On Tuesday, March 27 in Washington, there will be a conference at Georgetown University featuring two academics I've criticized many times in these pages, anthropologists Sarah Kendzior and Katy Pearce. (Notably here and here, but see also here and here)
Judging from a veritable flurry of smarmy Twittering, basically what these two very tight co-authors and girlfriends, associated with the notorious site Registan.net, have done is get their friends to hold a conference and invite their friends -- that's why I call it "networked academism" -- in a parody of their own paper's discussion of the dubious concept of "networked authoritarianism".
Oh, it's always done, and we see it everywhere -- academics in a certain school of thought or discipline or location develop networks of friends, and they all speak at each other's conferences and they all write blurbs for each other's books or cite each other. It's human nature, it's done everywhere, and we've all seen it in whatever field or endeavour we're in. As an old boss at Soros Foundations used to tell me, "I don't care if you pick your friends; just pick good friends!"
In the case of this conference, I suspect Dr. Paula Newberg, Director, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown, who is convening the meeting and speaking, just wanted to have a conference about a very hot and topical issue, and invited people she knew to speak and they suggested other people they knew, and that's how it goes. Far from sponsoring a thesis that concedes authoritarianism and implies we shouldn't fight it, she no doubt imagines she is sponsoring a discussion about how people overcome authoritarianism on the Internet. At her institute, they teach diplomats things like how to write blogs or discuss topics like "What is hype and reality in e-diplomacy?" so it's all good.
Another speaker, Dr. Séverine Arsène is the 2011-2012 Yahoo ! fellow in residence at Georgetown University; as Yahoo tells us, "Dr. Arsène’s project will explore how different notions of modernity across the globe are contextually based and how these varied representations shape the uses of social media, more specifically, as a tool for online protests."
I'll leave aside the Derrida and Foucault and Chomsky and Zizek on that bookshelf and simply note that I suspect this fellowship, part of Yahoo's Business and Human Rights Program, grew out of its considerable guilt trip for sending Chinese dissidents to the gulag. I don't know if the combination of Big IT corporate machinations around business and Big IT corporate guilt make for the best impetus and environment for serious academic study, but that question is just too big for my pay grade -- I suspect it's a question that if asked thoroughly, would take you to places that would undermine every single university in America. I'm not an academic.
The title of the conference is, "Having Your Say Online: The People's Voice in Authoritarian Contexts." I imagine my bristling at the uses of "The People" especially in a context where we're supposed to be talking about authoritarianism will date me to the Cold War, but I don't care -- there isn't any such thing as "the people," and even "civil society" and "the public" are institutions that can scarcely said to exist or are very fragile and fledgling in these societies anyway -- and that needs to be said. "The People" -- who are they, comrades? (Oh, and hey, I know at least one web site where the "People's Voice" is banned in the form of at least one people.)
Let's see: The conference is filled with zams -- Internews is sending a vice president; Katy Pearce is an adjunct professor of Communications, Culture and Technology at Georgetown University; Zeynep Tufekci is Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Courtney Radsch is Program Manager, Global Freedom of Expression Campaign, Freedom House, etc.
So it isn't a big-name slate and it is probably is as good as it gets when you organize conferences with your friends (and Pearce has just arrived at Georgetown. No matter -- these are all people with lots of "mindshare" through Twitter followers and blogs and forums; and zams, after all, do the staff work and really influence things even unbeknownst to the top bosses.
The viewpoints all range from about A to A and a half -- the differences between Kendzior and Pearce, with their doom-and-gloom news about authoritarian Azerbaijan, and Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, with her over-enthusiasm about the power of networks in the Arab Spring and the revolutionary change of her own country, or Zeynep Tufekci, a booster of WikiLeaks (and celebrator of Twitter's news censorship-by-country program) are really negligible because they are all on the same managed-democracy circuit. They fawn over each other on blogs and Twitters excusing each other repeatedly for not really knowing each others' fields and therefore only willing to learn, blah blah. But they don't really differ about their central thesis: that the objective of social media is to put -- and keep -- a New Class of intellectual elites in power (including themselves!) who will decide what is effective or not effective in "global governance".
Our government, which has a much-discussed but not terribly well-funded (or speedily expended) Internet Freedom Program is supplying Katharine Kendrick, Foreign Affairs Officer, Internet Freedom, U.S. Department of State for the conference, and God help us, that may be as much grounded criticism of these extreme academics and activists as we'll be getting here.
CRITIQUE OF KENDZIOR/PEARCE PAPER 'NETWORKED AUTHORITARIANISM'
Kendzior and Pearce will discuss the theses of "Networked Authoritarianism and Social Media in Azerbaijan" in the latest issue of the Journal of Communication (I was finally able to get a copy). I've critiqued the summaries and discussions of it before as noted above, mainly here.
I've only been able to make one quick read through and I caution again that I'm not a social science academic. But I certainly have a right to critique it as much as anyone concerned about Internet freedom and how US public policy will be shaped on the Internet, so I will raise these concerns:
1. The paper is only 16 pages, of which 2 are taken up with footnotes and halves of others are taken up with charts -- it's slight. So slight as to be hardly construed as holding the weight of this awesome claim -- that reporting on abuses of authoritarian regimes using the boon of social media only retards the overall growth of social media (the hope for change) and therefore... we should stop that. Or something.
2. The paper is based on public opinion surveys made in 2009-2010 *before* the Arab Spring, which had a dramatic impact on the world, and this region, because of the many analogies (I reject Kendzior's thesis that discussing the Arab Spring's impact is "reverse orientalism" here.)
3. To be sure, the academics have studied social media content up to as late as 2011, but the surveys do not appear to be taken from that year. They also provide no indication of the social media they studied.
4. Although they make reference to the donkey bloggers' case as a premise upon which to hinge their arguments, and are studying the impact of the donkey bloggers' repression on Internet users during this period, the authors do not appear to have asked their informants in the survey about the "donkey bloggers" per se (at least, they don't say they do and don't make this explicit if they did).
Instead, in fact, they are using several questions that are part of a survey put on not directly by them, but by the Carnegie-funded Caucasus Research Resource Center as part of a larger survey that has been run annually since 2006. In it, they used a contrived "vignette" in which they mount two propositions and asked for five levels of agreement ranging from "disagree" to "neutral" to "very much agree."
As they write in the paper:
"Measuring support for protests was a significant challenge given Azerbaijanis' hesitance to criticize the government. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic as well as the political environment, this measure was presented as a vignette, a cameo description of a hypothetical situation ((King, Murray, Salomon, & Tandon, 2004; King & Wand, 2006) which allows for a specific interpretation of what the question is attempting to measure. Vignettes are less threatening because they are less personal (Hughes, 1998). The following three-step process was ultimately adopted as a result of pilot testing by the Caucasus Research Resource Center. First, respondents were given a privacy card in which they were asked to agree with one of two statements: (1) "People should participate in protest actions against the government, as this shows the government that the people are in charge" or (2) "People should not participate in protest actions against the government as it threatens stability in our country."
Obviously, these are accepted methods in the field, judging from their references, but the wording of the questions simply have to be challenged at the root: 1) the premise that "the people" can show the government that "they are in charge" is simply not one present in these societies. The people aren't in charge and haven't been in charge in centuries. They don't mount demonstrations with the presumption that they should be, or will be and 2) people can in fact perceive the authoritarian government as destablizing their own local situation with unfair actions such as shutting off electricity or forcing people to pick cotton, and may view protest as a means to restore stability.
More often than not, demonstrations in these countries are mounted on single issues like jobs or housing; in the recent case in Guba, it was about the governor's insult to people who opted to sell cheap land given to them by the government. The demonstrations are mounted on notions of justice -- often people expect that "the good tsar" who only has "bad advisors" will hear and see the victims' plight if only they can get past those "bad advisors" or "corrupt officials" and make a direct appeal. Justice has to do with making the system work as promised -- heavy punishment for miscreants, ridicule and banishment for corrupt officials -- not overturning the government or instituting alien concepts like separation of powers where some mythical "people" or civic entity will now take over and mount all kinds of supervisory organs over the all-powerful executive.
Thus, hearing any question put that way, many people would respond to the part of it that just doesn't tally with their experience or understanding and reject it -- the people aren't ever in charge and won't be. Stability is always advisable and that sounds like the right action. That could add significantly to the skewing of the outcome to a negative. And of course there's the tendency of Soviet audiences, well known from the University of Iowa studies done in the past, to pre-anticipate what the survey-taker wants and give it to him to be good subjects. The survey should factor that in with some kind of coefficient -- that doesn't seem to have been here and the problem is mentioned only in passing as a difficulty of the environment.
5. The concept of "networked authoritarianism" isn't an academic or scholarly concept, it's a journalistic slogan coined by a former CNN bureau chief in Hong Kong, Rebecca McKinnon, who has published a book about Internet freedom issues recently, but not a scholarly book.
(Oh, if it turns out "networked authoritarianism" really is a scholarly term accepted in the field, then shoot me as the networked authoritarian that you are, but I haven't heard this.)
My problem with McKinnon's use of this term -- and I've heard her speak on this and seen her numerous blog posts and articles on it -- is that it simply isn't true. Her premise is that the Soviet-type states are more sophisticated now, and use the Internet themselves now, and don't use crude methods of prior censorship or outright blockage -- instead they compete with a different narrative, or occasionally make object lessons of people in support of their authoritarianism.
Except, that's not how it is. In fact, these states don't even register certain newspapers, NGOs, parties, etc. which means at a very basic and crude level in the society there is outright censorship of the old-fashioned analog kind. In fact, they do block websites and jam mobile phones during demonstrations and engage in surreptious DDOS attacks on sites and all the rest of it in a very physical and very direct form of censorship. In fact the government is not open and the state media tightly controlled, in the most basic forms of censorship there have always been.
That they allow the Internet, the way they allow, oh, flush toilets and telephones and electricity, doesn't mean anything. It's just another layer. We never had a theory for "electricity authoritarianism" when Lenin declared that "Communism is Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country". We never had "fax" or "email" authoritarianism. Why is social media special? Because it makes collectivism easier? But it was always easy.
Sure, these governments have sophisticated sock puppets and regime tools and an oprichina-like elite around themselves whose privileges depend on their cynical support of the regime and obnoxious harassment of dissidents. So what? They don't have to be networked to censor; or rather, they were always networked, as that's what collectivism, Soviet-style, is all about -- rigid networks suppressing individuals.
6. This brings me to my main complaint about the Kendzior/Pearce thesis -- that it is too harsh a predicter -- in its rigid descriptivism -- of the poor potential for, and inevitable failure of online dissent and democratization in these countries. Sure, the regime makes an object lesson of the donkey bloggers and the discussion of their persecution in fact leads people to reduce their usage (if in fact the survey really delivers that news -- I'm not so sure it does). But so what?
What Kendzior/Pearce don't have them is a theory -- or the rest of a theory -- to explain how the activism at home and abroad grew for the donkey bloggers, and the regime was eventually forced to release them. That reality -- that these imprisoned people were released! -- is something that just doesn't fit in their model so they don't analyze it. Instead, they prefer to describe how the internal and international protests failed throughout 2010, although finally the bloggers were released in 2011.
7. Imagine my surprise at discovering in this paper that Facebakers is referenced! Facebakers, renamed Socialbakers in December 2010, is a commercial agency that cooperates with Facebook and supplies information about how many people have joined Facebook and use it in a given country.
I wrote a simply blog post for EurasiaNet about the Socialbakers' numbers for Uzbekistan, and I was repeatedly savaged on Twitter by both Kendzior and Pearce for my supposed poor analytics (!).
In fact, this was part of a drum-beat of harassment that they and Joshua Foust and Nathan Hamm cooked up to try to silence my criticism of their theses on Registan after I was banned.
Pearce wrote that she couldn't accept my simple reporting of simple numbers until she could "see the methodology" and snarked that it was a commercial firm. Huh?! But she quoted it in her own paper here! The hypocrisy!
QUESTIONS TO ASK ON THE THEORY OF NETWORKED AUTHORITARIANISM
There's lots more to say about the paper and the troubling aspects of the theses, but let me cut to the kind of questions that I think need to be asked at this conference:
1. If the documenting and reporting of human rights violations in a country leads to less Internet usage because of fear of reprisals, are Kendzior and Pearce counseling people not to document human rights abuses and publish them online? Do they recommend that the State Department Internet Freedom Program not supply training or grants to those who maintain human rights web sites?
2. If documenting human rights abuse leads to a plunge in usage, or a plunge in political discussion, are Kendzior and Pearce recommending that democracy program directors and other foreign policy personnel steer their patrons toward more innocuous activity and safer content so that they can secure the increase of Internet penetration first and benign social networking activity first, and move to more critical stuff later?
Test case: all eyes will be on Azerbaijan with the coming EuroVision song contest. Should Internet users and bloggers use this as a chance to talk about the problems of human rights and social justice in their authoritarian, oil-rich state? Or should they stick to happy musical tweeting? (Guess what: no one will be able to stop them gabbing on social media and we'll hear a lot of hate of Armenians mixed with other interesting stuff.)
(This sort of cautious incrementalism of "what the traffic can bear," BTW, was the Internews recipe for TV broadcasting in 1990s and early 2000s, and frankly, it failed miserably as countries still shut down their clients in places like Azerbaijan anyway, even with their cautious programming, as the Internet VP might be prepared to admit.)
3. Whatever "chilling affect" the oppression of people like the donkey bloggers and other journalists killed or jailed in the last year may have had, in fact, the people of Guba show that both the Arab Spring model as well as the use of Youtube to get out their message worked dramatically to remove a disliked official and get people jailed for protest to be released. How does the "networked authoritarianism" model adapt to these kinds of phenomena, or in fact do they disprove the theory? In fact, after Guba, can we really talk about the concept of "networked authoritarianism" as really working so effectively?
4. Is there another model for Internet usage and societal change that might account for the actual fluctuations and moments of progress and regress? Can there be a pluralistic approach -- some people will try the hard stuff and get jailed; others will try the soft stuff and maybe live to cautiously discuss politics on a social forum; eventually those jailed may be released and those who were cautious may be radicalized for other reasons, or even out of a sense of solidarity?
5. Kendzior and Pearce challenge two statements by American leaders that sum up the hopes for the Internet in foreign policy, "Reagan's proclamation that the "Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microship" and "Secretary of State Clinton's bet than an open Internet will elad to stronger, more prosperous countries". But what's really wrong with these inspiring statements? They're true, broadly speaking. Faxes, Xerox machines, and CNN all had a lot to do with bringing the Soviet Union down after the failed coup, and arguably samizdat, that helped galvanize and link earlier movements of dissent, helped lay the groundwork for the following electronic age.
6. If we're to be cyber-skeptics about the efficacy of social media for changing regimes, and don't credit machinery with automatic effects on societies, why aren't we as skeptical of about the effectiveness of social media in the hands of those regimes? If it's powerless, it's powerless because not only machines effect or change human behaviour.
And a question to Tufecki:
7. You've applauded Twitter's decision to censor tweets at the request of even authoritarian governments, and even declared it a helpful decision for activists, on the theory that this will provide "transparency" about the bad actions of authoritarianism and help gain support for democracy causes. You cited the need to "follow the law".
But can you concede that "the law" in countries like Russia and China, as the Russian saying goes, is a bridle that can be turned hither and thither -- that these laws are not *just* laws that liberal democratic societies would declare as right. Why concede such lawlessness and legal nihilism?
As for the deterrent effect of the "transparency," several things could go wrong with that notion -- the system could be flooded and become so much noise that it can't be coherently analyzed; and authoritarians may not wait to request censorship by tweet, but will introduce their own software or regimes to either completely cut off Twitter, or block the view of certain accounts without even interacting with Twitter's central management. We are told this already happens with Facebook, where in countries like Uzbekistan, separate pages are said to be blocked (we've even heard of separate words or entries by certain people being blocked on Medvedev's Facebook page in Russia). It would be interesting to get a technical readout on whether/how that is happening. In other words, it's quite possible that before any magnificent "censor-by-tweet" and "censor-by-country" regime comes into effect, these networked authoritarians will pre-empt with their own filtration technology.
I realize that the questions I've outlined here are not likely to be asked, and the topics aren't even included in the agenda.
In fact, the sessions are about "identity" and "inequalities" -- two standard-issue "critical Marxist" sort of academic topics which regrettably provide endless opportunity for waxing at length about "identity as a construct" and "the inherent violence of the patriarchal society" and all the rest.
No doubt there will be a discussion of the "nym wars" if Jillian York is present, a topic where I've disagreed with her strenuously because the same anonymity that she wants to award as a special dispensation to her revolutionary friends in the Middle East can be/is used to harass and heckle and bully people on line with differing views from behind secret identities, and used of course by Anonymous to hack and avoid accountability. I don't believe all platforms should be forced to add the nym feature; it should be a voluntary policy and feature that they supply if they wish to take the customer service headaches that go with it.
As I've noted before, the nym wars, driven by hordes of revolutionaries, "progressives, " Anonymous e-thugs, hackers, etc. should be a separate topic from this: asking American companies not to turn over the private data of customers in any form to abusive authoritarian foreign governments or to our own government without a lawful court order.
Finally, on a personal but definitely relevant political note, I'll say that any decent academic concerned about free speech and free intellectual inquiry both in academic and the wider culture of social media discussion must be actively alarmed at the manner in which Kendzior and Pearce (particularly Kendzior) tried to silence my critique of their academic work by making the most outrageous claims and spears. These two not only kept lobbing up @ tweets addressed to the front page of EurasiaNet where I previously worked, they went to the editor to complain about me and urge my removal. Incredibly, their machinations had an effect and an effort was made to put a total Twitter/social media gag on me to forbid me to discuss the region at all or debate anyone at all.
Naturally, I rejected that effort and when my contract expired, I indicated that I found the notion of a Twitter gag unacceptable for freelancers, especially in the absence of any contractual specification or any written policy.
I stand by everything I've written on Twitter -- there is nothing obscene or extreme there, no action that would constitute "bullying" or "stalking" -- the fake notions purveyed by these two net nannies -- that would warrant calling the police -- which is what Kendzior threatened to do to me (!) over my blog.
Networked authoritarianism! Coming soon to an academia near you.