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[liberationtech] Thought-provoking piece on Egypt revolution
companys at stanford.edu
Wed Apr 27 16:07:21 PDT 2011
Kyber-Revolts: Egypt, State-friended Media, and Secret Sovereign Networks
Contributed by Jack Z.
*April 05, 2011*
[image: jbratich's picture]<http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/user/243>
Part of the Cluster: Politics in the Age of Secrecy and
[image: jcrop preview]
The public focus on social media and the Egyptian insurrection has, like the
display of branded graffiti on the streets of Cairo, occluded the processes
that produced this event. The Egyptian uprising of 2011 is an historic
turning point for many reasons, not least of which is the rise of a new
network sovereignty among the mutants of mediated multitudes. News accounts
of the Tahrir Square events focused on one major divide: sovereign power of
Mubarak (depicted in the repetition of his face on street signs) vs.
‘people-power” (conveyed via images of crowds in these streets). We’re
witnessing a reconfiguration of network power, new distributed asymmetries
beyond the molar cut between network (freedom) and state/institutional
(power). We need to train our eyes to see the proliferation of
On the February 11 Day of Victory, Tahrir Square contained a
message assembled on the street (in relief): “We are the Men of Facebook.”
In this gesture, the crowds were hailed to witness the revelation of the
social media plotters who became the leadership core of the Revolutionary
In other words, the plotters simultaneously self-revealed and made a bid to
become the representatives of the protestors. State Department
official-turned-Google official Jared Cohen tweeted that this was a
"basically leaderless" movement, This is accurate insofar as no
presented itself from the outset. But the presumption here is that the lack
of visibility equals lack of
we can say the young plotters announced themselves at the precise moment
when leadership was strategically useful to come out of the shadows.
And what was lurking in those shadows? We can startwith Jared
Cohen’svery visible Google co-worker, Wael Ghonim. Ghonim, after vanishing
in Cairo for almost two weeks, reappeared with a teary interview on Egypt’s
DreamTV on February 7, followed by a western media blitz via CNN, 60
minutes, Time magazine and other outlets. On Tues the 8th, Time already
promoted him as potentially “the leader of the faceless group of young
revolutionaries” (and subsequently put him at the top of its annual 100 Most
Influential People List). Other outlets quickly chimed in as well: Foreign
Policy claimed Mubarak’s regime “may have just created an undisputed leader
for a movement that in recent days has struggled to find its footing,” the
Wall Street Journal called him a key figure who was “adopted as symbolic
leader” by protest organizers, while CNN posed the question “is he not
inevitably the *spiritual* leader"?
Wolf Blitzer that "This revolution started online," specifically that it
“started on Facebook.” When asked about what happens after Egypt, the Google
exec replied, “Ask Facebook."
Some reasons for Ghonim’s deference to Facebook are obvious.
During his DreamTV interview, he revealed that he was the Facebook page
admin for “We are All Khalid Said,” a key mobilizing site for the uprising.
Going by the moniker El Shaheed (The Martyr), Ghonim shrouded himself in the
identity of an actual martyr (the first version of the page was “My Name is
Khalid Said”). A lesser-known reason for Ghonim’s praise was his access to
Facebook security admins. When his first page was shut down for not using a
proper email, he was given a loophole to overcome the impasse by Richard
Allan, Facebook’s director of policy for Europe. Allan also noted that
Facebook “put all the key pages into special protection” so that they would
not be closed down by Mubarak’s forces. The mysterious Ghonim admitted that
he had an “open line” of communication with Facebook throughout the 18 days
of the uprising. While many can become friends on Facebook, few can be
friends *with* Facebook a la
wonder, then, that soon after his resurfacing, a Facebook group called 'I
delegate Wael Ghonim to speak in the name of Egypt's
(prefiguring the street revelation by the RYM later that week).
Subsequently he has created his own profile as a politician, likely
indicating his ambitions for the national elections in the Fall (and, in a
oddly macabre reference to his previous disguise, has called it "My Name is
But Ghonim is only one figure, one whose hypermediated visibility occludes
the larger story of a complex of institutional actors involved in fomenting
a social media revolution. Let’s start by going back to Jared Cohen, our
Google Ideas exec.
Cohen’s last significant media appearance was in the summer of 2009. During
peak moments in the June Iranian demonstrations a Twitter co-founder was
emailed and asked to delay a scheduled maintenance downtime. Who made the
request? Jared Cohen, who was then working for the State Department. His
major contribution during his tenure there was as co-founder of something
called the Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM).
Launched in 2008 with a summit in New York City, the AYM gathered together
an ensemble of media corporations, Obama consultants, social network
entrepreneurs, and youth organizations, under the auspices of the State
Department. Representatives came from Old Media (MTV, NBC,CNN) and New
(Google and Facebook). The AYM created an online Howcast Hub, which “brings
together youth leaders from around the world to learn, share & discuss how
to change the world by building powerful grassroots movements” (Alliance of
Youth Movements). Among the series of how-to videos produced for the site:
How to Create a Grassroots Movement Using Social-Networking Sites, How to
Smart Mob, How to Circumvent an Internet Proxy. [see one of the videos
Undersecretary James Glassman described the event as “Public Diplomacy 2.0.”
Elsewhere I have called this Alliance an example of a “Genetically Modified
Grassroots Organization” (GMGO). Neither wholly emerging from below
(grassroots) nor purely invented by external forces (the astroturfing done
by public relations groups), emergent groups are *seeded*(and their genetic
code altered) to control the vector of the movement. These are hybrids,
mutations without clear identities or immediately obvious affinities. They
are rather movements whose potentialities are shaped by their conditions of
emergence. How are we to make sense of these mutants?
We can begin with an agential cut that distributes these actors. In residual
Cold-War logic, the sovereign adversaries like Iran and Egypt are said to
have State-*run* mass media (which needs to be fought via social media). On
the other hand, Twitter-usage in Iran as well as Facebook (and Google) in
Egypt follow a certain model set out by AYM in terms of tactics and, most
importantly,*objectives*. We can say that the US has State-*friended* social
media. In the case of Egypt, we know that at least one of the April 6
Movement leaders attended the 2008 summit. Moreover, according to
WikiLeaked State Department documents, another activist (name redacted)
affiliated with the Egyptian revolt also participated in the conference.
Regardless of whether this “secret agent” eventually reveals him/herself and
the direct links to Egypt’s RYM, we can note the importance ofAYM and its
tactics (as well as its co-founder).
AYM here acts as a programmer of social media movements. It
simulates grassroots by working with elements of it, replicating and
disseminating tactics. In the case of Egypt, the Revolutionary Youth
Movement demonstrated that (to revise the Arquilla and Ronfeldt mantra) it
takes a network to fake a network. A small group embedded among the crowds,
hidden at times until representation required revelation, sought to cloak
itself in the martyrdom of one and the will of many. The network of emergent
leadership needed to take enough credit for its organizing and mobilizing in
order to claim legitimacy as representatives while simultaneously negating
its actions in “the people.” Ghonim and others manage their publicity and
secrecy, strategically donning online disguises while revealing themselves
as the faces behind the facebook group. In their final act they transform
themselves from technocratic tricksters into
Emergent leadership is a logical outcome of a statecraft that
for over a decade devoted itself to netwar. Rand Corporation studies of
leaderless resistance focused on both state and non-state actors.The
Egyptian hybrid is of non-state actor and *future* state actor, of the *
not-yet*state actors. Yet not too far away are state (department) actors as
well as the state-friended media actors comprising the milieu out of which a
specific network individuates itself.
The preface to another Rand collection edited by Arquilla and
Ronfeldt gives us a way of conceptualizing this individuation. Alvin & Heidi
Toffler (1997) introduce the notion of a “deep coalition” comprised of a
variety of state and nonstate actors in a multidimensional and
nonequilibrial alliance. Tiziana Terranova understands this deep coalition
as a *dispositif* within information warfare, “a model whereby some parts of
the media system no longer function as passive outlets for government
propaganda but become instead active and equal members of a network of
alliance (or deep coalition) that connects heterogeneous partners bound by a
temporary commitment to a specific project of warfare” (Terranova 2007 132).
In the recent cases of “social media revolution,” this
dispositif encompasses the AYM, but would also include such Federal agencies
as the Defense Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors that have
been funding technology firms (e.g. the Tor Project—which promotes
anonymizing—and Ultrasurf) that provide institutional-technical fixes to
users who need to work around State-run blockages and surveillance. The
State Department, perhaps following up on the success of AYM, is gearing up
to spend approximately $30 million on technology companies and human rights
groups to help and train people to avoid online detection and break
In other words, Egypt’s revolt was not leaderless, but contained
a hidden emergent leadership whose milieu (unstable and temporary though it
was) warrants scrutiny. It means examining *initial conditions*: the code
that unleashes and controls the directions of probable emergences (and even
their subsequent selection). Leadership here did not naturally arise from
grassroots spontaneous popular will. An individuated network helped set the
initial conditions, disappeared within them temporarily, and then made
itself known when the time was right. In other words, we witnessed an occult
leadership arise based on the skillful use of anonymity and revelation.
The GMGO is a genetic principle that immerses without becoming
immanent, a mix of unpredictable elements and shaping factors that seek to
set the parameters and selections for composition and state transition.
Success is not guaranteed, but the range of virtuals and their likely
actualization is guided by an embedded but relatively occulted agency (or in
the case of Ghonim, a spectacular secret
Ultimately then we *can* call Egypt a ‘cyber-revolution’ if we keep in mind
the etymological origins in the Greek *kyber*, meaning to steer or govern.
The Egyptian kybernitiki (or steerers) are an example of what
Galloway and Thacker note as the convergence of sovereign and network
powers. Is the GMGO a case of total programming? Network sovereignty
expresses new modes of control, but doesn’t exhaust the topology of power.
The mutant network sovereigns also set the conditions for new forms
GMGO network sovereignty is predicated on asymmetries. For one
thing, we have to ask, “who is able to set initial conditions?” Who has the
resources and capacities to form such deep coalitions? The hybrids of state
and nonstate actors convened by the State Department at theAYM, along with
the decentralized flows of tech and financial support produce an *
accumulation* of mechanisms. At the same time, an accumulation of this sort
does not exist in isolation—it delineates an antagonism. Network
sovereignty, it turns out, individuates itself via the classic distinction
between friend and enemy. State-friended media can thrive only upon the
repression and dissuasion of other individuations of social media usage. The
determination of friendliness immediately encounters a peer hybrid, a
“State-enemied” media usage.
Take, for instance, the well-worn story about despotic attempts
at blocking or criminalizing net usage. Part of Mubarak’s sovereign abuse
(or “stupidity” as Ghonim called it) was to try and stop social media
access. Meanwhile, Barack Obama and Congress have been working on a
controversial bill that would allow US government takeover of privately
owned computer systems under a declared "national cyberemergency" (one not
to be reviewed by courts).
How would these takeovers be determined? Maybe we should ask Eliot Madison,
part of the Tin Can Comms Collective during the 2009 G20 protests in
Pittsburgh, PA. His use of Twitter during the demos (which was tame in
comparison with AYM’s own How-To videos) resulted in his being charged with
“criminal use of a communication facility, hindering apprehension or
prosecution, and possession of instruments of crime.” Or ask members of
Anonymous, who were arrested on warrants issued *at the same time* our
collective gaze was on Tahrir Square crowds and Ghonim’s noopolitics.
The context defining State-enemied media usage is of course a Terror-War
discourse. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Alicalled the activists in
his country “terrorists,” while pundits in theUS routinely use the terrorism
designation for Anonymous and Julian Assange. More officially, Pentagon
personnel refer to domestic dissent as “low-level terrorist activity.” And
recent raids on antiwar activists in Minneapolis were, according to the FBI,
carried out to root out "activities concerning the material support of
terrorism.” The FBI’s four major categories of domestic terrorism include
“anarchist extremism,” which encompasses anti-globalization and
anti-capitalist movements (which could be said to apply to the G20
protestors such as Madison).
Network sovereignty has agendas against agency, especially that
of the “unspecified enemy.” And this is ultimately the source of public
secret asymmetries, in which the US projects its own network sovereign
shadow activities out onto individual sovereigns. What happens when these
shadows come back into public awareness? Let’s take it straight from one of
the network sovereigns within a deep coalition: Daniel B. Baer, deputy
assistant secretary in the State Department, said the department is
“unequivocal in its support of a free Internet and the rights of protesters
in the Middle East as well as *other regions where governments restrict Web
use or monitor dissident movements* (italics added). What might Anonymous do
with this opening, this exploit? Perhaps we, as Guy Debord once hoped, can
make use of what is hidden from us. Otherwise, we might as well continue to
generate content not as users, but as used.
Galloway, Alexander R. and Eugene Thacker. (2007). *The Exploit: A Theory of
Networks*. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Terranova, Tiziana. (2007). “Futurepublic: On Information Warfare,
Bio-Racism and Hegemony as Noopolitics.” *Theory, Culture & Society*
Toffler, Alvin and Heidi Toffler (1997). ‘Introduction’, in John Arquilla
and David Ronfeldt (eds) *In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the
Information Age*. Santa Monica, CA:RAND Corporation.
called the Revolutionary Youth Movement or the Revolutionary Youth Alliance,
these young bloggers and organizers have called for a "civilian,
technocratic cabinet" to replace Mubarak’s military rule.
am not saying here that Egypt is reducible to this explanation, or that the
RYM has successfully steered the revolt, or that the US is behind the
event. The chaos of Egypt is multidimensional, with a variety of groups and
aspirants unleashing their potential on the streets and beyond. What I want
to highlight here is how our enthusiastic turbomancy (divination by looking
at crowds, e.g. prolonged attention-time to Al-Jazeera feeds) can also
distract from attunement to the specificity of the actants involved.
is what Terranova (2007) following Maurizio Lazzarato examines as the
mediated complement to Foucault’s notion of biopolitics. The nous, or
mind/spirit, is what connects a public in a mediated age.
that wasn’t the only friendly corporate communications help Ghonim received.
Telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris announced that he was in the negotiations
with Vice President Omar Suleiman that eventually led to Ghonim’s release.
"The boy is a hero," Sawiris said. "When he is released, he will become the
living hero of this revolution."
notes the difference from Official Diplomacy, which happens at the formal,
visible levels of governance. This quasi-covert funding of civil society,
under the name of the public is part of what I call the Public
there are facebook groups calling for the nomination of the absurdly
abstract “youth” for the next Nobel Peace Prize. Meanwhile, the specific
work of the RYM in post Day of Victory Egypt needs addressing (e.g. how they
got to be among the key negotiators with the Egyptian army, whom Ghonim has
gone on record saying he trusts.
factors were in play even in Egypt, with different ambitions (e.g. the
socialist organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood, the nonformalized desires
for democracy). So while there is no cause-effect logic that secures an
outcome, the intervention at the level of conditions sets up the likelihood
of results and regular pathways. For instance, the post Day of Victory turn
against protestors by the “youth,” the continued reliance on military power
to ensure transition, the efforts to censor subsequent street signs are not
just betrayals after the fact—they were likely results from the outset.
*The author wishes to thank the *Technology and Subjectivity Colloquium
Series* at CUNY-Graduate Center and the *16Beaver Group* for hosting
presentations of early formulations of this argument, as well as for the
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