Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: September 2010 (page 1 of 6)

Syrian Digital Activism in the NYTimes

This morning, in the New York Times of all places, is a good article highlighting Syria’s pervasive Internet censorship.  The premise is this: a disturbing (though not particularly graphic, as the Times suggests) video of teachers beating their young students is put up on Facebook (which Facebook, shockingly but to their credit, doesn’t remove for a TOS violation); then, despite Facebook being filtered by the Syrian government, the video and Facebook group go viral, people get angry, and the end result is Education Ministry moving the teachers to desk jobs (which, as my Syrian partner points out, is not that surprising; Syria, for all its faults, takes child abuse very seriously).

This is, indeed, a fascinating example of a successful social media campaign that has nothing to do with democracy or regime change.  I note that because, at last week’s Google Internet Liberty at 2010 conference, this was a point of contention amongst attendees, particularly those from India, who felt that much of the focus on digital activism is geared toward democracy and regime change (a point with which I would have to agree).

The article also quotes Khaled el-Ekhteyar of All4Syria.info, a site with which I am quite familiar: “Asked who his audience was, Mr. Ekhetyar paused and said with a weary smile, ‘My friends and the secret police.'”  Ekhteyar may very well be right; All4Syria is blocked in the country (or was at last check, anyway) due to its fairly controversial and sensitive coverage (the site is known for interviewing bloggers upon their release from prison, for one).

Kudos also to the author for mentioning currently-detained young blogger Tal al-Mallouhi, whose crime, it seems, is asking why her government hasn’t done more for the Palestinians (the campaign hub to free Tal is located here).

Now, on to a comment about Monday’s post, in which I stated that “digital activism” and “traditional activism” were false poles.  In Syria, where a great number of the methods of traditional activism are stifled, it often makes sense to take causes online, despite pervasive government-level filtering, low Internet penetration, and US export controls that limit which communications tools Syrians have access to.  Thus, activism has gone digital.  No need for distinction.  As my friend Mohammad Ali Abdullah put it nicely: “The Internet in Syria is a bit like the samizdat publications were under the Soviet Union”.

The story of Tal Al-Mallouhi’s imprisonment would not have become widespread were it not for the Internet; now she’s in the New York Times. And no doubt, when it comes to the nine month imprisonment of a teenage girl for something she said on her blog, that Internet penetration rate expands well beyond 17% as net users share their findings with non-net users.

One note, however: An anonymous Internet user in Damascus stated for the Times that “Without Facebook no one would have known about [the incident involving teachers beating students].”  Just as I mentioned in my last post, we shouldn’t pretend that we would be nowhere were it not for Facebook or Twitter.  We can applaud the platforms, certainly, but let’s also remember that they are third-party platforms with their own rules and terms.  And again, who’s to say such a video couldn’t have gone viral ten years ago via e-mail?  Sure, Facebook gives it broader reach, but so does a WordPress blog.  This should not be about individual platforms (which sure, are great, and I love Twitter as much as–no, probably much more than–the next person), but about the individuals who find innovative ways to get information out into the world, regardless of which platform they choose.

The False Poles of Digital and Traditional Activism

Digital activism has been construed as its own movement, a new wave of organizing unique to the 21st century digital world.  In fact, digital tools are complementary to “traditional” activism, for a number of reasons: They allow organizers to quickly mobilize large numbers of people; they help draw media attention to causes, and quickly; they allow for a centralized portal of information.  But by drawing a distinct line between “traditional” and “digital” (or online and offline, if you prefer) activism, pundits and journalists are doing a disservice to both the utility of digital tools and to the resilience of traditional advocacy.

“Offline versus Online” are False Poles

Renowned writer Malcolm Gladwell, in this week’s New Yorker, argues that the “weak ties” of “digital activism” cannot remotely compare to the strong ties of traditional activism, using the American Civil Rights movement as a baseline.  To the former point, he gives examples of the much-touted “Twitter revolutions” in both Moldova and Iran, noting that it was Western media that quickly claimed success for the two movements, ignoring local views.  To this point, he quotes Iranian commentator Golnaz Esfandiari, who stated in Foreign Policy at the end of last summer: “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.”

Gladwell is correct: Western pundits, quick to look for a story (and in some cases, quick to hope for the overturning of a regime), jumped on Twitter as a revolutionary tool, loudly beating the drum that Twitter had revolutionized revolutions.  From Andrew Sullivan (“The Revolution will be Twittered“) to lawyer and pundit Lily Mazahery, who at a conference went as far as to say that, without Twitter, Iranians never would’ve been able to get information out to the world (um, e-mail?), to the State Department, which infamously requested Twitter postpone scheduled maintenance to allow the Iranians to keep tweeting, Twitter was quickly deemed a lifesaver.

With that in mind, Gladwell’s delineation between the “strong ties” of activism past and the “weak ties” of the digital age is problematic.  Ignoring the utility of social media and other digital tools (including mobile ones), Gladwell argues that “[digital activism] is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger.”

While it’s true that the framing we so often see (“digital” versus “traditional” activism) is highly problematic, traditional activism is indeed enhanced by digital tools (sometimes greatly), while solely digital activities can be hampered by weak ties.  Digiactive.org co-founder Mary Joyce suggested the example of “Save Darfur” Facebook groups as a “weak tie” example of online activism, and I don’t agree.  But the precedent for such groups is perhaps the handing out of green “Save Darfur” bracelets, a phenomenon that occurred in the early 2000s, shortly after Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong bracelets made waves.  Bracelets aren’t a method for making change, but they certainly draw attention to a cause.

Campaigns such as these, as well as the use of Twitter during the Iranian elections, seem to serve two primary purposes: drawing attention to the cause, and mobilizing the masses to make a small effort.  The use of Twitter and Facebook for any kind of activism seems to serve those purposes, in fact.  But how is that different from the mass mobilization involved in traditional activism?  As Gladwell points out, the civil rights movement had a “strong tie” core of people dedicated to their cause.  But surely not every single person who attended a march on the Mall had a strong tie to the movement!  Marches, a solidly traditional form of activism, did not involve only the hard core of activists, but also the outliers: folks who cared but were only up for one-time involvement.  Letter-writing campaigns present a similar argument.

And while Gladwell might argue that such one-time involvement is still a great risk to the individual (surely it is, as people were arrested, shot at), I would argue that, in the most repressive of societies, digital involvement (be it long-term or one-time) can present similar peripheral risks.  It is not always the most serious and outspoken bloggers who get arrested for their activism, as we have seen, but sometimes the outliers, in the wrong place at the wrong time (see: Mohammed Erraji).  Often such circumstances a stronger activist makes, but that’s a point for another time.

The problem with Gladwell’s piece, then, is not his pessimism about the popular media line on digital activism, but rather, the choice he makes to ignore the utility of digital tools for “real-world activism.”  Or as Alaa Abd El Fattah points out: “it’s not like “real world” activists are going to abstain from using the net to prove their analogness.”

In other words, “Digital activism” alone is fairly useless, but the utilization of digital tools can make traditional activism infinitely stronger.

Certain Support Ensures Weak Ties

In a recent blog post-turned-Al Jazeera op-ed, Sami Ben Gharbia makes the point (among several other points), that the U.S. government and some of the organizations it funds are “gatecrashing ‘netroots activism”.  His argument is that, as Western heads turn to the already-existing sphere of activists in the Arab world and attempt involvement (due to a variety of factors, not least of which is massive government funding initiatives), they are wont to misunderstand and thus get involved in potentially dangerous ways, thus upsetting the existing ecosystem.

Ben Gharbia argues that “we urgently need to resist every governmental attempt to hijack or politicise our space, publicly denounce it and make sure that we are making informed decisions, rather than naively accepting ideologically tinted internet freedom funding and support.”

Though I don’t entirely agree that activists elsewhere should entirely reject funding (after all, if the better ones do, then the lesser ones get it–the funding isn’t going to simply disappear, and who’s to say you can’t denounce while engaging), I think he makes an important point.  The U.S. “net freedom” agenda relies heavily on a particular narrative of democracy and regime change that favors certain governments (Iran, China) over others (Tunisia, Syria), regardless of the existing levels of repression in such places, due to various political reasons.  Thus, it seeks to reason that a number of organizations that receive USG funding are duly influenced by that narrative.  Ben Gharbia has done a good job of illustrating this, so I digress.

I would argue that one of the most problematic results of this narrative and the funding and work that goes along with it is who it targets.  Looking at recent conferences and workshops to which I’ve been a party, I’ve noticed an ongoing theme: Where the workshop or conference is funded largely or in part by U.S. organizations, a certain demographic of activist–let’s call them “troublemakers”–are largely absent.  Whether this is by choice or by exclusion, I couldn’t say, and I would wager it’s a combination of the two, but it is nevertheless frustrating to see.  USG-funded organizations are rarely unpolicitized, thus it makes sense that they would exclude to a degree those who aren’t willing to abide by the narrow American narrative of freedom (for example, excluding democracy activists who don’t outright condemn Hamas).  But just as such notions don’t work in the MidEast peace talks, neither will they in activist circles.

Tied to that is Gladwell’s argument of “weak ties”: “Non-native,” outsider movements that seek to bring together activists around a particular network or cause are, or are at least sometimes seen as, disingenuous.  Bringing a group of people together in the attempt to influence a certain line of thinking (or even to “whiten up” an existing one) doesn’t work.  You simply can’t build a movement from the top down.

Building a New Narrative

Ben Gharbia challenges the prevailing dialogue around digital activism, arguing that: “For digital activism in the Arab world to achieve its noble aspirations, it must remain independent and homegrown, tapping its financial, logistic and moral support into its grassroots, seeking support from neutral parties that do not push for any kind of political or ideological agenda.”  For some, this means creating a new narrative, outside of that which exists in the mainstream discourse, by and for existing activists.

While I agree with the importance of such a narrative, I’m still tempted to ask: Is there any room at all for U.S. funding?  I certainly take (strong) issue with the manner in which the U.S. net freedom narrative is being sold and deployed, but as an American citizen who straddles the line of two worlds at times, one thing concerns me: The USG is going to do what it’s going to do.  It will continue to claim lofty goals for the promotion of Internet freedom, regardless of how hypocritical the deployment of such goals may be.  Therefore, is it better for activists to work outside the existing structures to build their own narrative, or is there any room for working within existing framework, to challenge the power structures and the status quo in the hopes of influencing how decisions are made and money spent?

Furthermore, what can we, as U.S. citizens, do to challenge the existing narrative and create a better one that is concerned with actually “exporting freedom” to all of those who are being stifled?

These are open questions, and I invite you to join in the dialogue.

The “cat and mouse” game between bloggers and government

This is a liveblog of a breakout panel at the Google Liberty at 2010 conference in Budapest, September 22, 2010.

Cynthia Wong of the Center for Democracy and Technology introduces the next breakout panel, entitled “Online free expression and the cat and mouse game between bloggers and governments.”

She introduces the session by mentioning the issues of bloggers, governments, and company responsibility, then calls on respondent Esraa Rashid from Egypt to introduce the relevance of this issue in her region.  Rashid believes that we can achieve democracy by using the Internet as a tool, but notes that governments, such as the Egyptian Mubarak government wants to remain in power and continue to suppress the rights of its opposition.  “The government is so scared of those who can oppose them online, such as the activists on Facebook.”

Esraa Rashid notes the example of Khaled Said, a young Egyptian activist who had taken a video of police officers dealing drugs.  He was at a cyber cafe attempting to upload his videos and photos when police kidnapped and beat him, killing him in the process.  Witnesses took photos of Said’s body, spreading it online.  In the end, the police were held culpable, a major achievement in Egyptian activism.

Rashid believes that the Egyptian government would like to get rid of all of Egypt’s bloggers, but thinks that the US net freedom initiative can be helpful in bringing attention to these issues.

She also notes the reception for potential presidential candidate Mohamed El Baradei, noting that his prominence has also risen due to Internet discussions and campaigning.

Cynthia Wong turns the discussion to Ivan Sigal, Executive Director of Global Voices.  He notes the relationship and differences between online and “traditional” activism.  He says that it’s difficult to generalize about these campaigns but that, contrary to traditional activism, online and blogging efforts are often coming from a non-institutional basis, from individuals without links to NGOs or labor movements.

Sigal notes the example of a house in China where the family was asked to move, whilst an excavation occurred.  The family refused, so the company dug around them, leaving the house intact; this incident brought land rights into the mainstream as a bigger issue.

He asks: “How does an idea like this turn into a movement, or should it?”  He notes the relationship of bloggers and citizens to a “vocal anti-professionalism” and a conception of being citizens, rather than members of an organization, thus making it very grassroots, and opposed to tradition.  Sigal views this grassroots activism as a challenge to traditional concepts.

A third point Sigal makes is the idea of ideas and themes going “viral” online, a concept sometimes called “slacktivism.”  Sigal thinks there’s another way of viewing this; that an idea may have more importance than simply a single voice. Just because an idea isn’t driven forward by a traditional campaign mentality doesn’t mean it’s not a good one.  Sigal notes that ideas are sometimes implemented beyond their original spheres, and that this may have broader implications.

Wong opens up the discussion as an open one for the group, and asks, based on our own experiences, what do we see as the main challenges and obstacles for online activists and bloggers.

Wael, a Jordanian blogger, notes that he took a workshop from an experienced lawyer with specific experience in Jordan, and states that understanding government and legal loopholes is important.  He says that, as governments and regions use their own rules against bloggers, it becomes more and more important for bloggers to understand and utilize the laws as well.

Rita Chemaly, a Lebanese researcher and blogger, jumps in to say that, when causes exist online, many people often join on to them, but are not participatory.  Her question is, “how, in the public sphere, can we change good arguments into political action?”  She also notes that, since Lebanon’s recent president came to power, her Facebook page and blog are reported if she talks about them, and there’s a risk that she can be arrested [note: Lebanon does not block websites].

An audience member from Vietnam asks if bloggers should get paid for working.  She elaborates to say that perhaps bloggers should be funded, that they need a better environment.  She says that bloggers need better expertise and professionalism, and that perhaps civic volunteers are the best to help train them.  She also notes that slacktivism is a negative phenomenon, but that in a closed society, people don’t really have the chance to speak up publicly, so clicking “like” is controversial.  She sees this as a positive development.

In response, Sigal notes that traditional activists often have a stronger sense of the risks they’re taking, whereas people new to activism may find that the risks they’re taking are not reasonable or rational.  He notes that it’s important to articulate goals, and assess risks and concerns.

Regarding slacktivism, Sigal notes that a lot of online organizing is not about structural change, but cultural change, and that some people seek a structural indication of success, but that he sees that as a narrow assessment (using the Armenian protests of last year as an example).

A blogger from the Philippines notes that the government at first viewed them like everyone else, but that they began to view them as threats sometime after.  Bloggers there did not have a unified voice, but as they tackled common issues, they were seen as “speaking one language.”  They tried not to be too confrontational or negative, with awareness that those tactics had not worked in the past.  He says that his blogging community meets once a year to discuss how to further engage the rest of the population, government, and media.

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