Thursday, 30 June 2011

Is the Click Mightier than the Blast?

Shruti Rattan

There is a proverbial pitfall well known to any statistician of merit. So perilous and rampantly ignored is this booby trap, that Wikipedia has an article specifically tited ‘Correlation does not imply causation.’

However, the current dynamics of the world – with its accelerating technological leaps, connected psyches and the media blurred boundaries between publicists and academia – have more often than not led trend watchers to ignore the tenet.

Revolutions are cropping up all over the world – well, at least in the Northern parts of Africa, and generalisation is but a sleight of words.
At the same time, in the cyber-conscious connected word, social media is burgeoning. Already archaic today is being heaved by the collar into the just-in-time juggernaut of tomorrow.
It is easy to conclude that the two are interlinked. It is optimistically heartening to think that the click is mightier than the blast and will end up promoting democracy and Starbucks the world over.
And at the same time, it is dangerous to make such pronouncements.

In this mad rush of looking ahead towards the future, playing the self proclaimed visionary, resisting the temptation to glance back even for an instant - afraid of missing out on the birth of a new path-connecting innovation, it is indeed easy to forget something similar that took place as far back as 1848. One hundred and sixty odd years ago, rising food prices and high unemployment figures in Europe had resulted in the original revolutionary spring of nations across France, Germany, Denmark, Habsburg, Switzerland, Poland, Wallachia, Belgium and even on the other side of the Atlantic in New Grenada and Brazil. The populace across continental Europe and Latin America were not linked by any common society, let alone Social Media. Even Radio was not to be invented for a good many decades. Yet, there are many who believe The Arab Spring to be a series of revolutions made possible by the Socially Networked World. Historical agnosticism keeps many ignorant regarding the origins of the moniker.

The claims of political clairvoyance and visionary foresight in this regard can be ignored as self propaganda and trumpet blowing. However what makes it dangerous is the way such proclamations can zip and zoom across the networked world and place actual real life people in mortal danger.

 The euphoria over the supposed Iranian Twitter revolution – the so called Green Movement that ultimately failed to match the initial optimism about tweeting in democracy and toppling authoritarianism – is not limited to harmless claims of the political potency of Web 2.0. The current trend of amateur fortune telling, a popular passion of ‘academic-experts’, did result in a rather drastically dangerous White House directive.

With the Obama administration caught up in throes of digital delight, the enmeshed and entangled world of the internet was deemed panacea without rational analysis. The tweets coming in from Iranian dissidents were interpreted as the ushering in of a new era. Consequently an email was sent from the Oval office or one of the adjacent rooms to the Twitter administrators to defer their maintenance schedule, to enable the digital dissidents to continue tweeting.

A lot of it probably has to do with the perception of the Hollywood prototype of the authoritarian dictator – a man caught in the Middle Ages, trying hard to protect his regime from the changing winds by hiding behind burkhas and Soviet era tanks.  The men responsible for sending out that email, and people like Jared Cohen going out all cylinders hyping FaceBook as the organic way to democracy, did not pause to think of the criminal damage these armchair actions could result in.

The very act of Western leaders and policymakers coming out in praise of the Social Networking tools alerted the techno-savvy dictatorial leaderships. That the Norwegian Nobel Committee did not object to the Internet being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Italian Wired Magazine did not help things either. Add to that the Google publicists beating their genetic algorithm enhanced drums about association with the NSA, and the Twitter and FaceBook executives hobnobbing with the Homeland Security honchos. This has set in motion a series of actions and counter strategies by the governments of China, Russia, the fragmented Soviet nations and Iran – regimes where the United States still thinks Twitter and FaceBook will be playing the role of the modern day Samizdat.

 In Iran, the 2009 revolutions tripped on counter digital manoeuvres. As US based pundits went on talk shows about the current social media fad, Iranian bloggers were traced by following their messy internet footprints, many ending up in real life prisons. Counter measures, censorship and reverse propaganda using the same social network tools were launched, resulting in a rebellion that failed to load. In the debris of disappointment remained the question - how much of the much hyped tweeted dissent was actually generated in Iran. Statistics show around 0.027 percent of the Iranian population had Twitter accounts at the time of the 2009 elections. A lot of the freedom furore was the contribution of users like oxfordgirl, who, as the name indicates, was an Iranian journalist resident within the safe walls of the Oxford University. It is still unclear how many of the tweeters who registered their location as Tehran were actually tweeting from there rather than home and dry in the United States of America.

While the spread and globalisation of dissent is not discouraged, this article is mainly concerned about the counter electronic measures taken by the dictatorial regimes and how the safety, security, freedom and sometimes lives of activists have been compromised by the rather callous declarations by the Western policymakers and spokespersons.

Digital Footprints: Anyone who has used a web application like Amazon or TripAdvisor will be aware of the phenomenon of personal customisation. The sites seem to know the preferences, likes and dislikes of the visitor. Not only does the online provider remember the preferred items one shopped or showed interest in, they demonstrate an uncanny knack of predicting what the user will be interested in based on his past visits. Similarly, Facebook has the eerie tendency of suggesting who are likely to be our friends from their huge database of personal information.

With web analytics and surf based forecasting becoming emerging business tools, these technologies are in the upswing of development. Hal Varian - Google’s chief economist, Johan Bollen of Indiana University and others have already done path-breaking research in this area.
And while the preliminary algorithms had been focused on finding habits and connections on the web for targeted sales predictions, this has already been picked up by governments to sniff out dissenters and their associates.
The footprints left on the cyberspace by bloggers and networked activists have been used to apprehend, censor and sometimes punish not only the dedicated dissidents but also members on their friend lists. There have been instances of particular blogs and FB groups disappearing from the server all of a sudden. Real life security police have paid visits to the homes of activists, after locating them through tower and server tracking. Neutral individuals with activist friends on their electronic address books have been picked up for questioning.

Social Network Ugly Fact Sheet 1

  • Passport officers at Tehran international Airport checked for existing FaceBook accounts of Iranians living abroad, noting details of suspicious friends
  • American Foreign Policy establishment went on record stating that bloggers now were more effective than Mao and Che combined. This caused many Iranian bloggerstrained by the US to be put in jail in Iran.

In the superb German movie Das Leben der Andern (Lives of Others) made by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, one can witness the painstaking and remarkably expensive combination of equipments and manpower that were required by the Stasis to eavesdrop on the suspected dissidents of GDR . For the Big Brother to keep watching was laborious, time consuming and required clandestine visits to the house of the suspect to install sophisticated listening devices.
As a former KGB agent recently joked, nowadays all the secret police has to do is to browse through the Friend list of the activist.
While that may be trivialising the complicated cloak and dagger world, some disturbing truths lie underneath the surface of levity.
The activists of the pre-internet era swore by some ground rules which kept them from compromising their peers. The most important of all was never to carry address books. Any list which pointed to the members of a rebelling faction could be curtains for the entire movement. In contrast, by definition, the connecting power of the Social Web comes with the electronic record of these very interactions.

Social Network - The Ugly Fact Sheet 2

  •  In early 2010, IBM struck a deal with China Mobile to provide it with technology to track social networks and individual’s messaging habits
  • In 2010, FaceBook removed a 1000 member  group created by Moroccan activist El Ghazzali without warning or explanation.
  • In February 2010, FaceBook was heavily criticised by critics for removing pages of a group with 84298  members that had been formed to oppose the pro-establishment and pro-Beijing party
  • FaceBook has also shut down accounts of many Tibetan activists
  • Twitter has been accused of silencing online tribute to the 2008 Gaza War
  • Apple has been bashed for blocking Dalai Lama related iPhone apps from its App Store in China 
  • Google has been zealous in removing supposed controversial content from Indian Orkut accounts for the sake of peace between the Hindu and Muslim communities.
  • Microsoft censored the Bing search results of users in UAE, Syria, Algeria and Jordan.
  • Twitter and FaceBook still refuse to join Global Network Initiative
  • A lot of Internet companies and web site hosts refuse to conduct business in or for politically charged nations of the East or South.

Digital Watchdogs: Throughout the history of the 20th century, we have had examples of Western arms dealers supplying expensive arsenal to the totalitarian regimes. These arms deals, used by the dictators to curb the local dissent and rebellions, were purely profitable business for the West. In the sophisticated world of web based politics, a similar story is being played out. Many Western firms, sniffing returns of investment- caring as much for freedom and democracy as corporations habitually do - have taken up supplying software to regimes to track cyber activities of dissenters.

The governments have also adapted themselves to the modern trends of the connected world. To maintain scalable operations of censorship and tracking dissidents, they have taken the help of two popular strategies of current corporations.  Outsourcing and Crowdsourcing.
The companies offering the services of Web 2.0 where activists and dissident bloggers operate are, after all, service providers working in the real world. Powerful governments can bully them to censor and remove content that is offensive. Experiments carried out recently show such trends of censorship in China and Russia, where suppression is haphazard, effective and does not tax the resources of the governments.

Further, there is also the growing trend of alliances of tech savvy individuals loyal to government causes or ideology. 
Being a playing field of large numbers, the internet does attract all kinds. These enlightened pro-government surfers can and do play whistleblowers.
The fundamental problem with online activism is that it does away with a lot of axiomatic principles required for a successful revolution. For a revolution demanding sacrifice and commitment, a central command is necessary while the circle of activists need to be strongly connected and private. By definition, internet activism is a collection of weak links, decentralised governance and glaringly public.

While decentralised collective intelligence can work wonders for Wikipedia, it is the worst kind of association to foment rebellion. And a weak link – in the form of an armchair clicking dissenter who likes all FB posts of his activist friends, a pro government whistle blower or a compromised company providing web based services – can actually destroy and endanger the entire organisation.

Counter Techniques:  Countries like China and Russia have also started the logical and popular concept of domestic social networks. Services like RuNet are far more popular in Russia than FaceBook. In China, of the 300 million web users only 14000 are on FaceBook. This gives the government further control over the online activists by controlling the domestic companies. Dmitri Medvedev can now learn everything he wants from reports sent by the Russian hosting companies.
Another technique used by governments to silence online dissidents is DDoS or Distributed Denial of Service. All Websites have limits of occupancy, and dissident bloggers using censorship circumventing sites generally end up on servers that can handle much less numbers than a or an Amazon. A DDoS attack, triggered by computers infected by malware or viruses, sends thousands of programs masquerading as users to the site, thus bringing the service down and making it unavailable. Nowadays, such applications for hostile takeover of sites are sold on eBay for a few hundred dollars.

Counter Intuitive Promotion: While censorship and silencing is one part of the game, wise authoritarian governments also promote the use of Internet – even the Western elixirs of democracy FaceBook and YouTube – for other completely different reasons.
One predominant driving factor is that, a centralised movement directed towards propaganda is still more powerful than scattered fragments of disconnected connections of denial.  The battalion of government funded Chinese bloggers infiltrating the blogosphere and manipulating public opinion is already well known. Hugo Chavez, not exactly known for his brevity, now sports a Twitter account which can be very appropriately viewed as his alter ego.

The other, slightly subtler, motivation stems from the social susceptibility to cheap entertainment. The more the younger generation is caught up with the videos of cute cats, the unchecked and immense opportunities of hooking up with virtual heavenly bodies and can satisfy their social conscience with a few likes on politically charged issues posted on Facebook, the government can sit back and watch the show without too many serious fires to douse.  With the young Russians waking up to Lady Gaga chimes, and spending hours watching ripped versions of Avatar, the government is spared the expenses and headaches to come up with boring state controlled entertainment programmes.
After all, contrary to what the West would like to believe, citizens in totalitarian and authoritarian regimes continue to be normal populace, not a regiment of Arthur Koestler characters.

In fact, the Russian government is so clearly aware of these phenomena that they have linked the world of superficial entertainment with propaganda. This is conspicuous in the rise of Konstantin Rykov, the young godfather of Russian internet. While his claim to fame started on becoming Russia’s first pornographer, his immense popularity made him diversify into pro government propaganda as well, including entertaining games with strong conservative pro Russian undercurrents.
The modern fascination for independent bloggers has also been used to the hilt by the Russian authorities in promoting Maria Sergeyeva,  a stunning blonde, who posts anti immigrant propaganda, praises Catherine the Great and uploads pictures of cool parties with equal abandon. New York Daily has even gone as far as calling her Russia’s Sarah Palin.

The Chinese have followed suit as well, with the recruitment of a number of bright youths in the government to dominate the internet, popularising games which promote national traditions and posting video clips of actors posing as the random passersby who mouths positive sentiments about the government.

Gradually, these countries are waking up to another major and sophisticated truth, something that the United States of America discovered some decades back. It is easier to control dissent by allowing mild tongue in cheek criticism rather than bull-headedly banning every anti-government voice. The sitcom viewers watch with a smile while David Schwimmer of Friends presents his on screen son with a ten inch GI Joe, introducing the toy figure as the protector of American Oil Interests abroad. Thus amused and satisfied social consciousness keeps many of the audience from joining street rallies extolling the same cause. Chinese and Russian governments are now opening up many of the policies or even investigations to bloggers and web-activists, creating a pseudo open culture that anesthetises much of the internal agony that leads to rebellion.

Social Network - The Ugly Fact Sheet 3

  •  DDoS attacks have been launched on 
a.       Tomaar philosophy group of Saudi Arabia
b.       Irrawady, Mizzima and Democratic Voice of Burma – Burma’s exiled media
c.       Belarusian oppositional site Charter 97
d.       Russian Independent Newspaper Novaya Gazeta
e.       Kazakh oppositional newspaper – Respublika
f.       Cyxymu – popular Georgian bloggers
  • Hugo Chavez has his own twitter account @chavezcadanga . He also boasts having more than 5000 songs on his iPod.
  •  In 2009, accused of police brutality and cover up of the murder of blogger Li Qiaoming, Chinese authorities asked netizen bloggers to help them investigate the issue. Fifteen bloggers were invited to the cell of death, but the evidence shown was scratchy. No conclusion was reached, but the authorities came off as transparent and liberal.
  • In 2009, Kremlin School of Bloggers was launched, a series of public talks and workshops given by leading ideologues and propagandists. This was in response to anotherschool called School of Bloggers, funded by America’s National Endowment for Democracy and organised by the Glasnost Foundation.
  • China’s pro government Internet commentators, the Fifty Cent Party, supposedly earn 50 cents for each pro-government comment. Their job is to neutralise undesirable public opinion in the cyberspace and to steer them in ideologically appropriate directions.       
  • In 2009, the Nigerian government sought to enlist more than 700 Nigerians abroad and at home to create a new generation of pro-government bloggers.
  • In the same year, editorials in official Cuban newspapers began calling for pro-government Cuban journalists to man the cyber-trenches.
  • In 2010 Iran launched their own Social Networking site Valayatmadaran.
  • Two Chinese games, Learn from Lei Feng and Incorruptible Warrior glorify traditional characters of Chinese History. Following its launch, the site of Incorruptible Warrior had to temporarily shut down so that more players could be accommodated.
  • China promotes sms based competitions – rewarding party appreciated text messages.
  • Russian extreme nationalists foment hate and ethnic discrimination through Social Networking Groups 

Networked Fanaticism: Looking at the situation with retrospection, we come across another fact staring at us immediately under the contemporary scales on global eyes. Democracy by definition implies multiple thought and independence of opinions. In the decentralised social media, one can expect rich and diverse ideas, collaborative thought – but it is difficult to expect the concentrated leadership indispensable to any planned revolution. As will be seen in other articles, it is also a breeding ground for slacktivism.
In fact, it is far more likely that groups of like thinking fundamentalists will be united by common causes in the Social Networking Circles. Indeed, tweets, status updates and text messages to spread hatred and incite severe forms of racial and ethnic indiscrimination have been around for a while – something conveniently ignored by the Western policymakers who eulogise Web 2.0 as the technology driven messiah .
Wherever we see successful revolutions using social media, the common factor is undeniable. It is a long standing and stable movement with able leadership, which use Twitter, texting and FaceBook to organise the activism at low cost, thus neutralising the infrastructural advantage of the governmental authority. However, in the light of all that is discussed above, whether such an approach is recommended in the face of a thoughtful and technologically competent regime is subject to a lot of questions.

Till then we must desist the wishful thinking that a menu utility File --> Change --> History is enough for us to rewrite the times from the safe refuge of our couches and laptops.


Shruti Rattan is a fictitious character who appears in Arunabha Sengupta’s latest novel The Best Seller.
An Amsterdam based researcher on political science, she is also a talented author and compulsive punster.

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