From Printing Press to Twitter: What Makes a Technology Pro-Democracy?

We’ve heard a lot about the role of social media, text messaging, and mobile phones in the uprising in Egypt.   A lot has been said to credit them with fueling or at least organizing the protests and with getting word out to the outside world.

On the flip side, Malcolm Gladwell, Frank Rich, and Evgeny Morozov all cast doubt on the importance of social media in Egypt and in last year’s protests in Iran.

Tools of the Revolution

It’s clear that Facebook, SMS, and Twitter have played a role in Egypt in organizing the protests.  Maria Bustillos also makes an excellent point that they provide value ininforming the world of what’s happening.   That was the case in Iran.  It’s also been the case in Egypt, where, for example, tweeters on the ground were the first to state that pro-Mubarak protesters were found carrying police IDs and were effectively thugs of the regime rather than organic protesters.

A rebuttal is that during the period when the internet was cut off in Egypt, the protests grew.  It’s clear that, at that stage, they no longer depended on Facebook or twitter for their momentum.  Of course, by that time, the internet and SMS had already gotten the ball rolling.  Everyone in Cairo knew that protests were going on in Tahrir square.  And the cutoff of internet service on further demonstrated that something big was happening, and that the powers-that-be were willing to tighten their control to try to stop it.  That’s fuel for the flames of democracy.

Revolutions happened before social media, of course.   Word of mouth is an effective technology for spreading ideas on its own.   Early democratic revolutions also employed the most powerful information technology of their era:  the printing press.  Thomas Paine’s January 1776 pamphlet Common Sense was tremendously influential in persuading American colonists that they should rebel against Britain.   French revolutionary pamphlets played a similar role in the French Revolution of 1848.   Information technology has been used for revolutionary purposes since at least 1517, when Martin Luther’s 95 Theses pamphlet undermined the Catholic hierarchy and kicked off the Protestant Reformation.

Pamphlets were the blog posts of the pre-internet age.  Nailing one to a door was the equivalent of a tweet.

Not all information technologies are created equal for the purpose of driving democracy, however.  What are the factors that make a technology pro-democracy?   Here is my list of 7 factors.

1. Number and Diversity of Voices

Authoritarian regimes need to control the conversation.   Technologies that allow a greater diversity of voices, by turning more people into publishers, inherently undermine that control of the conversation.  Dictators love centralized state media.  It allows them to get their message out without risk of rebuttal or dissent.  They can saturate the airwaves and newsstands with the information they prefer and the slant they prefer.   For this reason, television, radio, and to a lesser extent newspapers fare poorly on this axis.

Single voices in media centralize control

On the other hand, peer-to-peer communication mechanisms like SMS, email, blogs, facebook, and twitter do well.  They distribute the power to communicate much more horizontally through society, leading to a diversity of voices and undermining centralized control.

Egyptians take pictures and video with cell phones during protests in Cairo. Diversity of voices undermines central control.

Al Jazeera does demonstrate that it’s possible for television to be pro-revolutionary.   Of course, Al Jazeera is not based in Egypt and doesn’t transmit from inside the country.  What’s made it powerful is its distribution via satellite, which allows it to span national borders.  Satellite TV receivers give TV viewers more choices of what to watch and undermine the efforts of dictators to reduce the number of available voices, so we’ll give them a special star.

Great:          Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, Email, SMS, YouTube
Poor:            Television, Radio, Newspapers
Improving:  Satellite Television

2. Ease of Reaching Audience

The more people a message can reach, the more powerful it is, for good or ill.  The best communication technology on the planet, if it is optimized for 1-to-1 communication, will be less effective in promoting democracy than a slightly worse communication technology aimed at getting messages out to large audience.

SMS and Email are fantastically effective communication technologies, but they suffer from being optimized for 1-to-1 or 1-to-few communications.  It’s more effort to email or text a thousand people than it is to tweet once and let that reach a thousand (or many more) people.  Nevertheless, it’s certainly possible via those two technologies.

Television, Radio, Blogs, and Tweets are all inherently 1-to-the-world, and Facebook just a bit less so, and that increases their power.

Great:               Television, Radio, Blogs, Twitter, YouTube
Almost Great:  Facebook
Good:                Email
OK:                    SMS

3. Publishing Overhead

How much work is it to get a message out?   The less effort required, the more content will get out, especially in times of high stress or danger.   Less effort also means messages get out more quickly, facilitating a conversation, and  usually with fewer people involved in editing or polishing the message.

Simple text based messages like twitter, facebook, email, and SMS are king.

Almost zero-overhead publishing increases the number of reports and messages, and makes them realtime.

Image posting and video posting via those services or YouTube is only fractionally higher overhead in that they require better phones or other equipment and higher bandwidth (an issue in Egypt today).

Newspapers, Radio, and Television are at the bottom of the pile, with high overhead the reduces and delays the messages.

Great:  Twitter, Facebook, Email, SMS
Good:   YouTube, Blog Posts
Poor:    Television, Radio, Newspapers

4. Virality

Effective technologies for democracy allow others to boost their signal by distributing them further.  An effective email, text, tweet, or blog post can be redistributed far beyond the audience of the person who authored it.   This has important consequences.  It means that the message becomes liberated from the author.  A previously unknown tweeter with something smart to say can find it distributed to a million people, if the message is smart enough.   Virality increases the explosive power of memes by allowing any of them to grow to epic distributions.   And it levels the playing field in terms of audience, as even someone with a tiny audience has the potential to reach the world.

Virality, along with number and diversity of voices, is a prime differentiator between broadcast media like TV, Radio, and Newspapers and all of the new media.  Blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, and emails circle can go from humble origins to circling the globe in minutes or hours, and thousands have in the past week.

Twitter, with its default assumption that Tweets are public, and with its model of “followers” rather than friends (which allows some Tweeters to have direct audiences of over a million) is the king of virality.  And because blog posts, YouTube videos, and so on can be tweeted, it lends its virality to other media.

Great:  Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Blogs, Email
Good:   SMS
Poor:    TV, Radio, Newspapers

5. Difficulty of Censorship

The ideal pro-democracy information technology would also be difficult or impossible to censor.  In Egypt the regime turned off the entire internet for two days.  A more thoughtful filter could have disabled Twitter, Facebook, and services like them.   China is far more sophisticated and effective in their net censorship.  The Egyptian regime also found ways to block the satellite television signal of Al Jazeera.

Almost all electronic communication is susceptible to censorship on the scale that the Egyptian government practiced for a few days.

For subtler censorship, that seeks to filter out specific sites, there are tools to work restrictions.   One of the best known is Tor, free software which encrypts your internet traffic and routes it through a distributed network of computers run by volunteers.   Tor won’t help if the entire internet is disabled in a region, but it helps in situations like China and Iran where censors seek to block specific sites.

Good:                  Word of Mouth.
Poor:                   Almost electronic communication
Improvement:  Tor Project & other anti-censorship software

6. Possibility of Anonymity

In a totally free society, anonymity might not be necessary.   Anonymity, after all, has its downsides.  Anonymity protects individuals from the consequences of their actions.  In a well running and free society, anonymity can be used to commit crimes or engage in legal but socially disapproved-of behavior that wouldn’t happen if the person’s reputation were at stake.  Reputation also has a tremendous number of benefits to society, in terms of establishing credibility and track records which other individuals can use in determining how to engage with an individual or organization.

In a totalitarian society, anonymity is very different.  When reprisals come for simply speaking out against oppression, or pointing out government corruption, anonymity is a valuable tools.  It helps whistle blowers, amateur journalists, and others stay alive and safe long enough to help a movement get to critical mass.

None of us live in totally free societies, and none of us knows what might happen in our societies a generation or two down the road, and so I maintain that anonymity is an important tool to maintain everywhere.   In totalitarian states, it is even more clearly vital.

Online tools are not so anonymous by default.  Authorities in both Egypt and Iran have apparently used Twitter and Facebook to track down activists and arrest them.

Nevertheless, if used carefully, services like Twitter, many blog-hosting services, and many email services can provide a degree of anonymity.   The risk in each case (in addition to unwittingly giving out identifying details) is that the operators of the services themselves have information on users of their services that can be used to track them down.   The Tor software I mentioned earlier combats this, by hiding where you are connecting to a web service from.

Television and Radio are seldom anonymous, for obvious reasons, though they do have exceptions.  Newspapers vary.  Underground newspapers with anonymous authors have been published from time to time.   Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlet was originally published anonymously, as were other pamphlets of the American Revolution and the French Revolution.  Yet the necessity of having a printing press and a physical distribution mechanism puts physical paper dissemination at greater risk of discovery.

Great:      Blogs, Email, Tweets with anonymity software such as Tor
Variable:  Newspapers, Leaflets, electronic communication without anonymity software
Poor:        Facebook, Television, Radio

7. Broad Availability

The final factor is how many people actually have the technology and the ability to use it.  Printed pamphlets are useless without literacy.  Twitter is useless if no one has computers or cell phones.

The printed word, television, and radio are now nearly ubiquitous.   SMS is not far behind and has the advantage of being with people wherever their now-ubiquitous cell phones are.

The cell phone is now the ubiquitous peer-to-peer communication technology.

Email, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are sadly still behind in adoption.   Evgeny Morozov points out that at the start of Iran’s “Green Movement” protests in 2009, there were less than 20,000 registered Twitter accounts in the country.   No democratizing technology, however effective (as Twitter could be) will succeed with such low penetration.

Broad availability is not necessarily pro-democracy.  If a communications technology is dominated by a single voice, broad availability simply increases the volume of that voice, and turns the technology into one of control rather than one of liberation.   With only a single voice, heard everywhere, you have 1984.

Broadest:        Television, Radio, Print
Broad:             SMS, Email
Less Broad:    Facebook
Least Broad:  Twitter

In Conclusion

The perfect pro-democracy communication technology of today would have the diversity of voices, low overhead, and virality of Twitter, with built in anonymity (for those who choose it), a way to route around censors, and broad adoption well beyond what Twitter has today.

In the meantime, are communications technologies pro-democracy?   Some are.  Television, Radio, and Print have the potential to be, but can become dominated by dictators who use them to amplify their own voices.   The technologies that empower the greatest number of voices to reach the greatest number of listeners in the most voluntary, viral, and bottoms-up manner are those that will have the most positive impact on democracy.  Print once filled that role.  We are witnessing the rise of SMS and the Internet, which are already more inherently pro-democratic than any information technology before them, and which are still growing into their tremendous potential.

Hillary Clinton argues for net freedom as a basic right, days before the Cairo protests.

Four days before the unrest broke out in Egypt, Hilary Clinton made the case that access to the internet and other information and communication tools is a basic right.  Secretary Clinton sees it clearly that as the ability to access information and communicate their own thoughts disseminates through society, it exerts an inexorable liberalizing and democratizing force on the world.   The technologies of the net, with their plethora of voices, and fundamentally more supportive of democracy than the centralized and top down technologies of television and radio which they are now supplanting.

The rise of many-to-many, peer-to-peer communication tools should give us hope for the future of freedom around the world.

Lessons From Egypt : Encouraging Saudi Democracy & Beyond

I posted recently that the situation in Egypt provides important lessons for US foreign policy.  Specifically, the US should have been pressing for democracy in Egypt decades ago, and making US military aid to Egypt contingent on steps towards a free press, free elections, and personal civil liberties, instead of coddling and financially supporting the convenient dictator there.

Obama Meets with Egyptian Dictator Hosni Mubarak in Happier Times
President Obama meets with Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in happier times

Without rehashing the whole post, there are two separate reasons for that:

1) Supporting dictators tends to produce blowback, as in the case of the Iranian Revolution, where revolutionaries saw the US, accurately, as the sponsor of the dictatorial and corrupt Shah of Iran who oppressed them.

2) The US is founded, as a nation, on the idea that governments should be of the people and for the people.  To actively support dictatorships that oppress their people is not only shortsighted and counterproductive (because it produces inevitable blowback), it’s also hypocrisy of the worst sort, and a violation of the values upon which the United States was established.

It seems that the US administration is warming a bit to this, at least rhetorically.  For instance, Business Week reports that:

Clinton said in Munich that governments in the Middle East must make the transition to openness and democracy “a strategic necessity,” warning that “all of our interests will be at risk” if they don’t.

I agree with Secretary Clinton’s remarks.   Worldwide democracy is a strategic benefit to the United States, and indeed to the world as a whole.  The interests of both the US and residents of Middle East are indeed at risk if democracy isn’t embraced, as non-democratic regimes will eventually fall, and the less democratic they are, the more dangerous and chaotic their falls will be.

An Egyptian protester stands in front of a burning barricade. 30 years of repression led to explosive protests.

So, if we take this seriously, and not just as lip service, then the US should be using its political and economic might to encourage democracy worldwide, and in particular in the Middle East.  As I’ve posted before, encouraging worldwide democracy should be the # US foreign policy goal, for both moral reasons and out of enlightened self-interest.

Where do we start?  An example in Saudi Arabia

Freedom House is a non-profit that has spent years tracking, analyzing, and trying to rally US and world support around the cause of freedom throughout the world.   I consulted their 2010 Freedom in the World list, searching for the least free places in the world.

There are many.  One, however, stands out as being both extremely repressive, and a close US ally:  Saudi Arabia. On a scale of 1 through 7, where 7 is the most repressive, Freedom House gives Saudi Arabia a 7 on political rights (essentially none) and a 6 on civil rights (close to none).   Saudi Arabia scores an overall 6.5 on Freedom House’s 7 point scale of repressiveness, just barely better than 7-scoring North Korea, Burma, Somalia, and Libya.  Saudi Arabia is in the same category of freedom as Cuba, China, Syria, and Chad.   In comparison to Saudi Arabia’s 6.5 score on the 7 point of repression, dictatorial Egypt scored only 5.5.

Indeed, Freedom House goes so far as to rate Saudi Arabia as half a point less free than Iran, one of the countries that George W. Bush labeled as part of an Axis of Evil.  If you’re less free than a member of the Axis of Evil, what does that say about you?   It says that you’re a repressive dictatorship of truly world class proportions.

How repressive?  Perhaps the worst is the plight of women in Saudi Arabia.   Women cannot vote.  Women cannot drive.  Women cannot be seen in public without the presence of a male relative, by law.  Women cannot represent themselves in court – they must have a man represent them.  If a woman is a witness in a trial, her testimony, by law, counts 1/2 as much as any male witness.   In cases of inheritance,women in Saudi Arabia receive a half share relatively to their male relatives.

The anti-female attitudes of the regime go beyond ridiculous and into the despicable.  Freedom House reports that:

The religious police enforce a strict policy of gender segregation and often harass women, using physical punishment to ensure that they meet conservative standards of dress in public. In 2007, a court sentenced a Shiite woman from Qatif, who had been raped by seven men, to 200 lashes and six months in jail for being alone with a man who was not her relative at the time of the attack

The woman was eventually pardoned by the King for her “crime” of being alone with a man who was not a relative.

Saudi Woman in Burka
Women enjoy few freedoms in Saudi Arabia.

Women are not the only victims in Saudi Arabia.   Like Egypt or Iran, the country has elections of a sort.   However, political parties are banned, as are most rallies and public gatherings.  Only roughly 20% of the populace can vote.  Those voting rights only extend to voting for seats in city councils.  At a national level, bills are created and voted on by the cabinet (all appointed by the King) and ratified by the King.  Speaking out against the King or the ruling family is illegal.  Saudi’s complain that in recent sweeps to pick up ‘terrorists’, Saudi police have used the opportunity to arrest unrelated reformers and political organizers.  Allegations of torture are common among those who fall into police custody.   The Shiite minority, who make up 10-15% of the population, are effectively barred from holding government posts and receive little state protection against assaults from the Sunni majority.  Shiites making the pilgrimage to Medina in 2009 were attacked by Saudi religious police.

The media is tightly controlled, with members of the ruling family owning part or all of most allowed newspapers and television stations.   Journalists are banned at the slightest provocation.   Saudi Arabia’s version of the Great Firewall blocks an estimated 400,000 websites that the Saudi’s consider dangerous.  While Twitter and Facebook are currently allowed in the country, Saudi officials have censored the twitter accounts of specific activists and in November of 2010 blocked Facebook entirely for a short period.

Any way you slice it, Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship.  The populace has no say in the governance of their country.  Women in particular face some of the worst repression anywhere on earth.

There are worse dictatorships on the planet, but none are such close allies of the United States.  In October of 2010, the United States approved its largest ever arms sale to any country, selling more than $60 Billion of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia, including F-15 fighters and the latest generation of AH-64 Apache assault helicopters.  Those top of the line aircraft are only allowed to be sold to countries the US considers close allies.

The situation is reminiscent of Egypt.  Saudi Arabia doesn’t need direct US support to stay solvent – its oil wealth provides that.  But by selling the most advanced arms in its arsenal to the Saudi Kingdom, the US is indeed supporting the dictatorial regime there.

Obama and King Abdullah
President Obama and King Abdullah meet in June of '09. The summit was marked not by a press for human rights or democracy in Saudi Arabia, but by a press by the US for improved Saudi relations with Israel.

Could Saudi Arabia be the next Egypt?  In Egypt, 25% of people aged 20-24 are unemployed.  The frustration and lack of future opportunity this represents has been cited as a contributing factor, along with corruption and the lack of political freedom, in the revolution on Cairo’s streets.   In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, 40% of people aged 20-24 are unemployed and people have even less political voice than in Egypt.   The combination of lack of opportunity plus lack of political voice is an explosive one.

I don’t expect Saudi Arabia to collapse any time soon.  While unemployment is high, Saudi Arabia provides a wealth of social services to its population, which blunts their frustration for the time being.  Nevertheless, change will come eventually, and on current course and speed that change will not be gentle.  Saudi Arabia is a ticking time bomb.  The autocratic government keeps the pressure contained for now, but the higher the pressure builds, the more explosive the transition will be.  If the US wants long term stability in Saudi Arabia, and if the US wants to live by its own principles of freedom, equality, and a government ‘of the people and for the people’, then we should start acting now to press the rulers of Saudi Arabia to liberalize.

A good first step would be for the Saudi regime (and indeed, all regimes, everywhere in the world) to lift restrictions on speech, on the press, and punishments for criticizing the regime.  A vigorous debate on the future of Saudi Arabia, held by its citizens, can then help chart a future course towards greater equality of men and women, greater personal freedoms for both genders, and greater participatory democracy.   Those steps won’t be easy.  They’ll all come with their share of challenges and hiccups.  They’ll take time.  But as we’ve seen in Egypt, attempting to contain the pressure too long can result in a dramatic release of pent up steam.  Better a gradual release of that pressure in an orderly transition than a violent explosion.  And better we treat the people of the world according to the values we believe make us great than out of shallow and short term self interest.

Egypt, Twitter, and the Collapse of Top-Heavy Societies

Watching the news about Egypt and the debate as to whether Twitter, Facebook, etc.. are inherently pro-democracy, I’m struck by a connection to Joseph Tainter’s 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies.

The Fall of Rome

Tainter speculates that societies ultimately face two problems.   One, the marginal return on their investments drops over time.  Each new unit of energy or currency or labor they expend nets them less and less benefit than the last.  Two, societies continually create additional internal complexity to solve problems they’ve run into.  Those additional layers of complexity consume resources without giving back.  Ultimately with growth slowing and the cost of complexity rising, societies collapse under the weight of the new social structures they’ve created.  For a while, the added complexity allows societies to accomplish more, but eventually the diminishing returns cause the complexity to become a negative to the society, and then it collapses.

Graph of Benefits of Complexity

Tainter’s theory is relevant to understanding the future of every society on Earth.  It’s been used to predict that collapse of US society and the collapse of industrialized society at large.

I think Tainter’s point is interesting, but that he likely confuses the term “complexity” with parasitism.    His two primary examples, the collapse of the ancient Maya civilization and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, are both cases where the ruling classes (the upper “layers” of society, if you will) used political and military power to control the lower classes and (in the case of Rome) to conquer neighbors and extract plunder and tax revenues from them.

The weight that eventually caused the collapse of both the Maya and the Roman Empire wasn’t just any sort of complexity, it was an upper layer of society that was largely parasitic, consuming more and more of the resources of society without producing much value.

I’m struck by this in the case of Egypt.   The protests in Egypt are fueled by the frustration of lack of opportunity and the anger of lack of ability to change the system or even speak out against it.   The lack of opportunity has two causes:

1. Egypt has a state-dominated economy which has historically been mismanaged.  (It has improved significantly in the last 10 years, but that may be a case of too little, too late.)

2. Egypt is incredibly corrupt, and that corruption comes from the top in the form of crony capitalism.  For instance, Egypt scored a 3.1 on a recent index of corruption, with a 1 meaning the most corruption, and a 10 meaning no corruption.  The corruption comes in the form of bribes to government officials to receive licenses, get contracts, find housing, or almost anything else in public life.  One prominent rumor in 2000 was that Egypt postponed approval of Viagra for local sale because Pfizer had yet to offer a large enough bribe to the Minister of Health.  More broadly, developers wishing to do business in Egypt have frequently been advised to offer subcontracts to firms owned by Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak’s son.

Corruption and Property Rights in Egypt
The Heritage Foundation finds that Egypt has gotten worse on both property rights and corruption in the last decade. (Lower scores worse on both scales.) Click for more.

Neither state control of the economy nor rampant corruption that lines the pockets of ministers and high officials is truly a form of additional ‘complexity’.  It’s parasitism.

By contrast, services like Twitter and Facebook or more basic telecommunication via cell phones, SMS, and email do increase the societal complexity of a country.  They increase the number of voices being heard.  They add density to the social graph.

Yet that complexity does not belong to the old world of Hosni Mubarak’s government or its elite friends.  It belongs to the younger generation on the street.  Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, email, and SMS add complexity, but it’s a peer-to-peer complexity that empowers those who use those tools.   That peer-to-peer complexity may cause a collapse, but not of the side that uses it.

One of the limits of The Collapse of Complex Societies is that it doesn’t consider any societies where the complexity is largely peer-to-peer rather than hierarchical.   Arguably, such social structures barely existed until the invention of the Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press.   Yet it’s interesting to consider the impact the movable-type press had on society.  It accelerated the Renaissance and helped usher in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.   Clearly, the additional complexity of information flow between people that increased literacy and easier printing brought didn’t lead to collapse.   At the same time, it also empowered Martin Luther to challenge the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and start the Protestant Reformation.  The printing press undermined the hierarchical authority of the Church.  It didn’t lead to the collapse of the Catholic Church, but it led to its schism and the formation of Protestant churches that had less hierarchy.

Martin Luther's 95 Theses Pamphlet destabilized the hierarchical Catholic Church, one of the first examples of peer-to-peer communication technology overwhelming a top-down hierarchy.

Electronic communication media, and especially the many-to-many media of blogs, tweets, and Facebook, are having a similar effect.  They’re building peer-to-peer density, which is undermining the most hierarchical and parasitic layers of society.

I’m optimistic about the future of both Egypt and of modern society as a whole.  The new complexity we build in our societies seems less and less about stacking additional layers of hierarchy, and more about building additional tools to connect people in an ever denser network graph.  That strikes me as fundamentally less parasitic and more empowering than the hierarchical layers of complexity that Tainter organized.

We should expect the collapse of parasitic and top-down societies and institutions, and the emergence of more and more network-centric institutions and societies.