The net advantage

Prospect Magazine

The net advantage

by
/ / 7 Comments

Media guru Clay Shirky responds to criticisms in Evgeny Morozov’s December cover story on why dictators benefit from the web. Despite pitfalls, he says, the internet remains a positive force for democracy

Now online: listen to a joint Demos/Prospect podcast, with Prospect’s Tom Chatfield interviewing Evgeny Morozov about the relationship between the internet and politics, by clicking here.

Read Evgeny Morozov’s response to Clay Shirky’s essay here


In Prospect’s December cover story, “How dictators watch us on the web”, Evgeny Morozov criticises my views on the impact of social media on political unrest. Indeed, he even says I am “the man most responsible for the intellectual confusion over the political role of the internet.” In part, I would like to agree with some of his criticisms, while partially disputing some of his assertions too.

Let me start with a basic statement of belief: because civic life is not just created by the actions of individuals, but by the actions of groups, the spread of mobile phones and internet connectivity will reshape that civic life, changing the ways members of the public interact with one another.

Though germane, this argument says little to nothing about the tempo, mode, or ultimate shape such a transformation will take. There are a number of possible scenarios for changed interaction between the public and the state, some rosy, others distinctly less so. Crucially however, Morozov’s reading is in response to a specific strain of internet utopianism—let’s call it the “just-add-internet” hypothesis. In this model, the effect of social media on the lives of citizens in authoritarian regimes will be swift, unstoppable, and positive—a kind of digitised 1989. And it will lead us to expect the prominence of social media in any society’s rapid democratisation.

While this argument is overtly simplistic, I have nonetheless helped fuel it by discussing mechanisms through which citizens can coordinate group action, while failing to note the ways that visible public action also provides new counter-moves to repressive regimes. Morozov is right to criticise me for this imbalance, and for the resulting (and undue) optimism it engenders about social media as a democratising force; I stand corrected.

Nevertheless, I want to defend the notion—which Morozov goes after in the “man most responsible for intellectual confusion” section of his essay—that social media improves political information cascades, as outlined by the political scientist Susanne Lohmann. It also represents a new dynamic within political protest, which will alter the struggle between insurrectionists and the state, even if the state wins in any given clash. Where this will lead to a net advantage for popular uprisings in authoritarian regimes is an open question—and a point on which Morozov and I still disagree on—but the new circumstances of coordinated public action, I believe, marks an essential change in the civilian part of the “arms race.”

Lohmann’s mechanism for how information cascades operate is simple: when a small group is willing to take public action against a regime, and the regime’s reaction is muted, it provides information about the value of participation to the group of citizens who opted not to participate. Some members of this group will then join in the next round of protests.

In turn, further non-reaction by the regime will provide additional information to the next group of “fence-sitters,” thereby increasing participation. Consequently, strong reaction by the regime can be effective in putting down insurrection, but at the same time risks constraining and, in extreme cases, delegitimising the regime itself. If the regime acts late, it can thus lose in one of two ways: the insurrections can win, or the state can win, but at Pyrrhic costs. Between those two cases, the state can also succeed in putting down the insurrection at low cost to itself.

Prior to the spread of social media, a typical classic case of late and failed reaction by the regime to an information cascade is the one documented by Lohmann, around the collapse of communism in eastern Europe. The classic case of late and successful reaction by a regime is Tiananmen Square and, even there, the subsequent alteration of the Chinese state continues to be driven in part by the recognition that without continued economic improvement, the same forces that drove insurrection might return. Though the regime always holds most of the power, insurrections that take advantage of the dynamics of information cascades thus offer protesters both offensive and defensive capabilities that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

But both these examples took place prior to the invention of the internet and widespread use of mobile phones. The question, today, is what the increased ability on the part of citizens armed with those tools can do to achieve shared public knowledge and coordinated action.

Morozov introduces both the Belarusian and Iranian protests as examples of places where this struggle can be seen. The October Square protests in Minsk in 2006 did not, however, destabilise the Lukashenko government, and surveillance of the mob on LiveJournal helped limit use of flash mob techniques by protesters. The flash mob participants were not able to use either the offensive or defensive capabilities of social media to permanent advantage—there is not enough discontent in the rest of the population to cause them to join in, the government’s reaction was sufficiently swift and harsh, and documentation of those events did not resonate outside the country.

Sadly for residents of Belarus, leaders of countries with low geopolitical importance will always find it easier to deflect democratic movements, social media or no, than leaders in more strategically vital countries. The case of Belarus is therefore one in which protesters have been given new capabilities for organising, but where the state’s reaction has remained effective. In the arms race in Minsk, the tools have changed, but the end result resembles the old equilibrium state. This is the kind of outcome whose strategic ramifications Morozov has highlighted better than anyone.

The Iranian situation, which Morozov also mentions, is much more complex: the government relies more on its perceived legitimacy, both democratic and theocratic, than Belarus. Moreover, Iran’s geopolitical importance is paramount on many fronts at once. Clearly, the protests following the 12th June elections were aided by social media. Although Twitter got top billing in western accounts, the most important tools during the Tehran protests were mobile phones, whether to send text messages, photos, or videos. Twitter, predominantly, was a gateway to western attention.

By the time the regime managed to shut down the various modes of communication available to the Tehran protesters, they were retiring to rooftops and shouting slogans into the night. Although this act of coordination did not use technology per se, it was made possible by the visible evidence provided by users documenting and broadcasting the earlier solidarity of the street protests. This is why figures showing how few people use social media for political change are red herrings. Insurrections, even pro-democracy insurrections, always begin as minority affairs, driven by a small, young, and well-educated population before they expand more widely. In the Iranian case, once the information about general discontent had successfully cascaded, the coordination among the populace remained intact, even when the tools which helped disseminate that information were shut down.

This makes the situation in Tehran a key test. As usual, the state has more power than the insurgents, but the insurgency has nevertheless achieved the transition from distributed but uncoordinated discontent to being an actual protest movement, and part of that transition was achieved with these tools. Mousavi, and other opposition figures, now know that when they speak out, they do so representing a public, rather than an aggregate of discontented individuals. And when mass action does become possible, it again unleashes protests, as seen in the incredible outpouring of anti-Khamenei sentiment on 13 Aban (4th November), usually a day of anti-American protest—an outpouring documented hundreds of times via videos posted to YouTube.

It is impossible to know how the next few months in Iran will unfold, but the use of social media has already passed several tests: it has enabled citizens to coordinate with one another better than previously, to broadcast events like Basij violence or the killing of Neda Aga Soltan to the rest of the world, and, by forcing the regime to shut down communications apparatus, the protesters have infected Iran with a kind of technological auto-immune disease. However great the regime’s short-term desire to keep the protesters from communicating with one another, a modern economy simply cannot function if people can’t use their phones. The regime may yet crush protests, but even if they do, the events of June to November this year will still have broken the old illusion of a happy balance between democratic, theocratic, and military power in Iran.

I accept Morozov’s criticism of Here Comes Everybody. That book was about social media rather than politics—it was an imbalanced account of the arms race between citizens and their governments. However, even within the logic of the arms race, the easier the assembly of citizens, the more ubiquitous the ability to document atrocities. And the more the self-damaging measures which states take—like shutting down mobile phones networks—will resolve themselves as a net advantage for insurrection within authoritarian regimes. Net advantage, in some cases, is a far cry from the “just-add-internet” hypothesis, but it is a view that is considerably more optimistic about the balance of power between citizens and the state than Morozov’s.

Read Evgeny Morozov’s response to Clay Shirky’s essay here

  1. December 11, 2009

    Patrick Meier

    Hi Clay,

    Thanks for an informative reply. There’s a little more to the notion of “information cascades” than you and Evgeny let on. See:

    Why Dictators Love the Web, or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Say So What?
    http://irevolution.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/dictators-love-web

    On the question of Belarus, which Evgeny brings up and you respond to, the regime was able to crack down on the movement in large part because the latter did not even take basic measures to communicate securely. That doesn’t mean that digital activism is not possible in Belarus is simply means that folks seriously need to get up to speed on what digital activism entails:

    Guide: How to Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments
    http://irevolution.wordpress.com/2009/06/15/digital-security

    Thanks,

    Patrick
    iRevolution.net

Leave a comment

  1. uberVU - social comments12-11-09
  2. ::: Think Macro :::12-15-09
  3. Global Voices Online » We are Global Voices. Five years on.12-22-09
  4. Week 7: A Hopeless Utopia or A Global Solution? « Digital Communities: The Course10-08-12
  5. Weeks 3 & 4: Digi Communities For Social Justice? The Medium and The Message « Global, Digital Media: Building Communities11-13-12
  6. Apples to Apples: A Framework for Comparing Digital Activism Case Studies | meta-activism04-03-14


Author

Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky is the author of "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations" (Penguin) 2008 


Share this







Most Read






Prospect Buzz

  • Prospect's masterful crossword setter Didymus gets a shout-out in the Guardian
  • The Telegraph reports on Nigel Farage's article on Lords reform
  • Prospect writer Mark Kitto is profiled in the New York Times


Prospect Reads

  • Do China’s youth care about politics? asks Alec Ash
  • Joanna Biggs on Facebook and feminism
  • Boris Berezosky was a brilliant man, says Keith Gessen—but he nearly destroyed Russia