Revolutions: Internet Freedom Steps Into the Limelight

Anti-Massacre Protest in Tokyo, In front of Libya Embassy (2011.02.23) カダフィによる虐殺抗議デモ(リビア人民局前, 東京都渋谷区代官山町)
Tokyo’s Libya Protest by jetalone

Secretary of State Clinton made a speech last week committing to the ideal of an uncensored Internet as a primary tool for freedom. Her remarks — while in contrast to U.S. reactions about Wikileaks and the Obama Administration’s questionable policies on net neutrality — were made in the wake of the incredible events that have occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other Arabic countries. As a result, liberty via the Internet has become a top policy objective.

Throughout the Middle East’s unrest, individuals have used the Internet to communicate, speak out, and organize against totalitarian regimes in their countries. Further, citizens in Arabic countries can inform the rest of the world via social publishing tools, providing networked awareness of protests and actions. Just watch NPR’s Andy Carvin share updates he’s found from the Middle East, and you will see this form of network weaving in effect.

Lest this post spark yet another, “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators Article” yes, none of those revolutions were directly caused by social networks or other Internet tools. Rather, the Internet served as a communications tool, a catalyst for freedom.

Dissidence can be very dangerous. Speaking out doesn’t always yield a positive result. For example, Syrian blogger Ahmad Abu Khair was arrested this past weekend (Khair was released today). Given how some hardline totalitarian regimes like Syria, Iran and Libya react to protest, Khair’s life could have been in danger. Social networking can also provide a trail of dissidents for authoritarian governments.

Finally, when a revolution moves to the streets, it can become lethal. Muammar el Qaddafi’s genocide to keep control of Libya has demonstrated exactly how bloody revolutions can become. Many brave souls fight under the threat of execution for freedom in Libya. God willing, may they have success.

Yet the net gain of Internet tools cannot be dismissed. As Clay Shirky said in response to Malcolm Gladwell, “Even the increased sophistication and force of state reaction, however, underlines the basic point: these tools alter the dynamics of the public sphere. Where the state prevails, it is only by reacting to citizens’ ability to be more publicly vocal and to coordinate more rapidly and on a larger scale than before these tools existed.”

For those of us that have been professionally working online since the World Wide Web’s inception, this triumphant use of Internet tools harkens back to the Information Superhighway. It was under Bill Clinton’s watch that Al Gore worked diligently to promote the National Information Infrastructure, with its vision of placing digital printing presses in every human being’s hands. The Digital Divide was a huge issue then, and in light of recent events, it should be again. We see now that the dream can be realized, that the Internet catalyzes freedom.

Fostering Global Internet Use

Libya map with old flag
Image by FutureAtlas

Empowering speech online as a catalyst for greater freedom means providing these tools to every person across the globe. Statistics show that almost 2 billion people have access to the Internet, roughly 29% of the planet’s population. However, roughly half of all Internet users do not have access to broadband globally, limiting their ability to interact.

In a typical mistaken way, the State Department celebrated its policy declaration by publicly launching Twitter feeds in Arabic and Farsi. While propaganda is an old hat for the government, it doesn’t empower people to think or choose their own ideas of freedom. What is needed is a much stronger policy towards providing infrastructure rather than political ideas.

There are three main priorities for increasing access to the Internet and the incredibly diverse universe of ideas and conversations globally:

Wireless Infrastucture: Wireless has allowed many countries to leapfrog the landline telecommunications nightmare, an insurmountable investment in fiber optics. Encouraging widespread diffusion of 4G, WiFi and other broadband wireless technologies is the critical first step.

Mobile and Portable Computing: Smartphones and portable computing devices like tablets and netbooks are the tools of freedom. Lower costs break the Digital Divide, empowering people across the world to access the Internet via broadband tools and easily publish information online. By seeking to provide as many wireless enabled smart computing devices to global citizens, countries can foster a higher level of communication and interaction.

Accompanying deployment of mobile devices, is the development of software and Internet tools that work well on these devices. Desktop applications need not apply. In that sense, HTML 5 is a great equalizer, as have been the many mobile applications built over the past few years. There is more room to grow for the mobile/portable web.

Skills Development: Education initiatives across the globe should focus on how to teach people to digest information intelligently. We need an empowered, functional Fifth Estate, and a critical aspect of that is digital literacy. The overall quality of content has decreased with the rise of social media, infusing much more opinion than fact.

Teaching citizens from the U.S. to the Middle East and beyond how to use digital communications and publish better information will help dialogue. Nonprofits and companies like Internews Network and AllVoices are working towards this laudable goal. We need to go further, and make digital literacy and publishing a core tenant of any child’s education.

All governments should seeks these three objectives as a means to promote liberty online. What do you think of the Internet as a tool for freedom?

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Revolutions: Don’t Shoot the Social Media Messenger

Journalism Skills for Everyone

Revolutions: Don’t Shoot the Social Media Messenger

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Image is from NorthJerseyMusic

As we watch protestors risk their lives and demand governmental change in Egypt, a secondary news story has evolved. Pundits are actively debating the role (or lack thereof) that social media and the Internet played in sparking the Egyptian protests, Tunisia’s revolution, and Yemen’s unrest. There’s a whole camp of Malcolm Gladwell-esque voices who bitterly claim only revolutionaries make revolts, social media has no valuable role in the discussion. To deny the use of new tools as exciting and noteworthy in a revolution is a mistake. It’s the equivalent of shooting the messenger, the poor soul carrying information between warring parties.

At the same time, one can see how statements like “the same Web tools that so many Americans use to keep up with college pals and post passing thoughts have a more noble role as well, as a scourge of despotism,” would fuel such angst. Like the messenger, social media is just a communications tool set, and perhaps not even the most powerful one at play.

Consider Al Jazeera’s incredible role in covering the events to date, particularly given that the U.S.-based media was focused on domestic events until the past few days. Al Jazeera’s coverage has been outstanding. Just this morning Egypt shut down Al Jazeera‘s local offices.

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The best testimony about social media’s role in these events has to be the efforts of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments to thwart or completely cut off the Internet. As you can see from the above chart published on Mashable, the Internet became a critical communications point leading up to the events of the past few days. It’s no wonder that the autocratic Mubarek regime sought to protect its own power by cutting the Internet.

It should be noted that the protests have significantly escalated since the proverbial kill switch was hit on the Egyptian Internet. So at best social’s role can only be painted as a catalyst, and not the ultimate factor.

Perhaps the most sane analysis of the debate about social media’s role came from Jeremy Littau: “So of course social media caused the uprising in Egypt, and of course it didn’t. It truly is both and to try and pin it on one type of public is too simplistic. It’s never one thing.” Indeed, there are many, many factors at play in the Egyptian protest, most importantly the willingness of individuals to publicly stand against oppression.

Stories, Carrier Pigeons and Prayers

Cairo

People complaining about stories debating social media’s role will likely remain frustrated. The ongoing conversation is an inevitable story, and rightly so. The fast, networked decentralized capability that social brings to revolutionaries and protesters is incredible. That sword cuts both ways, too. Autocrats can use social media to identify and monitor networks of dissidents!

Framing the argument around using online tools to better activities makes a ton of sense. The tools have evolved, but historically there have always been ways to spread the word in times of unease. Messengers and carrier pigeons were used before the telegraph and radio, which preceded television and email. All were used historically for revolutionary purposes to galvanize human networks, as well as to oppress whole countries and commit genocide. As you can see, it was not the tools, but the people who used them to deliver their messages. Yet watching this week’s conversation, if social media were a carrier pigeon it’s already been well roasted by its various masters.

Expect to see a lot more discussion on the role of social media in the Arab world’s 2011 uprisings. But know until either Twitter or Facebook releases statistical data (if ever) about in country use of the tools preceding and during the revolutionary events, it’s strictly conjecture.

We just know that in some ways, these tools have lent themselves to a higher purpose than talking about Kim Kardashian’s marketing on Twitter. And that’s a great thing. But it pales in comparison to freedom and change in an autocratic regime.

Lest we get too exited about the tools, let’s not forget that people have died. The people are the one’s shouldering the risk invoking this would-be change. So our prayers should go to those souls who are fighting the good fight in Egypt. May there be as little bloodshed as possible.

What do you think of the ongoing debate about social media’s role in the Egyptian, Tunisian and Yemenian uprisings?

Related Reading: Tunisia Teaching Gladwell, Beth Kanter’s Spotlight on Social Media, Crowdsourced Translation, Egyptian Protests and Diplomacy.

Tunisia Teaching Gladwell

Perhaps the most dismissive part of of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” article was the closure: “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.” Tunisia’s recent revolution demonstrates that social media can be a powerful tool purposed by revolutionaries for change. And in doing so, Tunisia teaches the Malcolm Gladwells of the world a lesson or two.

Gladwell’s conclusion found its basis in the weak ties theory from The Tipping Point, and lack of hierarchies in social networks. But Gladwell’s absolutist view of social change and activism online failed to grasp that it’s not the media that causes revolutions. Social media are but tools.

Further, recent research from Pew demonstrates that adults who participate in social networking also engage in more group activity than their peers. Stronger ties are the result. The Tipping Point precedes the online social networking era, and while it certainly has great insights into influence, it may be dated.

These two points prove that Gladwell was dead wrong in his New Yorker article. The Tunisian revolution was tweeted, YouTubed, Facebooked and blogged, but not here in the United States. It was done where it mattered most, in Tunisia. It was done because revolutionaries had no access to state controlled media. It had to be delivered on social channels because their were no others available to revolutionaries to counter expelled dictator Ben Ali’s propaganda machine.

Does that mean social media created the revolution? No, technology is not a cause. It does means that Gladwell was off on his assumption that finding lost phones would be the great result of social connectivity. Tunisians took real action when they saw news of suicide protests (primarily on Facebook). A chain reaction ensued when people realized that their brothers and sisters were protesting. The spark happened at the right moment, and triggered the tidal wave that cause Ben Ali to flee the country.

Another tip-off about how important Internet tools were to the resistance was the Ali government’s persistent use of phishing attacks on Gmail and Facebook in the years leading up to the climatic ousting. The government waged a bitter cyberwar against online activists, and in the end started arresting Tunisian bloggers.

It’s the Message, not the Medium

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Thích Quảng Đứcimage from Listverse

There are other parallels to past non-Internet events. The tidal wave of offline protests that spread across the country via social media began with Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide by self immolation in Sidi Bouzid. In 1963, a Bhuddhist monk named Thích Quảng Đức burned himself to death in a widely broadcasted event, that triggered the Buddhist crisis and a change in regime in South Vietnam in 1963.

Did TV cause the South Viet Nam regime change? No. Were the relational ties created by broadcasted images stronger or weaker than social media? Arguably weaker. But the tools helped get the word out. Just like in Tunisia social media tools helped combat propaganda. Intentional use of media tools to affect change worked in both cases.

Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message, and Gladwell’s arguments primarily focus on social media itself as the revolutionary message. McLuhan said not to get lost in the message, that the medium changes us in its capabilities. Both are wrong. Whether it was photographs and broadcasts in 1963 or user generated videos and Facebook messages in 2011, when the situation is right and the message is on target, revolutions can happen. The media used were but tools to affect these two governmental changes.

The only difference that social media brings to bear is a much less controlled networked media set that can circumnavigate authoritarian control. In the right situations, it can catalyze political revolt. If successfully accessed it can become a great equalizer, empowering citizens to rise up against state controlled media. The theory of an empowered Fifth Estate resonates strongly in Tunisia, and in past examples, albeit failed ones, like Iran.

One thing is for sure, regardless of punditry, autocratic governments across the world took notice of the Tunisian revolution. What do you think about Gladwell’s theory in light of these recent developments?