networking sites to round up them. The Iranian authorities and their allies were quick to get into the swing of social media, and were soon flooding mobiles and the internet with false information and videos of dubious authenticity in order to intimidate, divide or demoralise the opposition. “Dear citizen”, read one cheery text sent to known protesters, “according to received information, you have been influenced by the destabilizing propaganda which the media affiliated with foreign countries have been disseminating.” The freedom to publish afforded by the internet, in other words, was important, but it was equally important to the authorities who used new media and social media for very sophisticated systems of surveillance. Rely too heavily on the internet as a means of fomenting an uprising, in other words, and it’s very likely you’ll find the Secret Police knocking at your door. And we’ve seen this again and again in the Arab Spring, from Mubarak cutting off the internet and mobile phone networks to the Syrian Government, possibly using expertise lent them by the Iranians, to shut down or monitor mobile and social networks in Homs, Deraa and Damascus. And what happens then is a cat-and-mouse game between the activists, the monitors (and, often, the American State Department and the CIA) to see whose programming and hacking skills are better – a battle which might not always be won by the right side, and which if pursued too vigorously can distract from building a political movement.

Following on from that opposition between internet freedom and internet surveillance, I want to talk about a second problem with the notion that the internet is a panacea for activists under authoritarian regime and a second opposition. I call it the difference between strong ties and weak ties. What I mean by strong ties aren’t family bonds or even always community bonds but the kinds of trust and mutual respect necessary to build up a political movement under difficult conditions. Evangelists for new media, everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to sociologists who talk about network theory, favour what they call weak ties – the kinds of ties which bring us all together on social media, and which Facebook so powerful. And when internet gurus talk about collective action – which they equate with online collaboration – it’s the weak ties which they tell us do most of the work. Weak ties are certainly what produce flash mobs, like that famous example when all those hipsters were invited by email to turn up in Macy’s in New York and stared at a single item of furniture. It’s all great fun, but the problem with flash mobs built out of electronic ties and made up of people who have no prior relationship to each is that they turn out to be flashes in the pan – no good at all for building really engaged, strong political movements. Weak ties, particularly made out of a global electronic diaspora which wants to empathise with the movement from the safety of their spare rooms in New York – as happened in Iran 2009 with Andrew Sullivan and Clay Shirky – can be very useful in getting messages out of the country, as very useful as a kind of emotional catharsis for those involved. But they can also distract an indigenous movement from building a real and indigenous movement at home, confuse activists who don’t always know who is saying these things, and lend ammunition to their enemies at home who want to portray their movement as a foreign plot. A tellingly example of the utter weakness of weak ties happened when the Sudanese government set up a Facebook page calling for a protest against the Sudanese government, naming a specific time and place – then simply arrested those who showed up. So I’d argue that the arguments of internet gurus about the power of weak electronic ties are useless when it comes to politics, and when exported abroad, have the potential to be disastrous. Given the inchoate nature of many of these popular movements, just about the last thing they need from the American State Department is the idea that the authorities are going to be no match for a new kind of networked, shiftless, leaderless, just-in-time disorganised organisation. They had enough of that already. And think about this – as we move towards democratic elections in Egypt, all this can have real consequences. The Muslim Brotherhood and the puritanical Salafist movements are built around the kind of strong ties which have been years and decades in the making. If we encourage Egyptian democrats to rely too heavily on a kind of Facebook democracy, we risk distracting them from the work of building sustainable political movements. And if that were to happen, Egyptian democracy itself might turn out to have been a flash in the pan.

The last opposition I want to talk about is truth versus hearsay, and here, for the sake of balance, I’d like to have a go at the enemies of the American State Department. Because within a year of the launch of this great crusade for ‘internet freedom’, launched by Hillary Clinton in a carefully choreographed series of speeches in 2009, it had fallen flat on its face. Why? Because an upstart movement of hackers called Wikileaks published a huge trove of nearly a quarter of a million of it secret diplomatic cables, at which point the State Department’s commitment to internet freedom proved to be very hollow indeed. They went ballistic. But left uncontested in all the venom hurled in Assange’s direction is his idea of ‘radical transparency’, which tends to equate freedom, democracy and even the public sphere with the ready availability of online information. And the reason why it was left uncontested is because the State Department largely agreed, at least until it was mugged by it. It’s interesting to think about what Julian Assange and the American State Department have in common. Just like many policy wonks in Washington Julian Assange hasn’t been shy to credit for the Arab uprisings, and his cables were certainly read widely in those countries, but what the citizens of Tunisia, Egypt and Syria knew about their rulers far exceeded the tittle-tattle available on Wikileaks; as we say in Belfast, the dogs in the Cairo street knew what was going on in Mubarak’s prisons. If we rely too much on that trove of tantalising embassy cables on the internet, all we really learn is what American State Department thinks about what’s going in the rest of the world, not what’s really going on in those countries. The banners of ‘internet freedom’ and ‘internet transparency’ signed up to by both the American State Department and the Wikileakers, I’d argue, are simplistic and often arrogant ways to look at how the world works. Pay them too much attention and we risk losing the real truth about events going on on the ground.

What the American State Department, the internet gurus and the data evangelists all miss is that mere access to online information doesn’t on its own open the door to power, freedom, democracy, or even necessarily get us closer to the truth. The obsessive Western focus on social media and online data robs politics and culture of its content, and risks blinding to the real dynamics of change in those countries. As we continue to watch the citizens of those countries open their own door to freedom, we need to make sure we’re not leading them down a blind alley.

Human Rights lecture, delivered by James Harkin at Georgia Tech in Atlanta on 15th September 2011 to mark the first anniversary of the Arab uprisings. James Harkin is the Director of Flockwatching

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