Sunday, April 14, 2013

Problematizing the Praxis of Activism in Kenyan Cyberspace












A Think Piece for Progressive Change Agents

By Onyango Oloo

Summary:

In this digital essay, the author, a Kenyan socialist who uses blogs, online discussion forums, e-mailing lists and Web 2.0. platforms such as Facebook, Google + and Twitter to mobilize, organize and campaign for democracy and social justice in his country, explores the challenges and prospects for social media-based activism in collectively constructing, in the spirit of the World Social Forum, a more equitable and more egalitarian society in his East African homeland. He joins other theorists in exploding the myths of the so called Twitter Revolutions and Facebook Uprisings using examples drawn from concrete experiences in Iran, Moldova, Egypt, United States and Kenya itself.

1.0.  The Return of State Terror Against Dissidents in Post-Election Kenya

On April 9, 2013 Uhuru Kenyatta was officially inaugurated as the Fourth President of the Republic Kenya after a grueling and fractious election campaign that was ultimately decided in his favour through a unanimous Supreme Court decision following a petition challenge by his closest opponent, Raila Odinga. 

The Jubilee Administration that he heads takes office after mounting a successful, well organized and generously resourced campaign punctuated by the sophisticated use of tried and tested corporate marketing techniques by a savvy team quite adept in technology and keen to take advantage of the enormous potential of Facebook and Twitter in getting their message out to their grassroots within and without Kenya. 

So smug were they that they boasted that THEY were THE embodiment of the Digital Revolution in Kenya; deriding their opponents as technological throwbacks stuck in the Analog quagmire.

But in an ironic twist, their raucous, intolerant and tribal sturmtruppen, stoßtruppen, their shock troops online, in cahoots with paranoid securocrats lurking in the grey corridors of the neo-colonial state’s shadowy security intelligence and police agencies have pounced on those they deem to be opposed to, or merely questioning their legitimacy to rule Kenya.

At 14:14:13 on Wednesday, April 10, 2013-the first day of Uhuru Kenyatta in office-I received the following text message on my cell phone:
“I’ve been arrested by Kilimani CID when I went to honor their summons. I’m currently writing a statement. Mr. Patrick Gisemba is the IO.”
Many hours later, at 22:31:10 on the same day, a follow up message from the same person:
“Won’t be able to leave on cash bail as the OCS has left. Will be in court tomorrow. A Magistrate friend of mine tells me that in Kibera the bail terms are kidogo cheaper. He says the highest I can pay is 30K. I’m already at 15 K now…NB: the charge is based in Section29 (b) of the Communications Act and the offence is posting an inciteful message on Facebook in the form of a link to a video. This is in relation to the IEBC, TNA, and Ken Call viral video. Complainant unknown, I guess I will get to know in the morning. Regards, Roy Ogolla.

I am assuming that Roy broadcast that text message to as many people in the phonebook of his cell phone.

Almost 24 hours later, I attempted to call him because I had not heard from him all day. 

Here is his terse text reply at 20:58:53 on April 11, 2013:

“Can’t talk now…Working on my release.”

We hooked up face to face on April 12th when we both showed up in solidarity with the launch of The People’s Court website at the Stanley Hotel where the main speakers were Gladwell Otieno, Maina Kiai and Zahid Rajan.

After the event had wrapped up and everyone went their separate way, Onyango Oloo, Maina Kiai and Gladwell Otieno listened in rapt attention as Roy Ogolla Kohadha, who is a young and upcoming independent film maker, recounted his ordeal to the three of us.

He now revealed that among his accusers were the Jubilee propagandist Moses Kuria, the TNA leaning blogger Dennis Itumbi and another Uhuru Kenyatta supporter that Roy had been jousting with on Facebook.

But this was not an isolated incident.

The Ghafla! site had carried this item a few days after the March 4th elections:

Robert Alai Summoned To CID HQ Over His Tweets

Controversial blogger and tech-writer Robert Alai was this morning summoned to the CID headquarters on Kiambu road for questioning. This comes after the blogger made “grave” allegations via his Twitter handle that the police felt contravened the law.

In the tweets, Alai alleged that Justice Lenaola (one of the six Supreme Court judges hearing the CORD petition) was meeting some of the plaintiffs in the case and tagged Chief Justice Willy Mutunga in the tweet. Here is the series of the tweets;

"Why is Justice Lenaola meeting litigants? @WMutunga” Mar 24, 2013

"Isaack Hassan also has joined Kimemia and Lenaola at the club.” Mar 24, 2013

"Francis Kimemia and Justice Lenaola now meeting at a private members’ only club in Karen.” Mar 24, 2013

By the time this article went up, the controversial blogger was headed to Milimani Court to face charges. Alai was in the company of Norman Magaya, ODM Youth 2012 chairman.

Journalist Bogonko Bosire advised the blogger to go defend the tweets if indeed they are true, if not apologize. “My word to Alai as I always say, being summoned is okay, if what you wrote is True go defend it, if it is not apologize, but being summoned to defend yourself is a great chance for you to prove what you said is true........We must always be ready to defend what we say and write, Social media should always exercise the highest standards of commitment to Truth.....Go tell the truth if it’s true and again Apologize if it’s not....That is my take,” posted Bogonko.
The same Roy Ogola had at the time posted the following Facebook update on his wall:

@RobertAlai's Charge: Posting annoying TWEET/MESSAGE on TWITTER contrary to Section 29(b) of Kenya Information & Communication Act CAP 411A Laws of Kenya!

On March 31, 2013, I also had occasion to start a thread on the Jukwaa Platform that I founded in 2005 and still administer:

 Disturbing Trends on Jukwaa
Post by admin on Mar 31, 2013, 8:33pm

Dear Jukwaa Members:

I have noticed a few things.

1. There are some SINISTER forces that are trying to intimidate this forum.

2. A few days ago I posted an article DENOUNCING Kimemia for criminalizing dissent. Some unknown people removed that posting. I put it back.

3. Some dedicated and conscientious members of Jukwaa from North America, Europe, other parts of Africa and Kenya have alerted me to a series of attempts to technically scuttle access to Jukwaa. I do not have to speculate about the likely perpetrators of these cowardly attacks.

4. On the other hand, some Jukwaa members who are ardent supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta have started sending me chilling private messages, urging me to clamp down on other Jukwaa members who are critical of some political developments in Kenya. This is simply UNACCEPTABLE. Perhaps these individuals are unaware that I am a veteran social justice activist and well connected human rights defender with friends across Kenya, around Africa and all over the world. Some of us will not allow Kenya to go back to the dark days of the one party dictatorship.

5. All these childish and ultimately DOOMED acts of threats, intimidation and attempts at censorship speak to the growing stature of Jukwaa as a vibrant, independent, critical social media platform of fearless democratic debate and discourse. Those members of the police, NSIS and affiliated government security intelligence establishment squatting and lurking here in Jukwaa will be EXPOSED and COMBATED.
I am announcing to the world today, Sunday March 31, 2013 that SHOULD ANYTHING HAPPEN TO ME OR JUKWAA then everyone should be aware that forces of impunity, retrogression and fascism are DIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE.
Onyango Oloo
Speaking Truth to Power Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow!
Below is an excerpt from my rambling blog post at the Kenya Democracy Project, uploaded on March 27, 2013:
The resurgence of state intimidation, police harassment, arbitrary arrests, lobbing of tear gas, firing of live bullets, rounding up of activists and even extra judicial killings is CHILLING.

It reminds me of the dark days of the long night of Moi KANU one party fascist dictatorship.

Many of the teenagers and  early twentysomething Facebookers and twentysomething twittering twits babbling, yammering and jabbering gibberish endorsing these draconian, illegal and unconstitutional state terror tactics had NOT EVEN BEEN CONCEIVED back in the day when it was considered OK for the cops to storm a private residence and arrest four family members discussing the news headlines when having their ugali na sukuma for supper because they were allegedly having a "night meeting" because they did not bother to secure a police license.

I am particularly offended by the clamour to reintroduce repression in Kenya at this point in time.

For two reasons.

 One, Kenyans are living under a new constitutional dispensation. That new order signifies a transition from the terrible National Security State to the more alluring National Democratic State, in other words, a move from FASCISM to DEMOCRATIC RENEWAL.

Why would, for instance public officers like Mr. Kimemia and Mr. Kimaiyo who have SWORN to DEFEND the Constitution flagrantly violate the Bill of Rights?

Two, and this is rather PERSONAL as far as I am concerned.

On August 4, 1982, while I was still a first year University of Nairobi student, I was abducted by the police at the Voi Railway Station and returned forcibly under gun point, to be charged with three counts of "sedition" liable up to 27 years imprisonment, BASED SOLELY on the basis of a hand written DRAFT of an essay where I was calling upon Kenyan youth and students to stand up for democracy, justice and freedom. On the basis of those trumped up charges, a hastily convened KANGAROO court sentenced me to several years behind bars at the notorious Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. I was tortured, beaten, humiliated and alienated. My youth was stolen from me. My education was interrupted. I became blacklisted when I left prison. I was shunned. I was forced to flee from my homeland Kenya and exiled to a very frigid continent tens of thousands of miles away where I vegetated for close twenty years!

And for what?

For drafting a student essay touching on issues of fundamental rights like freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, academic freedom and other civil and political liberties.

Onyango Oloo and hundreds of Kenyan patriots like, to name just a few, Dr. Willy Mutunga, Raila Odinga, Alamin Mazrui, Timothy Njoya, Davinder Lamba, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Micere Mugo, Wangui wa Goro, Wangari Muriuki, Chitechi Osundwa, Adongo Ogony, Oduor Ongwen, Zarina Patel, Yusuf Hassan, Abdilatif Abdalla, Njeri Kabeberi, Paddy Onyango Sumba, Mwandawiro Mghanga, Oyange Mbajah, Silvanus Oduor, Omondi Kabir and many, many, more, paid with our health, our families, our minds, our limbs, our careers, yes, some with their very lives to topple the fascist dictatorship and contribute to the emerging democratic space which is best exemplified by the promulgation of the Kenyan Constitution on August 27, 2010.
Where we the Kimemias and Kimaiyos back then?

Undergoing a DO course at the Kenya Institute of Administration or going through the recruit's training drills at the Police College in Kiganjo?

Those readers who are not familiar with my background or conversant with my views can click on the following  link to read the transcript of an interview I did in January 2007 with Patricia Willis, the Co-Editor of an American feminist journal.

2.0.  Kenyan Activists Have Been on the Digital Cutting Age for Over 20 Years

Some of us chuckled when some mainstream Kenyan politicians and their coterie of cheerleaders started thumping their chests as the Digital Champions per Excellence.

Yet some of them opened their Facebook accounts in 2010 and unleashed their Twitter handles in 2012.

Social media is NOT just about Facebook and Google +

It predates Twitter by decades.

I remember when I first returned to Kenya in August 1994, after living as a political exile in Canada for seven years.

I quickly reconnected with comrades and friends that I had last seen in Kamiti Maximu Security Prison in 1980s.

One of these compatriots was Oduor Ong’wen who had been part of the student leadership at the University of Nairobi and was later jailed because of his activities in the Marxist underground movement.

In 1994, he was working for ECONEWS, an environmentalist civil society organization. Oduor invited me to their offices, which at that time were located somewhere in the South “C” suburb of the Kenyan capital.

When I arrived there I noticed that ECONEWS was sharing offices with the local bureau of the alternative Inter Press Service represented by Muthoni Wanyeki, the well known feminist and human rights crusader. One of Oduor’s colleagues was Grace Githaiga.

These were the very early days of Internet connectivity in the country, but all these activists were already connected and very much part of global digital interactions. If my memory serves me right they were looped into the APC networks which was comprised of Green Net in the UK; SANGONET in South Africa, Pegasus in Australia and New Zealand; Inter Global Communications in the USA and Web Networks in Canada-all alternative, all progressive online platforms linking activists to the World Wide Web.

In those days, it was activists who dominated the Internet, not the corporations, not the governments, the Dot.Com explosion and the ensuing meltdown would come later; towards the end of the nineties. I remember things were so basic then-we were still using those cumbersome five and a quarter floppy disks to boot up our clunky 286 machines. The monitors on those electronic dinosaurs were algae green in colour and when you logged on, there was this irritating whirring sound as your Stone Age modem tried to hook you online at the devastating speed of 24 kbs a minute! I remember the staff at ECONEWS had to write their email messages OFFLINE, during day light office hours, save them and queue them to be transmitted at NIGHT because of the astronomical cost of digital access back then.

Back in Toronto, Canada, where I resided at the time, the non-profit and activist Web Networks was the premier Internet Service Provider in the whole Land of the Maple Leaf. I had an account with Web from around 1992. I recall that Web Networks was a member of the progressive Bread and Roses Credit Union (where Kenyan blogger and activist Kathure Kebaara worked at the time as a teller).

You could NOT open an account at Bread and Roses if you were not a feminist, a socialist, an anarchist; an environmentalist, a disability rights activist; a musician, a painter, a poet, a lesbian, a bisexual (the manager was a Jewish gay man); a psychiatric survivor; a campaigner for sex workers’ rights, a homeless squatter activist; a member of the ANC (yes, Toronto was an anti-apartheid hotbed); a  pro-Palestinian protestor, a pro-IRA aficionado; an amigo who had tasted armed struggle in El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Chile or Nicaragua; a life member in an affordable housing coop; a community radio programmer, a campaigner for Indigenous People, a vegetarian, preferably a Vegan, for those who can appreciate the nuance between the two V-ists; an environmentalist or working on some anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist or anti-globalization cause.

And like I said, Web Networks was a member of Bread and Roses AND the LEADING internet service provider in the whole of Canada at the time-circa the mid 1990s.

During that period I worked as the Provincial Coordinator of the Global Education Centres of Ontario (GECO) a network of 13 activist organizations based in Windsor (Third World Resource Centre); Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Guelph (GIRC); Ottawa, Kingston, Waterloo, St. Catherine’s (WIAM) Peterborough (KWIC), Toronto (Development Education Centre), Kitchener and Hamilton- all in Ontario, the richest and most densely populated of all of Canada’s ten provinces and territories.

My Herculean task, as the All Rolled Into One receptionist, book keeper, volunteer coordinator and office manager was to ensure among other things that I maintained communications with each of these groups which were far flung from Thunder Bay and Sudbury in the extreme north of the province to Windsor in the southern tip, hugging Detroit across the border in Michigan, the United States. 

One of our challenges is that as a small network we had very little money so I could not afford to be traversing Ontario on a chartered air craft every week.

So the Internet came to the rescue.

There was no Facebook back then.

We relied on an ancient (but very “cutting edge” back then) system called  a “bulletin board.” This ancestor of the modern  online forum was a text only space, almost a virtual private network in which as the Provincial Coordinator I would post messages for the entire 13 centres to access and act on-for example notices of upcoming annual general meetings, retreats, workshops, conferences and what not. The whole point of setting up the bulletin board was so that members could avoid using their land lines to make expensive long distance calls across the province. 

But there was the rub. 

Even in Canada at the time, many folks were still extremely technophobic.

Several staffers, board members and volunteers in our GECO network did NOT know how to log in to their email accounts!

The few who did still preferred face to face contact or simply picking up the phone and dialing the person they wanted to talk to.

Needless to say, the phone bills mounted and I was still forced to jump into the Grey Hound buses to make my tour of all the groups scattered throughout this southern Canadian expanse.

The point I am making is that in terms of being digital, networked and Internet savvy, Kenyan activists have been there and done that, many eons before the Johnny Come Latelys of 2013 who want to impress us with their Facebook walls and Tweeter feeds where all they do all day and all night is to sigh, gossip about Beyoncé’s alleged Illuminati ties and retweet yet another rendition of Gangman Style.

It was not just in Canada. 

In the United States especially, Kenyan university students-both undergraduate as well those pursuing their masters, doctoral and post-doctoral studies had gotten together to first form Kenya Net, then the KAACT which then, through the pioneering activities of people like Dr. Matunda Nyanchama (based in Oakville Ontario) Paul Alwalah, Tom Owino, Omwega Marwanga, Dr. Njenga Kariuki in Minnesota, Dr. Shem Ochuodho (finishing his studies in the UK at the time) Njonjo Mue,  Sam Imbo, the late Archie Omondi Odenyo, Lucy Kimani, Justus Wanga, Frank Mwaniki, Mkwawasi Mcharo, Luvisia Bakuli, the late Jogider, Abdul Yakub aka Chifu wa Malindi  and others later on mobilized  and coalesced into the Kenya Community Abroad, the first major Kenya Diaspora association which was very political active around the world in fighting for democracy in Kenya from the 1990s. KCA had its own mailing list on the Internet which was very influential. It soon spawned such discussion forums as KenyaOnline and Africa Oped. In the meantime, Rich Bowen, a native of the southern state of Kentucky who had grown up in Kijabe with his American missionary parents had set up a site named after him but with a link dubbed Kenya Talk which was a meeting point for Kenyans from around the world. These were all things happening from the late eighties, early nineties.

But the biggest digital breakthrough and contribution from these Kenyan students abroad was the spawning of Africa Online which mushroomed into one of the biggest Internet Service Providers. It was the brainchild of some brilliant Kenyan students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology- Ms. Amolo Ng’weno, Karanja Gakio and Ayisi Makiatani  who launched in 1994.

On a related note, the current head honcho of Vision 2030, Mugo Kibati  who got an M.S., Technology and Policy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (joint Master's management combining engineering, management and policy) between 1997 and 1999  was part of this creative technological, entrepreneurial, political, professional and activist ferment in the Kenyan Diaspora.

What is critical to note is that online networking and organizing initiatives started offline, even though there was no Chinese Wall demarcating the brick and mortar stuff from cyber actions.

For instance, for many years, many of the activities of KCA which was based in Washington, were for many of the same reasons I cited for the Ontario based GECO, coordinated through an e-mailing list.

Those of us who were in Toronto were part of the nuclei which created the Kenya Human Rights Organization in Canada (along with Adongo Ogony, Kathure Kebaara, Omondi Tegi Obanda and the late Githirwa wa Muhoro) , Committee for Democracy in Kenya (spearheaded by Miguna Miguna and Willy Mutunga, who were both students at the Osgoode Law School at York University) and Kenya Community in Ontario (first mooted by Onyango Oloo, Matunda Nyanchama, Jayne Rop, Eunice Magara, Charles Mayenga, Perez Oyugi, Dr. Abbie, Mrs. Fraciah Muriuki and Benson Ondoro), Africans United to Control AIDS (with James Karanja, Onyango Oloo, Adongo Ogony, Dr. Molly Nakyonyi of Uganda and the late Claude Dusaidi of Rwanda at the helm) to name just a handful.

3.0. Social Media Political Activity in the 2013 Kenyan Election Campaign

Notice that I consciously employ the term “political activity” because ACTIVISM has a different connotation, and for the purposes of this essay, specific ideological context.

When I speak of activism, I imply something proactive, progressive; I am talking of a concerted, collective striving for something better; a struggle to change things for the better; the term “activism” implies an attempt to challenge the shenanigans and machinations of the status quo.

And I am stressing the above because the predominant use of Facebook and Twitter in Kenya over the last year has been as a MARKETING and PROPAGANDA tool for mainstream politicking, for humdrum, run of the mill electoral campaigning by this or that person hoping to use the Internet to get people to vote for him or her in their quest to become President, Governor, Senator, Women’s Representative, National Assembly member or County Representative.

Most of these digital efforts just buttressed the more mundane, “tried and tested” offline methods of voter bribery, ethnic mobilization, lies, deceit, theft, laundering drug money, counterfeited currency, gerrymandering, elite pacting, backroom deals and content free road shows.

With this background in mind, we must therefore sober up as we reexamine the content of the bulk of even the most overtly “political” exchanges on Kenya social media platforms be it through conduits like Twitter, Facebook, Google +, chat rooms, discussion forums or dedicated mailing lists and other digital groups.
How much of the chatter by the Twitterati or the jabbering by the Facebook contingents meets the litmus test of social media activism?

It is true that tens of thousands of Kenyans were and are still engaged in daily virtual fist fights and cyber mud wrestling around political cleavages. 

During the just concluded Presidential contest most of the political traffic in Kenya internet forums and other online spaces featured pitched battles between pro and anti Raila antagonists, pro and anti-Uhuru fanatics.

Because of the predominant tribal slant in the campaign many of the foot soldiers reacted impulsively to posts just on the mere spelling or sound of one’s surname, sometimes not bothering to read what the Facebook update or tweet was about.

What has now complicated the social media exchanges has to do with the fact that one side has emerged “victorious” courtesy to the Supreme Court installation of Uhuru Kenyatta as the Fourth President.

Some of the Facebook hecklers of two weeks ago and the Twitter mud throwers of a month ago have now graduated into the communications gurus, policy wonks and digital security advisors of the new Jubilee Administration.

It is not happenstance that some of the presumed CORD supporters online are being targeted, profiled and prosecuted at the instigation of their Facebook foes. 

But it is no longer harmless showboating on people’s FB walls or cowardly threats deposited surreptitiously in social media in boxes. 

Today on the basis of a rumour, insinuation or irrational fear, a young person can be tracked using digital foot prints like IP addresses to their one bedroom apartments or servant quarter domiciles by the real police- as happened with one Roy Ogolla who has summoned to the Kilimani Police Station only to be grilled by an Inspector with the Criminal Investigations Department of the Kenya Police Service before being hauled to court and charged with “misusing technology” allegedly for committing the “Capital Offence” of sharing a link to a titillating political video on Facebook!

It is this criminalization of online dissent that many of us are increasingly worried about, given as we have stated above happening after twenty years of democratic struggle against state repression resulted in one of the most progressive constitutions in the world with water tight provisions guaranteeing fundamental political and civil rights like freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and so on.

What is unfolding in Kenya as we speak as the zeroing in on individual bloggers could snowball into a full fledged state onslaught on voices and forces with an opposing ideological, but perfectly legal and peaceful national agenda.

It is at this juncture that  all Kenyan political activists and social justice campaigners-offline and online- should close ranks and congeal as a national counter force to roll back these creeping manifestations of fascist social control methods in contemporary Kenyan society.

But let us pause  for a few minutes on that sub theme to revert to the main issue we set out to grapple with in this essay:

To what extent can we rely entirely on Facebook and Twitter to effect fundamental social and political transformation in Kenya?

Was there a Twitter Revolution in Iran?

Did Facebook bring down the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt?

Let us examine these scenarios.

4.0.  What was the Impact of Twitter in the Iranian Elections of 2009?

Golnaz Esfandiari is an online Iranian activist and senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe based in Washington, D.C. 

On June 7, 2010 she wrote a piece for Foreign Policy magazine where she argued that far from being a tool of revolution in Iran in 2009, the Internet, in many ways, it just complicated the picture. Here is an excerpt from her piece:

Before one of the major Iranian protests of the past year, a journalist in Germany showed me a list of three prominent Twitter accounts that were commenting on the events in Tehran and asked me if I knew the identities of the contributors. I told her I did, but she seemed disappointed when I told her that one of them was in the United States, one was in Turkey, and the third -- who specialized in urging people to "take to the streets" -- was based in Switzerland.

Perhaps I shattered her dreams of an Iranian "Twitter Revolution." The Western media certainly never tired of claiming that Iranians used Twitter to organize and coordinate their protests following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's apparent theft of last June's elections. Even the American government seemed to get in on the act. Former U.S. national security adviser Mark Pfeifle claimed Twitter should get the Nobel Peace Prize because "without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confidant to stand up for freedom and democracy." And the U.S. State Department reportedly asked Twitter to delay some scheduled maintenance in order to allow Iranians to communicate as the protests grew more powerful.

But it is time to get Twitter's role in the events in Iran right. 

Simply put: 

There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. As Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of "Balatarin," one of the Internet's most popular Farsi-language websites, told the Washington Post last June, Twitter's impact inside Iran is nil. "Here [in the United States], there is lots of buzz," he said. "But once you look, you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves."

A number of opposition activists have told me they used text messages, email, and blog posts to publicize protest actions. However, good old-fashioned word of mouth was by far the most influential medium used to shape the postelection opposition activity. There is still a lively discussion happening on Facebook about how the activists spread information, but Twitter was definitely not a major communications tool for activists on the ground in Iran.

Nonetheless, the "Twitter Revolution" was an irresistible meme during the post-election protests, a story that wrote itself. Various analysts were eager to chime in about the purported role of Twitter in the Green Movement. Some were politics experts, like the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan and Marc Ambinder. Others were experts on new media, like Sascha Segan of PC Magazine. Western journalists who couldn't reach -- or didn't bother reaching? -- people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets posted with tag #iranelection. Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.

A pristine instance of this myopia was a profile, published in Britain's Guardian newspaper, of Oxfordgirl, a Twitter blogger who was described as "a key player" in Iran's postelection unrest. "Before they started blocking mobile phones, I was almost coordinating people's individual movements -- 'go to such and such street,' or ‘don't go there, the Basij are waiting,'" she was quoted as saying. It's a riveting story -- but the reporter failed to ask how Oxfordgirl managed to communicate with residents of Tehran via cell phone when the Iranian government shut down the whole city's mobile network, as it always did on days of protest.

Oxfordgirl was ultimately more successful at gaining publicity for herself than at helping any protesters in Iran. Compare her 10,000 Twitter followers with the 300 followers of a Karaj-based Green activist (who prefers not to be identified or to have his Twitter page publicized). The activist tweets in Persian, which few Western journalists can read, and he is often a source of valuable information about the mood in the country.

The story of Oxfordgirl gives a clue about the real role that Twitter played. There is no doubt that she helped spread news about the Iranian protests -- often very quickly. Twitter played an important role in getting word about the events in Iran out to the wider world. Together with YouTube, it helped focus the world's attention on the Iranian people's fight for democracy and human rights. New media over the last year created and sustained unprecedented international moral solidarity with the Iranian struggle -- a struggle that was being bravely waged many years before Twitter was ever conceived.

But an honest accounting of Twitter's role in Iran would also note its pernicious complicity in allowing rumors to spread. It began with the many unsubstantiated reports from the protests. In the early days of the post-election crackdown a rumor quickly spread on Twitter that police helicopters were pouring acid and boiling water on protesters. A year later it remains just that: a rumor. Other Twitter stories were quickly debunked, like the suggestion that circulated in late June that Mousavi had been arrested at his home in Tehran.

Twitter followers of #iranelection also helped quickly name Saeedeh Pouraghayi -- who was allegedly arrested for chanting "Allah Akbar" on her rooftop, only to be raped, disfigured and murdered -- a new "martyr" of the Green Movement. Her tragic story quickly made the rounds on Twitter and other social networking websites. Mouasvi and his aides even reportedly attended a commemoration ceremony that was held for her in Tehran.

Yet the whole story turned out to be a hoax. Pouraghayi later appeared on a program on Iran's state television and said that on the night when she was supposedly arrested, she had escaped by jumping off her balcony. In the intervening two months, she said was being treated at the home of the person who found her in the street. A reformist website later wrote that the Iranian government had planted the story in order to cast doubt on opposition claims about the rape of post-election detainees and pave the way for further arrests of opposition leaders. Twitter, it seems, can serve the purposes of Iran's regime as easily as it can aid the country's activists.

To be clear: It's not that Twitter publicists of the Iranian protests haven't played a role in the events of the past year. They have. It's just not been the outsized role it's often been made out to be. And ultimately, that's been a terrible injustice to the Iranians who have made real, not remote or virtual, sacrifices in pursuit of justice.

5.0. Did Facebook Topple Hosni Mubarak in Egypt?

Mohammed el-Nawawy is a Knight-Crane Chair and Associate Professor in the Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte. Sahar Khamis is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at University of Maryland.

Together they wrote a paper entitled Political Activism 2.0: Comparing the Role of Social Media in Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution” and Iran’s “Twitter Uprising” which was published in CyberOrient, Vol. 6, Iss. 1, 2012.

Here is a relevant passage from that study:

On January 25, 2011, Egypt witnessed a popular revolution that led to a historic outcome. On that day, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets, demanding freedom, justice and an end to corruption. Then their demands were escalated to reach a point of calling for toppling President Hosni Mubarak who stayed in power for thirty years. The mass demonstrations started out in Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo, and then spread throughout various Egyptian governorates. Despite the fact that the protesters refrained from using violence, "armies of riot police took up positions on key thoroughfares around the capital, ready to beat back demonstrators," and using live ammunition and tear gas canisters against many unarmed civilians .

After the failure of police forces to stop the increasing demonstrations, Mubarak ordered the army to take control of the situation and deploy throughout areas of tension in Egypt. In the meantime, Mubarak made several concessions by firing his cabinet and naming a vice president and a possible successor - a step that the Egyptian public had been calling on him to take for years.

Demonstrations continued despite Mubarak's concessions, and over the course of eighteen days, the masses defied a nationwide curfew and they were relentless in their demands in a way that stunned the Mubarak regime. Eventually, Mubarak had no choice but to step down on February 11, 2011, delegating his powers to the military and marking a new page in Egypt's history. The fall of Mubarak "was as swift as it was unexpected...He had inherited and shaped a system of patronage, nepotism and brutality that seemed beyond challenge”.

It was not a surprise that social media played a role in the Egyptian revolution given the fact that Egypt has been among the pioneering countries in the Middle East in terms of Internet usage. "Egypt followed Tunisia by linking to the Internet in late 1993. This was done by the Information and Decision Making Support Center affiliated to the Egyptian Cabinet." The number of Internet users in Egypt at the time of writing this paper is approximately 17 million, which is 21 percent of the population. "The usage growth was 3.691 percent between 2000 and 2010. All receive the service through 211 Internet Service Providers". The number of Egyptian blogs has risen from 40 in 2004 to approximately 160,000 in July 2008. "Although Egypt's Interior Ministry under Mubarak maintained a department of 45 people to monitor Facebook, nearly 5 million Egyptians use the social networking site". "That's less than 7 percent of Egypt's total population. In other words, less than 7 out of every 100 Egyptians are Facebook users".

Despite the small number of Egyptians on Facebook, activists used this social media tool to get their message across and to plan their meeting points on the streets. That led many observers to describe the Egyptian uprising as the "Facebook Revolution." One Facebook page was launched before the revolution, and it played a key role in mobilizing the Egyptian public. This page revolved around a young Egyptian male - Khaled Said - who was beaten to death in June 2010 on the streets of Alexandria by two police officers after posting a YouTube video which allegedly revealed police corruption. The "We Are All Khaled Said" page attracted close to a half-a-million followers, and it "became a rallying point for a campaign against police brutality. For many Egyptians, it revealed details of the extent of torture in their country".

The social media role in the Egyptian revolution was suspended on January 27, 2011, after the Egyptian regime's unmatched step of shutting down the Internet service and cutting the mobile service in the whole country. Despite the fact that the Internet blackout lasted for six days, during which the country was totally isolated from the virtual world, "protest organizers were able to bring out larger crowds than ever using flyers and leaflets, word of mouth, and mosques as centers for congregation" .

The protesters' ability to carry on with their activities on the ground during the height of the revolution without social media could be attributed to a well-organized Egyptian civil society that had been active for years before the revolution despite pressures from the Mubarak regime. 

The Egyptian civil society under the Mubarak regime was subject to state laws that curtailed its functionality. Still, the decade that preceded the revolution had witnessed waves of protests and "cycles of contestation," that were instigated by "the continuing structural crises of the Egyptian economy and state system, which had long since alienated the mass of the population”. 

In 2000, the first wave of political activism was exemplified in a series of street protests that took place on many Egyptian university campuses in support of the second Palestinian uprising. Then, a second wave of protests took place in 2003 against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2004, a third and massive-scale cycle of contestation started when activists from various political backgrounds and affiliations came together and formed "The Egyptian Movement for Change," whose slogan was "Kifaya" (Arabic for Enough). This movement, which included Islamists, Liberals, and Socialists, among others, called on Mubarak not to run for a fifth term and rejected the possibility of his son Gamal succeeding him.

During the months that preceded the 2005 presidential elections, Kifaya organized "a host of public activities - demonstrations, campus rallies, meetings and marches." It came up with new ways to contest the authorities. The rise of Kifaya coincided with the emergence of a vibrant group of online activists and bloggers who documented the regime's brutalities, particularly police torture and human rights' violations.  Kifaya utilized the bloggers' help to disseminate its message, but its main activities took place on the ground.  It had a "horizontal structure" that invested in the talents and energies of its members who belonged to different factions, yet they were united in a coalition movement that called for an end to the Mubarak regime. 

This horizontal nature of Kifaya, that organically connected its members who held different ideologies, exemplified the SPIN model, where "multiple hubs" of segmented, polycentric movements are collectively integrated into a network of "nonhierarchical social linkages" with shared understandings among the ideologically-diverse participants.

Additionally, in 2006 a group of judges organized public sit-ins and protests to call for the independence of the judiciary system. This was "an unprecedented development in which dissent came from within the core structures of the state itself”.

Furthermore, over the course of 2008, hundreds of thousands of workers collectively participated in huge strikes and protests. Then, a couple young activists started a Facebook group, calling for a general strike on April 6, 2008. As a result of this call, a massive strike took place and "drew in an unusually broad array of formal and informal opposition groups...along with state workers...independent journalists, and university professors". A movement known as "April 6" was formed in the immediate aftermath of this call, and it included activists and bloggers belonging to several ideological schools, thus exemplifying the same spirit that existed in Kifaya. Egypt continued to witness workers' protests over the course of 2009 and 2010.

None of the abovementioned movements could "claim a decisive victory. But together they have succeeded in changing the agenda for political action under conditions of sustained authoritarianism. Moreover, they were effective in mobilizing the Egyptian public and building up a strong momentum for the 2011 revolution. These movements were organized in a way that created "shared communities of protest" and revitalized "an environment of public dissent".

As mentioned earlier, the SPIN model was evident in most of the civil society movements in Egypt, but the best exemplification for it was witnessed during the 2011 revolution. The revolution started out with small demonstrations that grew bigger. No particular group or movement led or claimed exclusive responsibility for these demonstrations. "Though small, these organizing groups were clearly effective in bringing people to the streets who had never engaged in political activity a day in their lives. While organizers did meet in person, social media was sometimes a safer way to interact and plan”.

The SPIN model calls for collective action, group coordination and organized division of labor among members of various groups. All these characteristics were featured at Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution. Esraa Abdel-Fattah, a political activist and co-founder of the April 6 group, said right after Mubarak's falling: "Members from all the youth political groups were protesting at Tahrir Square...It was a perfect division of labor among the protesters. It was a whole life at the square." 

The young activists whose organizations participated in the revolution formed the Coalition of the Revolution's Youth. With approximately 50,000 members on its Facebook page, it served "as a forum for discussion and an umbrella movement that will try to crystallize specific demands...Suggestions made online through Facebook are taken up and discussed at face-to-face meetings, both in the capital and in the governorates"…

…Despite the fact that social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, played a critical role in the political upheavals that have been taking place in the Middle East, we cannot assume a relationship of causality between social media and political revolutions. This study shows that social media can potentially contribute to political revolution, but only under certain circumstances. There needs to be a complex network of events, forces, and people in order for social media to be effective in political change.

In considering the relationship between social media and political revolutions, we have to acknowledge the differences in content and capability among various forms of social media. For example, while Facebook allows for rich information and a high level of sustained interaction among its users, Twitter has the potential to reach a broader audience at a faster pace compared to Facebook. These differences between Facebook and Twitter were exemplified in their use by activists in Egypt and Iran.

The comparison between the Internet role in Egypt's 2011 revolution and Iran's 2009 uprising showed that political realism is more functional than cyber-utopianism in assessing the role of social media role in public mobilization. The Iranian protesters' inability to change the course of the 2009 elections, "let alone spark a revolution, should remind us that utopian interpretations of technology and social movements often run into a hard reality. Using the criteria of existing theories of revolution, it is clear that Iran was - and remains - far from reaching the requisite threshold of a political or social revolution"… In the context of political realism, the SPIN model was more applicable to the Egyptian revolution than the Iranian uprising. This could be linked to four major differences between both cases. First, while the Iranian protesters were disorganized and failed to attract large numbers of people, the Egyptian segmented groups, which were part of civil society, were able to integrate, network and act in unison despite their polycentric nature and the disparities in their ideologies. Mohammed Ali Mohtadi, the Iranian thinker quoted earlier, said in the same interview with the authors that: "The uprising that erupted in Iran was launched by certain and limited factions of the upper and middle classes of the Iranian society. This was very different from the Egyptian revolution, which involved all factions of the society, such as the elite, the youth and the laborers." The fact that the percentage of Internet users in Egypt is way less than that in Iran, as previously mentioned, yet the Egyptian revolution succeeded in toppling the regime, indicates that the social media need a strong civil society in order for them to function effectively. This is also important given the reality that the Internet service in Egypt was suspended by the Mubarak regime for more than a week during the 18-day revolution, yet political movements succeeded in mobilizing themselves on the streets without the use of social media during that time.

Second, a lot of the activists who were the mobilizing force behind the Iranian uprising were opposition groups operating in the diaspora outside of Iran, while this was not the case in Egypt, where the opposition groups were all active locally. This is closely related to the previous point, since local groups are more capable of on the ground organization and attracting a wide base of popular support.

Third, the level of sophistication of the Iranian government in combating the opposition's cyberactivism efforts was much more than the Egyptian government, since the Iranian regime was not only more technologically savvy than its Egyptian counterpart, but was also more prepared and more proactive, rather than reactive, in countering activism, both online and offline.

Fourth, in Egypt the struggle was against a clearly corrupt and visibly oppressive regime, but in Iran the regime acquires a large part of its legitimacy from the religious theocracy that is ruling the country, which makes it much harder to shake this regime or to fight against it, thus limiting the effectiveness of opposition movements, both online as well as on the streets.

Therefore, the authors can safely conclude that social media cannot automatically or single-handedly launch a revolution. "This is not to say that social networks don't matter; they matter a lot. But they do not incarnate freedom, do not bring about some final, heaven-like stage of human history". In order for social media to be effective in initiating change, they have to be complemented by an active civil society, with well-organized political groups and networks that fit the characteristics of the SPIN model. If these groups exist on the ground, social media can serve as tools for accelerating public mobilization. This well-organized civil society that is conducive for political change existed in Egypt, but not in Iran.

It must be acknowledged that not all protests can lead to revolution. The protests that took place in Egypt in January 2011 were of the confrontational, revolutionary nature that led to toppling the regime, but the protests that took place in Iran in 2009 were less confrontational with the regime, as they were not backed up by a strong support system of organizational networks in the real world. Therefore, we need to be cautious in our assessment of the role of social media in political mobilization to avoid falling in the trap of technological determinism or cyber-utopianism. Rather, we have to bear in mind that "Social media are often a useful compliment to the kinds of activism" that take place in the offline world”, but they are not a decisive factor in determining the outcomes of uprisings and revolutions. In Egypt, unlike in Iran, the decisive factor was the on-the-ground organized networking that emulated the SPIN model. At the end of the day, the success or failure of political movements depends primarily on political activism in the real world, rather than merely cyberactivism in the virtual world.

Here is a link to the whole paper, complete with the citations and references that I edited out for easier reading.

 6.0. Malcolm Gladwell’s Take Down of Twitter in the New Yorker

One of the most trenchant, widely read and influential critiques of the role of social media in effecting transformation in the New Yorker magazine on October 10, 2010. 

In his article, Why the Revolution will Not Be Tweeted, Malcolm Gladwell compared the classic sit ins which took place in the American South in the early 1960s in protest against racial segregation with the headline grabbing events in Moldova and Iran in 2009.

Gladwell tells his readers:

The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns. When ten thousand protesters took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together. A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change. “You are the best hope for us all,” James K. Glassman, a former senior State Department official, told a crowd of cyber activists at a recent conference sponsored by Facebook, A. T. & T., Howcast, MTV, and Google. Sites like Facebook, Glassman said, “give the U.S. a significant competitive advantage over terrorists. Some time ago, I said that Al Qaeda was ‘eating our lunch on the Internet.’ That is no longer the case. Al Qaeda is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation.”

These are strong, and puzzling, claims. Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet? Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all? As for Moldova’s so-called Twitter Revolution, Evgeny Morozov, a scholar at Stanford who has been the most persistent of digital evangelism’s critics, points out that Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist. Nor does it seem to have been a revolution, not least because the protests—as Anne Applebaum suggested in the Washington Post—may well have been a bit of stagecraft cooked up by the government. (In a country paranoid about Romanian revanchism, the protesters flew a Romanian flag over the Parliament building.) In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”
Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.
Greensboro in the early nineteen-sixties was the kind of place where racial insubordination was routinely met with violence. The four students who first sat down at the lunch counter were terrified. “I suppose if anyone had come up behind me and yelled ‘Boo,’ I think I would have fallen off my seat,” one of them said later. On the first day, the store manager notified the police chief, who immediately sent two officers to the store. On the third day, a gang of white toughs showed up at the lunch counter and stood ostentatiously behind the protesters, ominously muttering epithets such as “burr-head nigger.” A local Ku Klux Klan leader made an appearance. On Saturday, as tensions grew, someone called in a bomb threat, and the entire store had to be evacuated.
The dangers were even clearer in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, another of the sentinel campaigns of the civil-rights movement. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee recruited hundreds of Northern, largely white unpaid volunteers to run Freedom Schools, register black voters, and raise civil-rights awareness in the Deep South. “No one should go anywhere alone, but certainly not in an automobile and certainly not at night,” they were instructed. Within days of arriving in Mississippi, three volunteers—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—were kidnapped and killed, and, during the rest of the summer, thirty-seven black churches were set on fire and dozens of safe houses were bombed; volunteers were beaten, shot at, arrested, and trailed by pickup trucks full of armed men. A quarter of those in the program dropped out. Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.
What makes people capable of this kind of activism? The Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared the Freedom Summer dropouts with the participants who stayed, and discovered that the key difference wasn’t, as might be expected, ideological fervor. “All of the applicants—participants and withdrawals alike—emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,” he concluded. What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.
This pattern shows up again and again. One study of the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the nineteen-seventies, found that seventy per cent of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organization. The same is true of the men who joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Even revolutionary actions that look spontaneous, like the demonstrations in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are, at core, strong-tie phenomena. The opposition movement in East Germany consisted of several hundred groups, each with roughly a dozen members. Each group was in limited contact with the others: at the time, only thirteen per cent of East Germans even had a phone. All they knew was that on Monday nights, outside St. Nicholas Church in downtown Leipzig, people gathered to voice their anger at the state. And the primary determinant of who showed up was “critical friends”—the more friends you had who were critical of the regime the more likely you were to join the protest.
So one crucial fact about the four freshmen at the Greensboro lunch counter—David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil—was their relationship with one another. McNeil was a roommate of Blair’s in A. & T.’s Scott Hall dormitory. Richmond roomed with McCain one floor up, and Blair, Richmond, and McCain had all gone to Dudley High School. The four would smuggle beer into the dorm and talk late into the night in Blair and McNeil’s room. They would all have remembered the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott that same year, and the showdown in Little Rock in 1957. It was McNeil who brought up the idea of a sit-in at Woolworth’s. They’d discussed it for nearly a month. Then McNeil came into the dorm room and asked the others if they were ready. There was a pause, and McCain said, in a way that works only with people who talk late into the night with one another, “Are you guys chicken or not?” Ezell Blair worked up the courage the next day to ask for a cup of coffee because he was flanked by his roommate and two good friends from high school.
The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.
This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvelous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism…
… Donating bone marrow isn’t a trivial matter. But it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.
The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires…
… The civil-rights movement was high-risk activism. It was also, crucially, strategic activism: a challenge to the establishment mounted with precision and discipline. The N.A.A.C.P. was a centralized organization, run from New York according to highly formalized operating procedures. At the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the unquestioned authority. At the center of the movement was the black church, which had, as Aldon D. Morris points out in his superb 1984 study, “The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement,” a carefully demarcated division of labor, with various standing committees and disciplined groups. “Each group was task-oriented and coordinated its activities through authority structures,” Morris writes. “Individuals were held accountable for their assigned duties, and important conflicts were resolved by the minister, who usually exercised ultimate authority over the congregation.”
This is the second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant: social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.
This structure makes networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations…
There are many things, though, that networks don’t do well. Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?
… The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy. The Montgomery bus boycott required the participation of tens of thousands of people who depended on public transit to get to and from work each day. It lasted a year. In order to persuade those people to stay true to the cause, the boycott’s organizers tasked each local black church with maintaining morale, and put together a free alternative private carpool service, with forty-eight dispatchers and forty-two pickup stations. Even the White Citizens Council, King later said, conceded that the carpool system moved with “military precision.” By the time King came to Birmingham, for the climactic showdown with Police Commissioner Eugene (Bull) Connor, he had a budget of a million dollars, and a hundred full-time staff members on the ground, divided into operational units. The operation itself was divided into steadily escalating phases, mapped out in advance. Support was maintained through consecutive mass meetings rotating from church to church around the city.
Boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations—which were the weapons of choice for the civil-rights movement—are high-risk strategies. They leave little room for conflict and error. The moment even one protester deviates from the script and responds to provocation, the moral legitimacy of the entire protest is compromised. Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail.

7.0.  State Repression Against Cyber Activists

Evgeny Morozov, a visiting scholar at Stanford University and the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom has pointed out some of the sinister things going inside and across the Internet:
AGENTS of the East German Stasi could only have dreamed of the sophisticated electronic equipment that powered Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s extensive spying apparatus, which the Libyan transitional government uncovered earlier this week. The monitoring of text messages, e-mails and online chats — no communications seemed beyond the reach of the eccentric colonel.
What is even more surprising is where Colonel Qaddafi got his spying gear: software and technology companies from France, South Africa and other countries. Narus, an American company owned by Boeing, met with Colonel Qaddafi’s people just as the protests were getting under way, but shied away from striking a deal. As Narus had previously supplied similar technology to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it was probably a matter of public relations, not business ethics.
Amid the cheerleading over recent events in the Middle East, it’s easy to forget the more repressive uses of technology. In addition to the rosy narrative celebrating how Facebook and Twitter have enabled freedom movements around the world, we need to confront a more sinister tale: how greedy companies, fostered by Western governments for domestic surveillance needs, have helped suppress them.
Libya is only the latest place where Western surveillance technology has turned up. Human rights activists arrested and later released in Bahrain report being presented with transcripts of their own text messages — a capacity their government acquired through equipment from Siemens, the German industrial giant, and maintained by Nokia Siemens Networks, based in Finland, and Trovicor, another German company.
Earlier this year, after storming the secret police headquarters, Egyptian activists discovered that the Mubarak government had been using a trial version of a tool — developed by Britain’s Gamma International — that allowed them to eavesdrop on Skype conversations, widely believed to be safe from wiretapping.
And it’s not just off-the-shelf technology; some Western companies supply dictators with customized solutions to block offensive Web sites. A March report by OpenNet Initiative, an academic group that monitors Internet censorship, revealed that Netsweeper, based in Canada, together with the American companies Websense and McAfee (now owned by Intel), have developed programs to meet most of the censorship needs of governments in the Middle East and North Africa — in Websense’s case, despite promises not to supply its technology to repressive governments.
Unfortunately, the American government, the world’s most vociferous defender of “Internet freedom,” has little to say about such complicity. Though Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton often speaks publicly on the subject, she has yet to address how companies from her country undermine her stated goal. To add insult to injury, in December the State Department gave Cisco — which supplied parts for China’s so-called Great Firewall — an award in recognition of its “good corporate citizenship.”
Such reticence may not be entirely accidental, since many of these tools were first developed for Western law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Western policy makers are therefore in a delicate spot. On the one hand, it is hard to rein in the very companies they have nurtured; it is also hard to resist the argument from repressive regimes that they need such technologies to monitor extremists. On the other hand, it’s getting harder to ignore the fact that extremists aren’t the only ones under surveillance.
The obvious response is to ban the export of such technologies to repressive governments. But as long as Western states continue using monitoring technologies themselves, sanctions won’t completely eliminate the problem — the supply will always find a way to meet the demand. Moreover, dictators who are keen on fighting extremism are still welcome in Washington: it’s a good bet that much of the electronic spying done in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt was done with the tacit support of his American allies.
What we need is a recognition that our reliance on surveillance technology domestically — even if it is checked by the legal system — is inadvertently undermining freedom in places where the legal system provides little if any protection. That recognition should, in turn, fuel tighter restrictions on the domestic surveillance-technology sector, including a reconsideration of the extent to which it actually needs such technology in our increasingly privacy-free world.
As countries like Belarus, Iran and Myanmar digest the lessons of the Arab Spring; their demand for monitoring technology will grow. Left uncontrolled, Western surveillance tools could undermine the “Internet freedom” agenda in the same way arms exports undermine Western-led peace initiatives. How many activists, finding themselves confronted with information collected using Western technology, would trust the pronouncements of Western governments again?

8.0. Petras on the Political Economy of Social Media Activism

One of my favourite public intellectuals is the American Marxist scholar James Petras.

Here are excerpts from Social Opposition in the Age of Internet: Desktop “Militants” and Public Intellectuals, an invited paper Petras read at the “Symposium on Re-Publicness”, Sponsored by the Chamber of Electrical Engineers which took place in Ankara Turkey from December 9 to 10, 2011:

The relation of information technology (IT) and more specifically the internet, to politics is a central issue facing contemporary social movements.  Like many previous scientific advances the IT innovations have a dual purpose:  on the one hand, it has accelerated the global flow of capital, especially financial capital and facilitated imperialist ‘globalization’.  On the other hand the internet has served to provide alternative critical sources of analysis as well as easy communication to mobilize popular movements.

The IT industry has created a new class of billionaires, from Silicon Valley in California to Bangalore, India.  They have played a central role in the expansion of economic colonialism via their monopoly control in diverse spheres of information flows and entertainment.

To paraphrase Marx “the internet has become the opium of the people”.  Young and old, employed and unemployed alike spend hours passively gazing at spectacles, pornography, video games, online consumerism and even “news” in isolation from other citizens, fellow workers and employees.

In many cases the “overflow” of “news” on the internet has saturated the internet, absorbing time and energy and diverting the ‘watchers’ from reflection and action.  Just as too little and biased news by the mass media distorts popular consciousness, too many internet messages can immobilize citizen action.

The internet, deliberately or not, has “privatized” political life.  Many otherwise potential activists have come to believe that circulating manifestos to other individuals is a political act, forgetting that only public action, including confrontations with their adversaries in public spaces, in city centers and in the countryside, is the basis of political transformations… For the social opposition the internet is first and foremost a vital source of alternative critical information to educate and mobilize the “public” – especially among progressive opinion- leaders, professionals, trade unionists and peasant leaders, militants and activists.  The internet is the alternative to the capitalist mass media and its propaganda, a source of news and information that relays manifestos and informs activists of sites for public action.  Because of the internet’s progressive role as an instrument of the social opposition it is subject to surveillance by the repressive police-state apparatus.  For example, in the USA over 800,000 functionaries are employed by the “Homeland Security” police agency to spy on billions of emails, faxes, telephone calls of millions of US citizens.  How effective the policing of tons of information each day is another question.  But the fact is that the internet is not a “free and secure source of information, debate and discussion”.  In fact as the internet becomes more effective in mobilizing the social movements in opposition to the imperial and colonial state, the greater is the likelihood of police-state intervention under the pretext “combating terrorism”.
James Petras answers the question whether or not social media is “revolutionary” in the following way:
It is important to recognize the importance of the internet in detonating certain social movements as well as relativizing its overall significance.

 The internet has played a vital role in publicizing and mobilizing “spontaneous protests” like the ‘indignados’ (the indignant protestors) mostly unaffiliated unemployed youth in Spain and the protestors involved in the US “Occupy Wall Street”.  In other instances, for example, the mass general strikes in Italy, Portugal, Greece and elsewhere the organized trade union confederations played a central role and the internet had a secondary impact.

In highly repressive countries like Egypt, Tunisia and China, the internet played a major role in publicizing public action and organizing mass protests.  However, the internet has not led to any successful revolutions – it can inform, provide a forum for debate, and  mobilize, but it cannot provide leadership and organization to sustain political action let alone a strategy for taking state power.  The illusion that some internet gurus foster, that ‘computerized’ action replaces the need for a disciplined political party, has been demonstrated to be false:  the internet can facilitate movement but only an organized social opposition can provide the tactical and strategic direction which can sustain the movement against state repression and toward successful struggles.

In other words, the internet is not an “end in itself” – the self-congratulatory posture of internet ideologues in heralding a new “revolutionary” information age overlooks the fact that the NATO powers, Israel and their allies and clients now use the internet to plant viruses to disrupt economies, sabotage defense programs and promote ethno-religious uprisings.  Israel sent damaging viruses to hinder Iran’s peaceful nuclear program; the US, France and Turkey incited client social opposition in Libya and Syria.  In a word, the internet has become the new terrain of class and anti-imperialist struggle.  The internet is a means not an end in itself.  The internet is part of a public sphere whose purpose and results are determined by the larger class structure in which it is embedded. 

The social opposition is defined by public action:  the presence of collectivities in political meetings, individuals speaking at public meetings, activists marching in public squares, militant trade unionists confronting employers, poor people demanding sites for housing and public services from public authorities…

To address an active assembled public meeting, to formulate ideas, programs and propose programs and strategies through political action defines the role of the public intellectual. To sit at a desk in an office, in splendid isolation, sending out five manifestos per minute defines a “desktop militant”.  It is a form of pseudo-militancy that isolates the word from the deed.  Desktop “militancy” is an act of verbal inaction, of inconsequential “activism”, a make-believe revolution of the mind.  The exchange of internet communications becomes a political act when it engages in public social movements that challenge power. 

By necessity that involves risks for the public intellectual:  of police assaults in public spaces and economic reprisals in the private sphere.  The desktop “activists” risk nothing and accomplish little.  The public intellectual links the private discontents of individuals to the social activism of the collectivity.  The academic critic comes to a site of action, speaks and returns to their academic office.  The public intellectual speaks and sustains a long-term political educational commitment with the social opposition in the public sphere via the internet and in face to face daily encounters.


9.0. Way Forward for Kenyan Activists Operating in Cyber Space


From the foregoing it is patently clear that Twitter, Facebook and other components of Web 2.0. are contested terrains fraught with contradictions, danger, threats and delusions.

A key point made by many commentators is that the primary space of organizing for progressive social change is offline, terra firma, rather than the nebulous recesses of blogosphere and cyberspace.

That is why I personally make a point of connecting with people offline, especially those I interact with on Jukwaa, Kenya Democracy Project, Facebook and Twitter.

More fundamentally, in political terms, I work within the context of the Social Democratic Party (whose orientation is unabashedly Marxist-Leninist) where I serve in the Central Committee the top organ as the Secretary for Ideology.

At the national level, I am quite optimistic about Kenya.

Unlike the people of Egypt, Moldova or Tunisia for example, Kenyans have accumulated valuable hands on experience in the smouldering cauldrons of struggles for democracy, justice and national renewal. The more than twenty years fighting for a new constitutional dispensation and the almost forty years of resisting the one party dictatorship first of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta followed by Daniel arap Moi has created patriotic combatants steeled enough to repulse any attempt ( as some of us are witnessing now) to attempt a  fascist clawback on our hard won gains.

In this context therefore, we are in a very good vantage point in harnessing the revolutionary democratic potential of social media-based activism for progressive change in our country, across our continent and throughout the world.

To echo the motto of the World Social Forum:


Another Kenya, 
Better More Just 
and Equitable 
is Possible!
But it will take our conscious, 
united, 
disciplined 
and focused 
collective intervention 
in dealing with
 the systemic, 
historic, 
gendered, 
complex 
and class mediated
 problems and hurdles.

Onyango Oloo
Nairobi, Kenya
Sunday, April 14, 2013
21:45 East African Time

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