A long follow up on the Institut Français des Relations Internationales’ two latest publications: Arab Spring and Internet as a tool of power. Published as a comment on their blog here.
In Politique Etrangère’s “Internet, Outil de Puissance”, an issue dedicated to how states seek to gain power using the Internet, Bertrand de la Chapelle and Wolfgang Kleinwächter explore the mechanisms and impact of Internet governance. Sévrine Arsène and Julien Nocetti, in their respective country case studies of China and Russia, outline how these states leverage the social-economic impact of communication technologies. Julien Nocetti also describes how Medvedev and Vladimir Putin utilise the web to communicate.
In his essay “Networked Revolutions” in PE’s Spring 2012 issue, David M. Faris breaks down how Social Media became a tool to organise and communicate already existent dissent during the Arab Uprisings. Faris cites the Egyptian activist Bassem Fathy “Internet was the only space for freedom we had”. In this essay he doesn’t go on to say how or why second-party nationals in “free” countries also participated in these grassroots uprisings. Nor did he mention the impact social media had on the foreign policy of their own governments.
Internet allows 1 billion people worldwide to voice their opinions, to connect and collaborate. Beyond “ruling” the Internet, or limiting its use to just another media channel, how could states use the social web to influence other states?
Leveraging Networked Collaboration
Back when Tip O’Neill coined the phrase “all politics is local” little could he have known how much modern communications would change the “simple mundane concerns” of citizens. Personal empowerment has become one of those concerns and the Arab Uprisings its most recent embodiment. Many factors contributed to the global impact of the Arab Spring; one of them is technology and the maturity of the social web.
To set the stage for what Faris calls the “Networked Revolution” lets examine the timeline of Internet use by activists which could roughly be listed as:
2000 – Internet facilitated connections and information exchange between activists.
2002 – Anonymity networks such as Tor help side-step censorship.
2004 – Open publishing via blogs scaled the reach of the message.
2007 – Social networking platforms reach critical mass to facilitate congregation.
2010 – Proliferation of smartphones enabled instant data dissemination.
Additionally demographic factors in the MENA, telecommunication network expansion and a need to circumvent state media, favoured Internet adoption. Various online translation tools such as Google Translate facilitated access of published material to a global audience. 2011 became the year where the social web was ready to resonate the impact of the Arab Spring globally. The plight of dissidents such as Maikel Nabil Sanad and Alaa Abdel-Fattah made headlines in western mainstream media. By the end of 2010 ordinary people everywhere had an opinion on events in the Middle East. Mohamed Bouazizi became a symbol of all the injustices in the world prompting some digital natives outside the MENA to push past passively absorbing information relayed by mainstream media, and adopt a hands-on approach by utilizing the social web – actively connecting with sources on the ground. They too, all became Khaled Saïd. These netizens established a dialogue with activists, dedicated their time and pooled skills. People networked collaboratively and globally.
On the 19th of February 2011 no foreign journalists were on-zone to cover the events unfolding in Benghazi. Mohammed Nabbous, who used to run a wireless ISP business, rigged CCTV cameras in the city and bypassed state Internet blocks to broadcast the footage of the Feb17 revolution via his Livestream channel Libya Al-Hurra TV. A Livestream channel allows a “streamer” to simultaneously deliver real-time information (video), and gather real-time contributions (chat) – all on one public support. To sum up the process: It’s a hub where ground level sensors relay information to an online network of people. This network, or online community, then pools resources to process and dispatch the information. The more diversity within the community, the more skills there are available to process the data – thus multiplying the types of possible output. One of the occasional members of the Libya Al Hurra TV community was MEP Alexandra Thein (ALDE). On the 5th of March 2011, immediately after Libya Al Hurra TV had broadcast the creation of the Libyan National Transitional Council, the community compiled all elements necessary for Ms Thein and her party to argue the legitimacy of the NTC at the European Parliament. Through the community’s larger network she entered into contact with Mahmoud Jibril (now head of the majority party in the Libyan parliament) and Ali Al-Isawi, then both the NTC’s Foreign Envoys, to invite them to meet with the European Parliament. Leveraging the fact that he had been able to present NTC members before the EP within days of the NTC’s creation (thanks to his “group’s networks”) EU ALDE leader, Guy Verhofstadt, used this win to highlight the inefficiency of Catherine Ashton and the EEAS.
Ms Thein, as a representative of an official body, had effectively managed to engage with an online community, to source crowd-checked information and capitalize on the output it generated. Not only did Ms Thein raise her own profile and that of her party, but she also played a part in setting up the future of Libyan politics. This involvement in networked collaboration by representatives of state or inter-state agencies was an exception and a success.
Interfacing Top-Down with Bottom-Up
In order to correctly evaluate the situation and stay relevant long after the crisis has subsided, it may be timely for governments to examine why and how traditional information circuits used to acquire, process and disseminate data, could interface with those of opposition groups during grassroots uprisings. Especially when faced with a possible intervention in the Syrian revolution.
The Syrian conflict is essentially a popular uprising, which over time has developed into an armed conflict. So it comes as no surprise that decision makers such as U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, perhaps frustrated at not being able to deal with what she perceives to be a dissolute opposition, interjects: “If we arm, who are we arming?”. As diplomatic ties with the country dwindle and considering that the end game of the revolution is probably regime change, outside administrations look to pinpoint the future influencers of Syria. The process of gathering this fundamental information – who is this person I may be handing power to – is traditionally enshrined in a vetting protocol. It’s similar to something we do daily. We meet someone and assess him or her to figure out if they are friend or foe and if they are trustworthy. Manaf Tlass made a spectacular defection this month, allegedly facilitated by French agents. He had been previously eyeballed and evaluated face-to-face. Now validated by several stakeholders, he is on the fast track to become a key figure in Syria’s political transition. Their availability to be vetted by the international community is probably also one of the reasons members of the Syrian National Council (SNC) had a seat at the stakeholder table. Most have little experience on the diplomatic scene, boast shaky support locally and are fundamentally divided. But they are free to meet and greet, they can travel, and they do. In comparison with the Libyan NTC, which 20 days after the beginning of the Feb 17 revolution had not only garnered local support, spearheaded a complex network of command centres, had organised a rudimentary democratic process and gained recognition for itself by the first head of state it met, the Syrian National Council, which liberally styled itself on its Libyan counterpart, hasn’t managed to gather as much trust; neither locally nor within the International community. The “popular” factor may have been overlooked by some governments seeking to impose their own linear MO on an entity as unruly as the open networks of influence present in the Syrian opposition.
Today, after flopped negotiations, 20 000 deaths and millions of refugees, but surfing on the perceived gains of the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian crisis is re-connecting with its local roots. People need to see wins. Without successes, even the most popular grassroots movement can implode. According to a recent RUSI Syria Briefing, the latest on-zone developments are propelling the international community towards some form of hands-on intervention. This operation would be complicated even further by the intricate sectarian fabric of the Levant, extreme regional tensions and jihadist factions ready to cement their foothold amidst chaos. The organic nature of the myriad of autonomous FSA groups that navigate under a common umbrella creates further confusion for administrations. If intervention by “western” nations should become a reality, after all the sword rattling between NATO members and Russia/Iran, and without a United Nations mandate, this operation has to succeed – success in this case implying not only regime change but supporting a full transition to democracy. Understanding the dynamics of the FSA at this contingency planning stage is vital, as is confirmed in the RUSI report. Oddly, apart from vulnerable U.S and European skeleton crews , this task of liaising with groups inside Syria seems to have been quasi outsourced to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Israel – adding another layer of complexity and interpretation.
As David M. Faris explains in “Networked Revolutions”, online social networks of grassroots movements are dematerialized doppelgängers of existing physical networks, streamlined by the lack of friction and space-time constraints. If social media is the information circuit of grassroots movements, the bottom-up, or peer-to-peer, organisational structure of online communities is indeed perfectly adapted to their decision-making processes. Similarly, state information circuits mirror their own top-down organization. If one draws a loose parallel between electrical currents and information flow, data could be seamlessly transferred from one circuit to another by implementing a transformer. Without this type of adaptor, states are currently experiencing an information surge and are consequently diverting or shutting down.
Processing the Information surge
Overall, the Libyan uprising has surprised many by its positive outcome. The international community made its diplomatic and military might available to the popular uprising and supported the citizens’ right to self-determination. 18 months have passed; a fledgling democracy has replaced a dictatorship and Libya is tentatively rebuilding its institutions. Even though the country seems on the right track now, during the actual conflict trust based issues such as pinpointing the right partners for agencies to collaborate with on tactical and humanitarian operations remained a major hurdle. Although the gist of the United Nations resolution 1973 was to safeguard the civilian population through all necessary means, one of those “means” was shockingly under-evaluated in the planning stage of operations: social media. Crowd-sourced open data was generally hailed as a having great potential to contribute to operations, but as highlighted in a deployment report, the Libya Crisis Map project is the perfect example of how administrative lag throttles workflow, frustrates contributors and ultimately kills the endeavour. The United Nations OCHA agency faced internal challenges in matching its information circuits to the immediacy, quality and volume of open source intelligence.
The Libyan crisis revealed the information surge. During the revolution open source intelligence enabled netizens worldwide to participate actively in the outcome of the conflict. As John Pollock points out in his article on People Power 2.0: Civilians have stormed the field.
For representatives of state to not be able to evaluate any given situation just isn’t an option anymore. French Foreign minister Michelle Alliot-Marie’s blurb during the Tunisian Revolution, showed how low the constituents tolerance levels are for their representative’s ignorance. It cost her a job and France took a blow to its reputation. Sure, e-diplomacy has evolved since the beginning of the Arab Uprisings, providing a more direct access to information, sometimes even in foreign languages. But simply publishing information or monitoring social media accounts with marketing KPIs won’t tell you much about the true collaborative potential of the people you are connecting with, nor will it lead to any form of mutually beneficial output.
In 2012, over 1 billion people have connected via social networking platforms. $2.8 billion will be raised in start-up capital by crowdfunding sites. Tens of millions of community members populate and auto-regulate shared knowledge bases such as Wikipedia. Using online petition platforms millions have been mobilised to stop ACTA from becoming a reality. In 2015, Cisco predicts a 400% growth in global IP traffic and 6 billion Internet users. These numbers underpin the scope of people reacting spontaneously and in real time, generating zetabytes of numeric data.
To cope with the information surge some form of “power-transfer equation” must be found to bring information from one circuit to another. States may need to engineer platforms that leverage networked collaboration. These should be end-user centric and be able to arm multiple networks with knowledge, tools and resources. Revolutions tend to be about people empowerment and the idea is to contribute to that. Handing satellite imagery to strangers, for example, can be tricky, but the security concerns could be heavily outweighed by the relevance gained within the decision-making processes of grassroots uprisings.
Besides, If Ebay can engineer the tech that hustles 100 Million online users into trusting each other to the tune of $68 billion, Decision makers such as Mrs Clinton owe it to their co-citizens to build the platforms allowing them to establish “whom to arm”.