This post assesses WikiLeaks and the Arab Spring, as part of my work for DPI-659: Media, Politics, and Power at the Kennedy School. It draws on several pieces, including: Jaron Lanier’s “The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks” (2010), Raffi Khatchadourian’s “No Secrets: Julian Assange’s mission for total transparency” (2010), Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom (2012), Basem Fathy’s “A ‘Cute’ Facebook Revolution?” (2011), David Kirkpatrick and David Sanger’s “A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History” (2011), Evgeny Morozov’s afterword to The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2011), Zeynep Tufekci’s “The #freemona Perfect Storm: Dissent and the Networked Public Sphere” (2011), and Ethan Zuckerman’s talk on “Cute Cats and the Arab Spring: When Social Media Meet Social Change” (2011).
In his 2010 piece, Lanier cautions against “nerd supremacy” as epitomized by WikiLeaks. Lanier is particularly disturbed by WikiLeaks’ disregard for potential collateral damage to real people (e.g. individuals whose names were leaked in diplomatic cables). Privacy, argues Lanier, is a key tenet of personhood and of democracy that is threatened by this type of nerd supremacy. Khatchadourian’s 2010 profile of Assange (pre-Cablegate) raises similarly troubling questions surrounding the production of Project B (aka “Collateral Murder”), specifically the degree to which Assange puts his spin on events. WikiLeaks limits the information it makes publicly available, deriving its power, in part, from strategic, limited releases, with Assange’s own brand of interpretation.
The power of narratives (and the question of who controls them) is a theme that carries over to the use of social media in the Arab Spring. As Fathy notes, the Egyptian Revolution was cast in different lights domestically and internationally, but is best understood as a movement stemming from the previous decade of activism in Egypt (both online and offline) which allowed for a networked, non-hierarchical movement to take place in 2011. Tufekci’s blog post on #freemona and the importance of social media in freeing the detained journalist further demonstrates the power of networks. Kirkpatrick and Sanger‘s coverage of Egypt and Tunisia in 2011 also highlights the critical role of digital networks in those revolutions, which drew on developments that had been underway for years (e.g. Academy for Change).
Underlying social media’s ability to effectively leverage dispersed networks, however, is a darker trend: that of governments monitoring, censoring, and/or controlling the online space. The concept is aptly captured not only in MacKinnon’s discussion of the “networked authoritarianism” of China and Iran, but also in the surveillance and censorship by democracies around the world. In his afterword to The Net Delusion, Morozov similarly notes the challenges to privacy online today, and the need for greater accountability among Silicon Valley companies, including acknowledgment of the manner in which Western technology has aided authoritarian regimes abroad. In contrast to Morozov’s pessimism, Zuckerman contends with his “cute cat” theory that it is the widespread penetration of online media such as Facebook and Youtube that makes them good tools for activists. Even if these sites don’t adequately protect their users, if they are taken down or tampered with, there will be a large enough group of non-activist users who notice and complain, which in turn ensures activists’ ability to use the tools.
What was most interesting for me in reflecting on these readings were the points laid out in Tufekci’s post on #freemona, specifically her last point: that it remains easier to use social media for “No” campaigns than for discussing complex issues. This distinction gets to the heart of many of the divergent points of view we’ve covered in Media, Politics, and Power regarding the efficacy of social media for change (e.g. Gladwell’s skepticism and Shirky’s rebuttal). To me it also explains why the promise-tool-bargain framework breaks down when issues become more complex and time lines more fuzzy (as I wrote about in my last post, specifically with respect to OFA, gun violence, and climate change). “No” is the simpler way to reach agreement — “yes” is too messy. On this point, Tufekci argues that Wikipedia demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses that come with “yes” (i.e. that it generally produces useful and balanced articles, but does so in a “high-conflict, mostly-male environment with powerful ‘wikignomes'”).
What I think is not captured in Tufekci’s Wikipedia argument, however, is the impact of time, which I think can greatly warp chances for a successful digital campaign. We have seen how digital organizing around a particular day or event can serve as a powerful framing device for achieving change (from election days to 350.org‘s Global Day), as well as how momentum can build to create social change in a rapid period of time drawing on digital tools (e.g. Arab Spring). However, we have not seen long-term online organizing efforts with fuzzier horizons achieve the scale or impact of these other movements in a sustained way. This matters in particular for issues such as climate change when the answer is (often) “yes,” but the solutions are varied, and the time line is long and unclear.