Social Media and Negotiations between Enemies

I just ran across a devastating satirical video about Israel’s efforts to get kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit back from Hamas.

It’s well worth looking at and it adds an interesting perspective to the ongoing debate about whether social media such as Facebook empower the forces of liberalism (note the small “l”) at the expense of the forces of oppression, aggression, and reaction or vice versa.  The debate has largely focused on how social media affect the interaction between opposition groups and governments.  However, this video points out that social media can also affect the interaction between governments and other governments (or government-like entities such as Hamas) by tying the hands of the more liberal party.

Published in: on October 8, 2010 at 7:04 PM  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

INFOWARCON (3): Covert Internet Access for Iranians

Also at INFOWARCON, I heard a very interesting but lamentably short talk by Austin Heap, the founder of Haystack, a small company in San Francisco that is a spin-off of the Censorship Research Center.  Haystack’s product is software which can be run off of a flash drive or a CD so that nothing incriminating is on the hard drive.  It allows Iranians to surf the Web freely.

Haystack put extensive research into determining precisely how the Iranian government filters the web and has designed the software specifically to counter those measures.  In broad terms, Haystack’s software both encrypts signals and hides them inside innocuous-looking traffic.  Austin says that he is prepared for the Iranian government to adjust its filtering in response to Haystack’s efforts and that he has another generation or two of strategies ready to roll out when that happens.

Haystack is also preparing software for two additional countries, which he named to me when I chatted with him after his talk.  However, I noticed that he declined to name them on NPR, so I shan’t here.  Suffice to say, that one of them is in the news a lot.  Haystack’s efforts there could turn out to be of very important to American national securityover the long term.  Right now, Haystack is in the research phase, determining how each of these countries do their filtering, so it will be a good while before the new software makes its appearance.

If you want to get a sense of Austin’s talk at INFOWARCON, you can listen to him on NPR’s “On the Media” where he also appeared last weekend.  I’ve got to say that watching this guy–a kid, really–in his blue jeans, long hair, sunglasses pushed up on his head talking from notes on his i-Phone standing in front of a room of military officers, defense contractors, and assorted inside-the-Beltway types made me proud to be an American.

I can’t mention this topic without pointing to the work of Evgeny Morozov, a native of the bastion of democracy known as Belarus (ha!), who is deeply skeptical about the democratizing power of the Web.  Frankly, I don’t agree with him, but his arguments cannot be ignored in this context.  See, for instance, his “How Dictators Watch Us On the Web.”  At base, Morozov’s argument is that the Web (and new media generally) do provide useful tools for dissidents but that it enables government repression to an even greater extent, primarily by giving the government sources of intelligence about the identity of dissidents and the links among them.

Published in: on May 20, 2010 at 1:22 AM  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Blog Recommendation: iRevolution

I thought I should highlight the blog iRevolution which is run by a PhD student named Patrick Meier who is at the Fletcher School.  Mr. Meier seems largely to use the blog as a place to post his dissertation-related notes and musings.  The dissertation is called “The Role of New Media and Technology in Popular Resistance against Repressive Rule.”

In a brilliant and funny move, he has two descriptions of his dissertation topic.  The first is the “Media Version,” which I quote below.  The second is the “Academic Version” which is quite a bit longer.  (Isn’t that always the way?)

Media Version: Does access to new media and technology change the balance of power between  repressive regimes and civil resistance movements? We all saw what happened in Iran (one of my case studies, in addition to Burma, Zimbabwe and Tunisia). New technologies played a major role in the events leading up to and following the elections and are likely to continue having a tremendous impact in Iran and beyond. Social networking tools such as Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and blogging have clearly changed the way individuals in non-permissive environments communicate with each other and the outside world. From SMS and cell phone cameras to Flip cams and flash drives, new media and digital technology is also changing the nature of popular resistance throughout the world.  At the same time, repressive regimes are increasingly censoring and monitoring information flows and shutting down popular communication tools in times of threat, thus imposing information blockades.

The question I ask is simple: who is winning this cyber-game of cat-and-mouse? Why? And is this likely to change in the near future?

For media inquiries, please email me at…

One of the continuing themes in the blog is what he takes to be the indiscriminate use of anecdotes to produce quick and easy (and perhaps wrong) answers to the question he is seeking to answer with rigor.  For instance, he takes Evgeny Morozov to task (in a friendly way) for too quickly concluding that the new communications technologies favor dictators.  (It may not be a coincidence that Morozov is from that bastion of Lockean liberal democracy known as Belarus.)  At the same time, Meier is quick to take issue also with those who purvey “the digital ‘Internet = Democracy‘ hype that pervades the mainstream media and much of digital activism.”

He is already starting to have preliminary answers.  The quantitative portion of his research seems to say that the answer to the question of “who is winning this cyber-game of cat-and-mouse” is “it depends.”  Interestingly, it seems that the extent of cellphone usage is, under certain cirumstances, an important variable in some circumstances.  That is to say that cellphones appear to empower civil resistance movements.  However, the extent of Internet penetration into a country seems not to predict much of anything .  Perhaps Morozov is onto something when he says that people newly acquiring access to the Web aren’t going to download reports from Human Rights Watch, rather they’re going to watch porn, Sex in the City, and funny cat videos.

I could go on and on about the interesting thing in this blog.  I’ll just point out a few more features.

  • There is a guide Meier has develop to help activists understand how to communicate securely.  (It would be interesting to know what some of the experts at, say NSA or the FBI would have to say about the efficacy of these, but that ain’t likely to happen.)
  • The blog unabashedly talks in terms that people in the fields of strategic studies or military history should be comfortable with such as “strategy,” “tactics,” and “surveillance.”  At one point he draws specific lessons from Clausewitz’s On War. This is not surprising because he is drawing on and contributing to a field known as strategic nonviolent conflict.  I may blog about this at some point, but  suffice it here to say that this is quite different from the principled nonviolent ideas of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King.  Strategic nonviolent conflict is a form of struggle that uses nonviolence because/when it seems the most effective way to win.

Anyway, check it out.