Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Internet Freedom" (or, the "Military-Twitter Complex")

The U.S. should declare February 15 as its official "Internet Freedom Day": meetings, statements, reports... All in one day and all saying basically the same thing: "Open Internet is good" and "The U.S. should/will do more to promote 'Internet Freedom' technologies as a core part of its 21st Century Foreign Policy." Dealing with these  very same subjects in my classes and watching the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere unfold live on the Internet, makes me all the more ambivalent about these issues.

[Please note: no indication, whatsoever, where these statistics came from. More importantly, the video seems to be focusing primarily on the U.S., and therefore, the suggested "impact" is quite questionable at an international level.]

But before I go any further, I think a disclaimer is in order. Two, actually:

1 - I had started gathering a list of articles/videos from prominent news media organizations about the "New/Social Media and/or Twitter Revolution" that has "spread like wildfire all across the Middle East." My initial intent was to suggest several counter-arguments on this blog. But as the events developed rapidly (and still are), I simply couldn't keep up with the pace and the sheer volume of information and discussions. Add to that, all that came out over the past two days... In short, there will, probably, be too many chaotic thoughts in this post, helping the blog live up to its name.

2 - As I said, I am ambivalent on the subjects involved. All I intend to do is look at some alternative views, raise some questions, hopefully start a discussion, and most importantly - help myself find some answers.

Here is the bouquet of yesterday's events:

- Followed by a global "Interactive Web Chat" with Alec Ross (DoS Senior Adviser for Innovation) and Dan Baer (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor).

- A panel on the U.S. Global Engagement in the New Media Era, organized by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

- Senate Foreign Relations Committee's report on Public Diplomacy: "Another U.S. Deficit - China and America - Public Diplomacy in the Age of the Internet."

- President Obama's Press Conference (included a conversation on Egypt)

Internet Freedom, or rather, "21st Century Statecraft" seems to have been one of the core issues (if not the core issue) of the U.S. foreign policy promoted Secretary Clinton over the past several years. Being such a broad "concept", it seems to encompass issues ranging from free-market promotion and intellectual-rights' protection, to Twitter and the "free marketplace of ideas". All with the noble cause of spreading liberty, freedom of information, expression, and most importantly, democracy.

Image courtesy of DipNote.

First, there is China. No, rather, first: there is the "China Scare". With mentions in almost every major international affairs-related statement or report, especially when it comes to the Internet, the U.S. has made it clear that China is its primary "concern" in the world. With that in mind, how can one read the persistent U.S. attempts to pressure China to "open its markets" and to open itself up to further information penetration? After all, the U.S. primary concern here - quite naturally - is its interest, while from China's perspective, such a move would mean a threat to its own national interests. Oh, and loss of profit. 

To quote Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin, commenting on the Senate report:
"Not only is Beijing using its tight control over the Internet to shield the population from news and information related to government behavior, it is now exporting its censorship technologies to other repressive countries, including Iran, Cuba, and Belarus, Lugar's report stated."

Clinton, too, dedicated quite some time to China, as well as Iran, in her speech yesterday. But in addition to the usual list of "issues", this time she also talked about Wikileaks. Although the Secretary tried making some arguments to support the U.S. Government's position, the fact that she immediately turned to discussing freedom and transparency, did significant damage to the credibility of these arguments. Especially so yesterday, after Washington ordered Twitter to disclose the details of private accounts of several individuals involved in the case.

Then there is the whole "New Media Revolution" angle... Although I do acknowledge the role that technology played - initially - in helping some of the protesters organize and mobilize support, it was largely a non-factor in the actual course of the events. If anything, the social media has  helped some of the people on the ground to get the story out to the world. But so did Al Jazeera.

To quote Phil Seib:
"First, let’s be clear that this was the Egyptian Revolution, not the “Facebook Revolution” or the “Twitter Revolution.” Events of the past few weeks belong wholly to spirit of the Egyptian people, not technology. And although it was built on democratic aspirations, this was not a revolution that drew any inspiration from the United States."

I was closely following the discussion on Twitter throughout some of the days of the "standoff", and it did, indeed, seem like the conversation was going on largely among people outside of the country. There was perhaps a couple of dozen of key tweeters - especially those tweeting in English - who would "say" something or post a link, which would then be carried on to the "Western" tweet-o-sphere, where it would be retweeted, recycled, re-edited, reposted... The perfect information cascade. 

To demonstrate it better, here's a "tweet-o-graph" by Kovas Boguta, showing the "most influential" tweeters on "#Egypt", as the events unfolded:

If interested, you can actually access the super-high resolution format of this image here.

The description of it reads:
"[The network map] is based on the Twitter activity [of the pro-democracy movement], capturing the freedom of expression and association that is possible in that medium, and which is representative of a new collective consciousness taking form. [...] The map is arranged to place individuals near the individuals they influence, and factions near the factions they influence. The color is based on the language they tweet in -- a choice that itself can be meaningful, and clearly separates different strata of society."

Although great, this work has major shortcomings, mostly because of the lack of clarity of Boguta's methodology. And yet, even if we take it at face value, this image shows the much larger blue (i.e. English language) tail, which suggests that the majority of the conversation happened either outside of the country, or was tweeted from inside but with the foreign public in mind. This is also a great visualization of the cascading effect.

But as it has been emphasized many times before, information cascades not only help spread information, but they also promote the spread of unverified and often untrue information (see this Foreign Policy post, for instance), and are associated with unquestioned mass (or "herd") behavior. In a sense that's what happened with the "Social Media in Egypt" story, too.

Not only was it a common result of such tweet-o-mania or the need of the mainstream/traditional media to make the story relevant to the American public, but it also fit - perfectly - into the current dominant foreign policy framework promoted by Clinton. This, in turn, helps to further perpetuate such faith in "Twitter" and "Facebook" - and here, I use "faith" in its literal sense.

In case you missed the news, social media companies are attracting billions of dollars in investments, so much so that there is now talk of a possible "Social Media Bubble", similar to the "dot-com bubble" of the early 2000s. Add to that all the money from the State Department for the development of various software, tools, and platforms. But beyond that, it is also important to point out all the support these companies and corporations have been getting from the U.S. Government at an inter-state level, as well as the inevitably obvious interconnections ("interlocking directorates" of some sort... or, to put in somewhat other terms, the "revolving door") between various individuals involved in the story, in one way or another.

Image courtesy of Zero Anthropology.

For example: the by-now-renowned Wael Ghonim, who credited Facebook for ousting Mubarak, is himself a Google Inc. employee, and managed to make good use of the circumstances and attention, to direct even more hype toward the "social media revolution" story. Another example: Jared Cohen, a former DoS Policy Planning staff official and DoS' "Social  Media guru", has moved to Google's mysterious "Google Ideas" think-tank since September 2010. As much as I tried finding an official website for it, or any official information, the most substantial description was this excerpt from Cohen's "farewell" letter posted on Politico:
"Google Ideas will combine the models of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, a think tank, and a private sector company, with resources to implement. In this sense, Google Ideas will be a think/do tank that strives to bring together diverse perspectives from multiple industries to generate new ideas, approaches and solutions to security, social, economic and political challenges in the world."

I am not implying a conspiracy. Rather, I am suggesting a scenario where these "social media gurus" are making use of the situation to add hype and substance to the story, and thus increase the overall value of their collective "new media" market. In short: cash in.

And lastly, there is the issue of the American "soft"/"smart" power. Joe Nye was quick to respond to the Egyptian events. His conclusion:
"Revolutions are not new, nor are transnational contagion or non-state actors who play a key role in world affairs.
What is new -- and what we saw manifested in Egypt -- is the speed of communication and the technological empowerment of a wider range of actors. An information world will require new policies that combine hard and soft power resources into smart power strategies. That is the larger lesson of the revolution in Egypt."

Funnily enough, just a couple of weeks ago we read the piece, “From hegemony to soft power: Implications of a conceptual change” by Geraldo Zahran and Leonardo Ramos (from Soft Power and US Foreign Policy : Theoretical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives), where they made a very strong case in critiquing Nye's approach as mostly "an apology" or a justification for U.S. global hegemony. With the above discussion in mind, I cannot help but point out the apparent hegemonic streak in this hype about the "New Media" and "Open Internet".

Image courtesy of Aaron Riddle.

Firstly, the administration has chosen not to criticize its allies in the region (Bahrain or Yemen, for example), while making sure to emphasize their "concern" about the clampdown by the Iranian authorities. Then, there is the increasingly apparent equation of "Internet Freedom" (which the U.S. claims is a fundamental right, en par with other universal human rights) with U.S. interests, which not only hinders the acceptance of the issue by the governments in question, but also runs the risk of actually discrediting this supposedly "sacrosanct" foundation of the "21st Century Public Diplomacy".

To quote James Harkin:
"For big American internet companies like Google and Twitter, the danger is that their interests come to be too closely defined with those of the American government: that they’re seen to be smuggling in statecraft under the guise of delivering technology. In the conspiracy mills of the Middle East, campaigns for internet freedom are denounced as cover for America’s broader agenda, the stalking horse for a shady new military-Twitter complex."

I will leave you with a tweet from what seems to be a mock tweeter on behalf of @Henry Kissinger [Courtesy of Dr. John Brown]:

"Diplomacy has changed so much. Today our diplomats tweet their messages to the public. In my day, we dropped them from 10,000 feet."

P.S. - Just saw this new post by Katie Dowd on DipNote: "Opinion Space 3.0 Launches on State.Gov." Will try to "try out" this "universe of viewpoints and ideas" and share impressions, some time.


  1. BTW: Re. your comment about unverified information from Twitter, yes, indeed, but this is a problem with all forms of media. Indeed, the problem here perhaps lies more with people accepting information without even caring or thinking whether it's true or not. However, it's not just confined to Twitter.

    The media, for example, can do the same, and let's face it, in countries such as Armenia this happens more often than not, especially during elections and from both pro-government and pro-opposition sources. Blogs too, so why expect Twitter to be any different?

    However, I'd also argue that what Twitter allows for is for that misinformation to be countered in real-time too, especially when hashtags are involved. Of course, that then means theoretically we all end up not knowing who and what information to trust. But again, that's also another problem with information in general.

    Is it any wonder, then, that some of us choose only to trust certain sources and build up that trust over time? As for the rest of the people, well, we pretty much have a problem, don't we? It's either too much information or too little. Or even none at all...

    Ultimately, people just need to consume and digest their information with more caution. And yes, I know that's a problem, especially in regions such as the South Caucasus let alone the U.S. to suit its own foreign policy agenda.

  2. You are right re: spread of misinformation. However, I'd argue that INITIALLY, the whole point of the media was to process raw info through a fact-checking and at least seeming objectivity "filter". THAT is how credibility was built up. And although you CAN make the same argument about Twitter, the sheer volume and speed of the info dissemination makes this process useless, while very few actually care to go back, check, and re-consider the 140 characters they read (out of thousands of others), especially when following a hot, trending topic...
    As for education on media consumption: as much as I would LOVE to make it a top priority, especially in high-density-media societies, I'm afraid I've given up on the idea... BOTH, because of the inevitable dominance of the "state interests" factor, but also because of the prevalent apathy and ignorance among the "average" majority...

  3. Yes, true, and as an example, I was able to follow better the information coming out of Bahrain more easily than I could Libya, in part probably because in the former there were more actual journalists on the ground and thus better verification (especially from official media/journalist Twitter accounts, although this in itself doesn't make for accurate reporting).