We’ve now seen a series of waves of popular unrest which were, if not triggered by, at least accelerated and sustained for a period of time by social media, text messaging, easily-distributed digital imagery and all the rest of systems of our wired world. The latest reports out of Egypt are that the state has either disrupted or shutdown key social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter as well as text-messaging and Blackberry service. It’s unclear to me in this report from the AP whether Internet connections themselves have been blocked; but clearly access to the Internet has been significantly curtailed.
On its face, this seems like an obvious step for any embattled regime to take. Taking a whole country off the grid for any period of time would likely be catastrophic in the early 21st century. But surely an authoritarian or episodically repressive regime could disrupt connectivity for some period to prevent its overthrow and not have it do too much damage to the economy.
So two questions occur to me. One is just how much digital media really plays into these episodes of popular unrest in Iran or Tunisia or Egypt. It seems clear to me that it plays a role — just as print played an important role in creating a popular self-consciousness among hitherto scattered and isolated communities and in facilitating communication. But just how much is unclear to me. Does digital communications really make spontaneous organization and collaboration possible or does it just give us a window into a process that’s taken place with less technology in countless popular revolts over the last few hundred years? I don’t have an answer to that. But I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s still an open question.
The other issue is this. As we’ve seen in more circumscribed ways in the United States, the freedom of communication and coordination that the Internet makes possible is matched by the degree of monitoring, surveillance and data-collection it makes possible. We’ve all seen various data maps that show us where on the web — either what sites or what geographical areas — certain topics are most popular or where certain conversations are happening. We reported yesterday that political scientists funded by the Air Force have devised a computer forecasting model to predict civil unrest. And one of the variables is access to the Internet and social networks.
Now these governments aren’t stupid. They may be sclerotic and rickety and repressive. But that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Are they using any of these data gathering or mapping technologies to try to get ahead of these crises when they occur? Or is that just beyond their abilities? There are so many private security firms out there willing to provide all sorts of services. I find it almost impossible to believe there aren’t ones out there hawking expertise on how to monitor Internet activity and selectively shut down Internet activity in periods of popular unrest. How many non-democratic or imperfectly democratic countries in the world are investigating how to do this on their own? It’s common knowledge that China keeps a tight grip on Internet access. But I’m interested in less developed countries, ones with less state capacity and a less robust ability to control digital communications.
This isn’t a rhetorical question. I’m sure the topic has been written about. Let me know what you know.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.