Digital Activism: If Information Is Not the Problem, Information is Not the Solution

Right after I finished Matthew Hindman's book The Myth of Digital Democracy, Prospect Magazine has published a debate between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky about digital activism in authoritarian countries, particularly Iran. (Links – Round one: Morozov and Shirky. Round two: Morozov and Shirky.) 

In brief, Morozov worries "what do we really gain if the ability to organise protests is matched (and, perhaps, even dwarfed) by the ability to provoke, identify and arrest the protesters?" Shirky, who is in moderate "Shirky mode" as opposed to demagogic "Clay mode", counters that "While the use of social media in the Iranian protests quickly garnered the label 'Twitter Revolution,' the real revolution was the use of mobile phones, which allowed the original protesters to broadcast their actions to other citizens and to the wider world with remarkable speed and immediacy. This characteristic, of a rapidly assembling and self-documenting public, is more than just a new slogan."

There is a technology arms race between the protesters and the government, in which increasingly sophisticated levels of censorship, censorship evasion, identity masking, and so on are all playing a part. Your Facebook account might be a great way to communicate with others of a shared viewpoint but others can track you on it, and Iranian airport security have apparently asked travellers to sign in to their accounts in front of them. Activists use proxy servers to protect their identity, but if they are discovered using this technology then it may be treated as  evidence of guilt. And so on.

The thing with an arms race is that, whoever wins (if anyone), the benefit is tiny compared to the effort expended by both sides. The hype over the role of digital technologies in protest is overblown because it is proportional to the amount and visibility of effort, not to the benefit the activists gain. In a country full of mobile phones, the mobile phone will be used to communicate; in a country with portable digital cameras, digital videos will be the way to broadcast events. But just because everyone is using the new technology doesn't mean it's making a big difference to the balance of power or to the action on the ground.

Digital technologies don't shift the balance of power partly because they are prone to the kind of arms races Morozov identifies, but also because they don't address the major obstacles that stand in the way of dissident groups, either in autocratic countries or in democracies. When Czechs organized to overthrow their government back in 1989 they faced many obstacles, but transmitting information was not one of the big ones. They had many ways to distribute what they needed: they leaked information to Western TV and radio stations who would broadcast it back to millions of listeners; they used official photocopiers to make hundreds of copies of samizdats, networks of music fans turned themselves into subversive communication webs, actors read anti-government news instead of reciting their lines at dramatic performances. "We were much more co-ordinated than people realize today, so that people in Czechoslovakia were able to know almost immediately what was happening in Poland and East Germany, even though it could not be reported or even mentioned in the official media".  [Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail, October 29, 2009] If information is not the main problem for protest movements, then the Internet is not the solution.

To the extent that information is a problem, it's not the kind of information that the Internet deals in anyway. After all, here is some information for you:

2 + 2 = 5

I can post this in a blog, tweet it, put it in my Facebook status, or even make a video of it. It can be encoded in bytes, so it's "information" in that sense, but it's obviously not "information" that is useful to anyone. What activists need in autocratic countries is not "ways to share information" but "ways to share trusted information securely and privately". And the barrier to this is not "sharing" but establishing trust. When Russians re-typed samizdats and passed them on to those with similar views, the typing was a pain but the real issue was knowing who to trust.

The need for trust is part of why the transaction-cost analysis of group formation favoured by Clay Shirky and others is wrong-headed when it comes to activism, especially in a hazardous environment. As Hayagreeva Rao argues in Market Rebels (review), forming groups is largely a matter of establishing a shared identity, and establishing an identity is inherently a costly activity. High transaction costs are not an inhibitor to forming many kinds of groups because commitment is part of what makes groups successful. Signing up to join a group is a "performative" statement and, like apologies, its meaning is in the cost to the speaker. Sure, it's easier to sign up to a Facebook group than if you have to actually go and meet someone, but if signing up is so easy it's not likely to be much of a group, just as an automated phone apology that "all our agents are busy right now" is cheap, and so is not much of an apology. Some groups deliberately make joining difficult by imposing artificial initiation rites on new members. It's all part of establishing trust among group members, and the Internet doesn't do much to help – or hinder – that crucial step.

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  1. You know, I can’t help but think that this perpetual argument is getting more and more pedantic on both sides. On the one hand, there are those who overestimate the use of new tools and mediums, and on the other, those who underestimate them.
    Yet, in fact, they are just that.
    They are simply tools which can be used correctly or incorrectly, for good and for bad. In fact, like the Internet itself, which can be used as easily by nationalists, pedophiles and fanatics, as well as those wanting to promote change.
    And yes, they can be used to prevent it too, but let’s ask ourselves this. Is the world freer in terms of communication and access to information because of the Internet, or less free?
    Meanwhile, it is about who is using those tools with a proper strategy and a whole range of other tactics, including the traditional, which could stand to benefit. Ultimately, they could help shift the balance if there is a critical mass as well.
    I also think that there is too much narrow focus on particular examples.
    So, okay, we can look at Moldova and Iran until we’re blue in the face, and we’ll likely continue to argue about these examples for much longer, but those same tools can be used for other purposes not highlighted by either case example.
    What about the use of Skype to circumvent monitored telephone calls, for example? Or Facebook to overcome negative stereotypes between two opposing sides in an ethnic conflict when the media does everything to portray the other as the “enemy?”
    Your point about developing trust could particularly be mentioned here. It is possible to use Facebook for this purpose if it is done properly and with all the failings and pitfalls of social networking sites kept in mind.
    Or blogs, and particularly social networking sites, which can and do allow for discussion between groups who otherwise can’t meet because of geographical situation or, more likely, closed borders and blocked telephone lines?
    Or what about the regions of impoverished countries where there is no established or developed nationwide media? Is new and social media, along with a vast array of free, cheap and mobile tools, a solution if used properly? Surely it is.
    Basically, both sides have some valid arguments at the end of the day, but like almost everything, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Meanwhile, these new online tools are not the answer to any problem.
    But neither are the traditional methods of protest, and especially if not organized correctly. There are far too many other factors involved.
    However, like the printing press, or the desktop computer, or a theatrical performance as you mention above, or any development in the area of communication throughout history, they are something that can be used as part of something larger.
    Basically, it’s actually about who uses them, when they use them, how they use them, and whether in appropiate combination with other existing tools and campaign strategies. It is ultimately up to the people using them.

  2. And I most definitely think that it could be argued that in the case of Iran, even though there is disinformation going out as well, we’d be really in the dark without these new tools.
    So, I’d argue that information is always the problem. Just that in the example of Czechoslovakia that you give, those methods were used to overcome the problem and get the message out. In today’s world, however, new methods are being used as well.

  3. I find blogging, Facebook and Twitter to be useful tools or mechanisms to connect with like-minded individuals…Unfortunately, as you’ve pointed out on other parts of your site, blogging is rarely used to engage people in discussion or offer new perspectives; it often looks like wannabe journalists churning out already-reported-news. I know that Facebook is good for organizing rallies but sometimes it feels as though we’re joining an event, showing up at rallies, but not building a movement.

  4. Alice looked round her in great surprise. `Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’
    `Of course it is,’ said the Queen, `what would you have it?’
    `Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, `you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’
    `A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. `Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.
    If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’
    Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

  5. Polly, depends on the situation and also, in some countries it is an excellent tool to create that movement of like-minded individuals, especially for those countries often with some of those people outside of the country and forming their own important networks externally for spreading the information to the international media, protesting outside Embassies etc.
    Like it or not, there are very few examples of movements who succeed only because their cause is just. In many cases, they are reliant on international attention.
    Basically, I don’t think this is a black and white argument. Not for any of it, including the likelihood of truly mass movements or traditional methods of protest succeeding. It’s a combination of factors, some of them very complex and specific to the time, location and people involved. Anyway, if we’re going to talk about photocopiers in Czechoslovakia it has to be said that this perhaps was the Internet of the time.
    In authoritarian countries, there is always a problem with information. The Internet, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and a whole lot more are simply tools to change that situation, just as the printing press, photocopiers, and probably the pen and paper (i.e. literacy) has also been in history. In Armenia, for example, blogs were used to spread samizdat which were then printed off traditionally for those without access.
    However, I agree that we’re getting too carried away with these new developments.
    Nevertheless, they have allowed people to do many things quicker and spread it more widely than at any time before. It’s always been about information. If it wasn’t then there wouldn’t be such movements pushing for change. These are just new ways of doing the same as is mentioned for Czechoslovakia. Simply, the tools and methods have changed or been added to. Ultimately, however, it depends on who are using them, how, when, why and against who.

  6. Yes, there are many constructive things we can do with digital tools and I agree that, seen as tools, they are part of something larger. And I very much like your idea about reaching across divides: sometimes Canadian software professionals even meet Armenian journalists who they would never understand otherwise. But although there will be many cases where tools are used to good effect, there is a difference between what individuals do and what the net effect is, and the net effect may be more polarizing as people live inside the self-selected environment that Sunstein called the Daily Me. But I agree digital tools make communication more free, but perhaps not more equal.

  7. I’ve tended to avoid Facebook groups, but there can definitely be a cycle where a group that takes off gets media attention and that leads to more online interest – the Susan Boyle effect in politics perhaps. And I did join the no-prorogue group in the end. It will be interesting to see what comes of it.

  8. I remember hearing a talk in the mid-80s by the Soviet feminist dissident Tatyana Mamonova who was living in exile. She said that in Russia it was difficult to speak, but if you could then everyone wanted to hear what you had to say; in the US it was easy to speak, but no one was interested in listening.

  9. Important and useful discussion of how to identify democratic and participatory affordances of new communication tools while also being mindful of technological determinist impulses. I really like the human aspect both Krikorian and Tomslee touch on in their initial posts; contextualizing uses of technology within particularl historical moments and political contexts, and factoring the human elements of trust, skill, creativity, and initiative.

  10. like poetry in the age of Creative Writing schools – lots of writers, few readers.
    To the main post: I am reminded of George Gilder, Esther Dyson et al proclaiming “The Overthrow of Matter” in the early 90s, a similar kind of foolish techno-utopianism. My experience in what used to be called electronic warfare tells me that free expression on the web can be choked off just as easily as speech – cf the Great Firewall of China for one sample.

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