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[liberationtech] Liberation Technologies -- A Balanced View

Yosem Companys companys at
Sat Apr 11 14:42:16 PDT 2009

 Moldova uprising was organised on
Posted By:Shane
Richmond<>at Apr 7, 2009 at
17:40:58 [
General <>] Posted
in: Foreign Correspondents
, Politics
<> , Technology

 A Twitter uprising has taken place in
with anti-communists using the internet site to mobilise supporters and
organise a demonstration in the country’s capital. Activists apparently used
the tag #pman <> on their tweets
to build a network of supporters.

Evgeny Morozov, author of the net.effect blog for Foreign Policy magazine,
"No, 'pman' is not short for pacman; it stands for Piata Marii Adunari
Nationale, which is Romanian name for the biggest square in Chisinau,
Moldova's capital.

"This is not the first time that a Twitter tag has been used to mobilize
young people around a particular event; the most famous previous case has
been that of 'griots' - the tag used to report on the youth riots in Greece,
which later spread to Europe, arguably also with the help of Twitter."

Likewise there were reports that last week's G20 demonstrations were being
organised by Twitter and certainly Twitter played a role in reporting on

But Twitter is by no means unique in this ability. Before Twitter mobile
phones were used as a way to organise large groups quickly. In the
Philippines in 2001, President Joseph Estrada was unseated after hundreds of
thousands of protestors took to the streets in demonstrations largely
organised by text message. Emails and text messages are credited with a
significant role in the election of President Roh Moo Hyun in South Korea in

More recently the Barack Obama campaign made extensive use of social
networking sites, particularly Facebook, to raise money for the 2008

We will see more of this in the future thanks to Twitter and tools like it.
Twitter's flexibility makes this kind of group organisation very easy.
There's no need for anyone to be in charge. Once a few people have started
things off, movements can develop organically, and very quickly.

Moldova may seem like an unlikely place for a Twitter revolution but the
internet makes it easier for people to find the right tools. For now,
Twitter is the right tool and its influence cannot be constrained.

*Update:* Daniel Bennett, who has commented below, has written a blog
that the protests were organised via social media in general, rather
than by Twitter in particular. It's worth reading his post and the comments
in which a couple of people, apparently involved with the protests, say that
they began over Twitter and spread from there.

Students use Twitter to storm presidency in Moldova
protesters stormed parliament and presidential buildings in the ex-Soviet
state of Moldova.

By Our Foreign Staff
Last Updated: 7:46PM BST 07 Apr 2009

Organisers used the social networking site Twitter to rally opposition to a
Communist victory in legislative elections

At least 10,000 protesters gathered and police fired water cannon but were
unable to stop the crowd from breaking into the buildings.

Windows smashed on two floors of the presidential office. Romanian
Realitatea TV said six police officers were injured in the clashes.

A small group also broke into the president's office, which security forces
had defended with tear gas and water cannon as thousands of protesters
smashed windows and hurled stones at police.

The street protests came two days after a parliamentary election handed
victory to the ruling Communists of President Vladimir Voronin.

Up to 10,000 demonstrators, mostly students, massed for a second straight

"The election was controlled by the Communists, they bought everyone off,"
said Alexei, a student. "We will have no future under the Communists because
they just think of themselves."

Protesters carrying Moldovan and European flags and shouting anti-Communist
slogans gathered outside the government building and made their way down
Chisinau's main boulevard to the president's office.

Some policemen were seen nursing minor injuries.

Voronin, the only Communist president in Europe, has overseen stability and
growth in Europe's poorest nation since 2001, but cannot stand for a third
consecutive term. Parliament elects the president in the country, Europe's
poorest, wedged between ex-Soviet Ukraine and EU member Romania.

President Voronin has made it plain he wants to retain the levers of power
and analysts say he could try to take on another influential role such as
parliamentary speaker.

Texting Toward Utopia <> Does the
Internet spread democracy? *Evgeny Morozov*

In 1989 Ronald Reagan proclaimed that “The Goliath of totalitarianism will
be brought down by the David of the microchip”; later, Bill Clinton compared
Internet censorship to “trying to nail Jell–O to the wall”; and in 1999
George W. Bush (not John Lennon) asked us to “imagine if the Internet took
hold in China. Imagine how freedom would spread.”

Such starry–eyed cyber–optimism suggested a new form of technological
determinism according to which the Internet would be the hammer to nail all
global problems, from economic development in Africa to threats of
transnational terrorism in the Middle East. Even so shrewd an operator as
Rupert Murdoch yielded to the digital temptation: “Advances in the
technology of telecommunications have proved an unambiguous threat to
totalitarian regimes everywhere,” he claimed. Soon after, Murdoch bowed down
to the Chinese authorities, who threatened his regional satellite TV
business in response to this headline–grabbing statement.

Some analysts did not jump on the bandwagon. The restrained tone of one 2003
report stood in marked contrast to prevailing cyber–optimism. The Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace’s, “Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The
Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule,” warned: “Rather than sounding
the death knell for authoritarianism, the global diffusion of the Internet
presents both opportunity and challenge for authoritarian regimes.”
Surveying diverse regimes from Singapore to Cuba, the report concluded that
the political impact of the Internet would vary with a country’s social and
economic circumstances, its political culture, and the peculiarities of its
national Internet infrastructure.

Carnegie’s report appeared in the pre–YouTube, –Facebook, –MySpace darkness,
so it was easy to overlook the rapidly falling costs of self–publishing and
coordination and the implications for online interaction and collaboration,
from political networking to Wikipedia. Still harder was to predict the
potential effect of the Internet and mobile technology on economic
development in the world’s poorest regions, where they currently provide
much–needed banking infrastructure (for example, by using unspent air credit
on mobile phones as currency), create new markets, introduce educational
opportunities, and help to spread information about prevention and treatment
of diseases. And hopes remain that the fruits of faster economic
development, born of new information technologies, might also be good for

It is thus tempting to embrace the earlier cyber–optimism, trace the success
of many political and democratic initiatives around the globe to the coming
of Web 2.0, and dismiss the misgivings of the Carnegie report. Could it be
that changes in the Web over the past six years—especially the rise of
social networking, blogging, and video and photo sharing—represent the
flowering of the Internet’s democratizing potential? This thesis seems to
explain the dynamics of current Internet censorship: sites that feature
user–generated content—Facebook, YouTube, Blogger—are especially unpopular
with authoritarian regimes. A number of academic and popular books on the
subject point to nothing short of a revolution, both in politics and
information (see, for example, Antony Loewenstein’s *The Blogging Revolution
* or Elizabeth Hanson’s *The Information Revolution and World Politics*,
both published last year). Were the cyber–optimists right after all? Does
the Internet spread freedom?

The answer to this question substantially depends on how we measure
“freedom.” It is safe to say that the Internet has significantly changed the
flow of information in and out of authoritarian states. While Internet
censorship remains a thorny issue and, unfortunately, more widespread than
it was in 2003, it is hard to ignore the wealth of digital content that has
suddenly become available to millions of Chinese, Iranians, or Egyptians. If
anything the speed and ease of Internet publishing have made many previous
modes of samizdat obsolete; the emerging generation of dissidents may as
well choose Facebook and YouTube as their headquarters and iTunes and
Wikipedia as their classrooms.

Many such dissenters have, indeed, made great use of the Web. In Ukraine
young activists relied on new–media technologies to mobilize supporters
during the Orange Revolution. Colombian protesters used Facebook to organize
massive rallies against FARC, the leftist guerrillas. The shocking and
powerful pictures that surfaced from Burma during the 2007 anti–government
protests—many of them shot by local bloggers with cell phones—quickly
traveled around the globe. Democratic activists in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe
used the Web to track vote rigging in last year’s elections and used mobile
phones to take photos of election results that were temporarily displayed
outside the voting booths (later, a useful proof of the irregularities).
Plenty of other examples—from Iran, Egypt, Russia, Belarus, and, above all,
China—attest to the growing importance of technology in facilitating

Regime change by text messaging may seem realistic in cyberspace, but no
dictators have been toppled via *Second Life*.

But drawing conclusions about the democratizing nature of the Internet may
still be premature. The major challenge in understanding the relationship
between democracy and the Internet— aside from developing good measures of
democratic improvement—has been to distinguish cause and effect. That is
always hard, but it is especially difficult in this case because the
grandiose promise of technological determinism—the idealistic belief in the
Internet’s transformative power—has often blinded even the most sober

Consider the arguments that ascribe Barack Obama’s electoral success, in
part, to his team’s mastery of databases, online fundraising, and social
networking. Obama’s use of new media is bound to be the subject of many
articles and books. But to claim the primacy of technology over politics
would be to disregard Obama’s larger–than–life charisma, the legacy of the
stunningly unpopular Bush administration, the ramifications of the global
financial crisis, and John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate.
Despite the campaign’s considerable Web savvy, one cannot grant much
legitimacy to the argument that it earned Obama his victory.

Yet, we are seemingly willing to resort to such technological determinism in
the international context. For example, discussions of the Orange Revolution
have assigned a particularly important role to text messaging. This is how a
2007 research paper, “The Role of Digital Networked Technologies in the
Ukrainian Orange Revolution,” by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and
Society described the impact of text messaging, or SMS:

By September 2004, Pora [the opposition’s youth movement] had created a
series of stable political networks throughout the country, including 150
mobile groups responsible for spreading information and coordinating
election monitoring, with 72 regional centers and over 30,000 registered
participants. Mobile phones played an important role for this mobile fleet
of activists. Pora’s post–election report states, ‘a system of immediate
dissemination of information by SMS was put in place and proved to be

Such mobilization may indeed have been important in the final effort. But it
is misleading to imply, as some recent studies by Berkman staff have, that
the Orange Revolution was the work of as a “smart mob”—a term introduced by
the critic Howard Rheingold to describe self–structuring and emerging social
organization *facilitated* by technology. To focus so singularly on the
technology is to gloss over the brutal attempts to falsify the results of
the presidential elections that triggered the protests, the two weeks that
protesters spent standing in the freezing November air, or the millions of
dollars pumped into the Ukrainan democratic forces to make those protests
happen in the first place. Regime change by text messaging may seem
realistic in cyberspace, but no dictators have been toppled via *Second Life
*, and no real elections have been won there either; otherwise, Ron Paul
would be president.

To be sure, technology has a role in global causes. In addition to the tools
of direct communication and collaboration now available, the proliferation
of geospatial data and cheap and accessible satellite imagery, along with
the arrival of user–friendly browsers like Google Earth, has fundamentally
transformed the work of specialized NGOs; helped to start many new ones; and
allowed, for example, real–life tracking of deforestation and illegal
logging. Even indigenous populations previously shut off from technological
innovations have taken advantage of online tools.

More importantly, the tectonic shifts in the economics of activism have
allowed large numbers of unaffiliated individual activists (some of them
toiling part–time or even freelancing) to contribute to numerous efforts. As
Clay Shirky argues in *Here Comes Everybody: Organizing Without
Organizations*, the new generation of protests is much more ad–hoc,
spontaneous, and instantaneous (another allusion to Rheingold’s “smart
mobs”). Technology enables groups to capitalize on different levels of
engagement among activists. Operating on Wikipedia’s every–comma–counts
ethos, it has finally become possible to harvest the energy of both active
and passive contributors. Now, even a forwarded email counts. Such
“nano–activism” matters in the aggregate.

So the Internet is making group and individual action cheaper, faster,
leaner. But logistics are not the only determinant of civic engagement. What
is the impact of the Internet on our incentives to act? This question is
particularly important in the context of authoritarian states, where
elections and opportunities for spontaneous, collective action are rare. The
answer depends, to a large extent, on whether the Internet fosters an
eagerness to act on newly acquired information. Whether the Internet
augments or dampens this eagerness is both critical and undetermined.

The Internet makes it easier for us to find and join groups that we already
agree with, which might, in turn, make our views even more extreme.

Some argue that citizen access to public documents that might reveal
corruption and fraud (SEC filings, tax returns of elected officials,
disclosures about major campaign contributions, etc.) will spur citizen
action. The chief proponents of such radical transparency are technology
pioneers like’s Carl Malamud in the United States and
mySociety’s Tom Steinberg in the United Kingdom. Similar logic—that open
data helps to expose abuses of power or, as Justice Brandeis said, that
“sunlight is the best disinfectant”—guides the work of the Sunlight
Foundation in the United States and smaller outfits elsewhere, including
Mzalendo, a Web site and voting database tracking Kenyan Ministers of
Parliament, and FairPlay Alliance, a comparable site in Slovakia.

There are also sites like Wikileaks, which host all sorts of controversial
materials, from a list of Web sites censored by the Thai government to a
copy of the Human Terrain Team Handbook of the U.S. military. Once such
documents have been leaked, these sites contend, it makes more sense to open
them to public view than leave their publication to chance. (Wikileaks also
seems to have acquired lethal powers: the CEO of Julius Baer, a Swiss bank
that was implicated in corruption thanks to documents hosted on Wikileaks,
has recently died of mysterious causes, most probably suicide.) The premise
that providing access to information and fostering the norm of transparency
could speed up democratization underpins their work. Here is how Wikileaks
describes its mission:

All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community,
as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information.
Historically that information has been costly—in terms of human life and
human rights. But with technological advances—the internet, [*sic*] and
cryptography—the risks of conveying important information can be lowered.

One could applaud the organizers of Wikileaks for their perseverance alone
(they claim to have received more than 1.2 million documents from dissident
and anonymous sources). Yet the success of such campaigns—both in
democracies and authoritarian states—might be limited. The existence of
documentation does not ensure a particular outcome. As the Madoff saga has
revealed, even publicly available filings with the SEC might expose less
than we think. And making sense of 1.2 million documents uploaded to
Wikileaks will take time, effort, and a large contingent of investigative

Furthermore, not all crimes are documented in ways that can be categorized,
digitized, and put online. As Misha Glenny argues in his brilliant new book
*McMafia*, modern crime is so globalized, entangled, and hard to document
and contain within national borders, that identifying co–conspirators might
be impossible. For example, it is hard to imagine that the Sudanese
government retains extensive bookkeeping on its possibly illegal arms
purchases. But even if they do—and these documents suddenly become
public—what are the chances that they will ignite serious protest? Judging
by the uneventful publication of much harder evidence, including sightings
of unchartered ships carrying real weapons, an outcry is unlikely, and the
reasons have less to do with Twitter or Facebook than the fact that people
can have lots of information and very little power to act on it.

Others argue that the Internet exposes the otherwise brainwashed citizens of
authoritarian governments to competing and dissenting views about their
governments. This helps them develop a different worldview and, potentially,
aspirations for democratic change. This is possible, even though it might be
hard to find a country—save, perhaps, for North Korea or Turkmenistan—where
citizens have not yet heard why their governments are bad: this is, after
all, what old men discuss in pubs. We also cannot assume that people will
seek out information they do not agree with or simply do not know about.

Moreover, counting on the Internet to perform this function risks what Cass
Sunstein, recently appointed head of the White House’s Office of Information
and Regulatory Affairs, dubbed “enclave extremism.” The Internet makes it
easier for us to find and join groups that we already agree with, which
might, in turn, make our views even more extreme. According to Sunstein,
avoiding this problem in the pre–Internet age was easier, as the front page
of the major national newspaper provided the shared collective experience as
well as a healthy dose of serendipity, exposing us to views and news that we
may never encounter otherwise.

Sunstein’s “front page” model, of course, does not work well in societies
with controlled media. It would be disingenuous to compare blogs and online
communities to the front page of the major national newspaper in, say,
Uzbekistan, where the type is probably set by the government rather than
free–acting editors. Not much serendipity there; in fact, one might be
better off reading a handful of independent blogs. Thus, it is possible that
the Internet—and blogs in particular—do play an important role in building a
more democratic public sphere in authoritarian states. This would be a
significant improvement over tightly controlled state media. Some early
evidence suggests that this is true at least in some countries. Research by
Columbia University’s John Kelly confirms that Iranian blogs are diverse,
representing both conservative and liberal voices, with an array of other
forces thrown in the mix. There is no dominant faction among them.

The value that readers place in blogs hinges on the perception that their
authors are “independent,” free from manipulation by the state or other
third–parties. So how independent are they? Cyber–utopians’ biggest
conceptual mistake is treating cyberspace as some kind of anarchist zone,
which the authorities dare not enter except to shut things down. Media
reports encourage this view of authoritarian governments as technophobic
Internet censors.

Why assume that Chinese Internet users will suddenly demand more political
rights, rather than the *Friends* or *Sex in the City* lifestyles they
observe on the Internet?

But why would authorities not pursue a two–pronged strategy, both
restricting access to the most undesirable Web sites and using the Web to
manipulate public opinion? This is precisely how authoritarian governments
have dealt with more significant media threats in the past. The Soviets did
not ban radio; they jammed certain Western stations, cracked down on
dissenting broadcasters at home, and exploited the medium to promote their
ideology. The Nazis took a similar approach to cinema, which became a
preferred propaganda tool in the Third Reich.

A growing body of evidence from China and Russia—the two states most active
in posting Web content—shows the pattern continuing on the Internet. Chinese
authorities are notorious for creating and operating the so–called Fifty
Cent Party, a squad of pro–government online commentators who trawl the Web
in search of interesting political discussions and leave anonymous comments
on blogs and forums. Similarly, the Russian government often relies on
private Internet companies, such as the prominent New Media Stars, which
happily advance the government’s views online. New Media Stars recently
produced a patriotic movie, *War 08.08.08*, successfully distributed online
and touted on many Russian blogs, which blames the war in South Ossetia
solely on Georgia. While the new digital public spheres may be getting more
democratic (at least quantitatively), they are also heavily polluted by
government operators, making them indistinguishable from the old, tightly
controlled analogue public spheres.

Even if authorities are incompetent, unable, or unwilling to tar the Web
with official “information,” there is little evidence that an open Internet
will suddenly make the Chinese or Russians dream of democracy. We have been
here before: East Germans who could not tune in to West German broadcasting
had higher rates of opposition to their government than those who did. The
idea that unfettered access to the Internet will bring democracy suggests
one of the worst fallacies of cyber–utopianism. Once they get online
unsupervised, do we expect Chinese Internet users, many of them young, to
rush to download the latest report from Amnesty International or read up on
Falun Gong on Wikipedia? Or will they opt for *The Sopranos* or the
newest *James
Bond* flick? Why assume that they will suddenly demand more political
rights, rather than the *Friends* or *Sex in the City *lifestyles they
observe on the Internet?

Thus, the question of whether the Internet will nudge the Chinese or the
Russians towards demanding a more democratic and free society boils down to
which path—the outward– or the inward–looking one—their youths choose to
follow. Predictably, most cyber–utopians nurture a deep–seated belief in an
inherent cosmopolitanism of the Internet. They imagine that “digital
natives”—those who have grown up surrounded by technology and the
Internet—will choose the outward path and become harbingers of democracy,
American–style. This logic has permeated virtually all major institutions
tasked with promoting democracy abroad, including the State Department,
whose Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs under
Condoleezza Rice, James Glassman, said: “We feel that around the world,
young people are using the Internet to push back against violence in a new
way, using social networking, convening large groups to have conversations,
basically, to share information.”

Such enthusiastic assessments also grace the rapidly growing body of
academic and popular literature on digital natives in the United States and
Western Europe. Books such as *Born Digital* by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser,
*Grown Up Digital* by Don Tapscott, *iBrain* by Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan,
and *The Pirate’s Dilemma* by Matt Mason, as well as a recent three–year
study on digital youth by the MacArthur Foundation, come to mind. In these
already–democratic societies, optimism about the Internet’s impact on the
civic engagement of young people—even the notion of “digital citizenship”—is
a justified, if not particularly new, intellectual thread.

However, outside of the prosperous and democratic countries of North America
and Western Europe, digital natives are as likely to be digital captives as
digital renegades, a subject that none of the recent studies address in
depth. If the notion that the Internet could dampen young people’s
aspirations for democracy seems counterintuitive, it is only because our
media is still enthralled by the trite narrative of bloggers as a force for
positive change. Recent headlines include: “Egypt’s growing blogger
community pushes limit of dissent,” “From China to Iran, Web Diarists Are
Challenging Censors,” “Cuba’s Blogger Crackdown,” “China’s web censors
struggle to muzzle free–spirited bloggers.”

Much of the encouraging reporting may be true, if slightly overblown, but it
suffers from several sources of bias. As it turns out, the secular,
progressive, and pro–Western bloggers tend to write in English rather than
in their native language. Consequently, they are also the ones who speak to
Western reporters on a regular basis. Should the media dig a bit deeper,
they might find ample material to run articles with headlines like “Iranian
bloggers: major challenge to democratic change” and “Saudi Arabia: bloggers
hate women’s rights.” The coverage of Egyptian blogging in the Western
mainstream media focuses almost exclusively on the struggles of secular
writers, with very little mention of the rapidly growing blogging faction
within the Muslim Brotherhood.

Labeling a Muslim Brotherhood blog as “undemocratic” suggests duplicity.
Thus Western governments, caught up in the heady cyber–utopianism of the
last two decades, face a dilemma. Without their investments in blogs, blog
aggregators, and video blogs in far–away but geopolitically important
places, the online voices of the West’s favorite secular and democratic
forces would not carry much weight. Yet, investing in new media
infrastructure might also embolden the conservatives, nationalists, and
extremists, posing an even greater challenge to democratization. A brief
look at the emerging cyber–nationalism in Russia and China provides a taste
of things to come.

The problem with building public spheres from above, online or offline, is
much like that of building Frankenstein’s monsters: we may not like the end
product. This does not mean we should give up on the Internet as a force for
democratization, only that we should ditch the blinding ideology of
technological determinism and focus on practical tasks. Figuring out how the
Internet could benefit existing democratic forces and organizations—very few
of which have exhibited much creativity on the Web—would not be a bad place
to start.
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