Sunday, June 21, 2009

Social Media & Revolutionary Change - Reflections

Another popular uprising by people wanting their voice heard. This time in Iran and draped in green but also in black, mourning those like young Neda, who died pursuing her dream of freedom and human rights.

Once again social media are hailed as the tool for the revolutionary masses revolting, challenging the established powers of government and its police apparatus, helping people organize and communicate, and informing the world about their struggle. The stream of information coming from Iran through Youtube and Twitter is defining this particular struggle much more than the traditional media, who have been "subject to Iranian restrictions on their ability to report, film or take pictures in Tehran" as Reuters' editors disclose at the begin of each news item from Iran.

What's new this time around

This time around we have seen some new developments: The social networks carrying these social media have taken proactive action.

Twitter rescheduled maintenance down-time of its systems after the U.S. State Department intervened to keep the service up and running for the Iranians protesters using it (and the Americans and many others monitoring).

Facebook released an early version of its platform in Farsi (the official language of Iran) in direct response to the Iranian crisis. This allows Iranians to navigate Facebook in their national language instead of English. Google hastily introduced Farsi support for Google Translate quoting "ongoing events in Iran". You can read more details about these actions in several places including on Rahaf Harfoush's blog "The Foush".

As Rahaf wrote, these unprecedented actions raised many questions. Is the neutrality of the networks waning? Were these actions driven by ideological, philosophical, political factors or simply by opportunistic self interest of these corporations (for PR or rapid alpha testing of a product in development for example)? Were these actions triggered by internal corporate thinking or through pressures from powerful external parties? or all of the above?

These are reasonable and complex questions. I will leave it to others to come up with answers to them. The aspect I would like to explore further is the following:

Social Media as Revolutionary Weapon

The Iran uprising like the preceding ones (The Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, etc.) is an attempt to change the existing balance of power. Whenever such an attempt is made a struggle between the incumbent power and those trying to change it ensues. External parties join rapidly the fray (if they weren't already involved or behind the attempt). In the course of this struggle all sides will use the full range of tools/weapons at their disposal to achieve advantage and victory. Technology is but one, albeit an important one, of these tools/weapons. It is therefore interesting to observe how this battle unfolds on the social media front and draw further conclusions.

On the revolt side the main advantage of social media is its distributed nature both from a content creation and distribution points of view. Individuals with cellular phones or small video cams are able to generate multimedia content and broadcast it through social networks like Youtube, Twitter and Facebook. These social networks are also used for communications and organizing based on the perception that they are outside the traditional telecommunications networks usually controlled by the incumbent powers.

The distributed nature of social media is very appealing to the external parties interested in the conflict but wishing to intervene only covertly. In the case of Iran it became obvious that the State Department is monitoring closely all Iran related social media transmissions when it intervened with Twitter to postpone the planned upgrade that could have brought the systems down during the "active" hours in Iran. There have been reports about Israeli involvement in an infowar operation in support of the Iranian protesters. This could well be part of Israel's already existing covert operations in Iran and other countries in the region (a number of spy cells were uncovered in Iran and more
recently in Lebanon). Iran has accused the BBC Farsi service of interfering actively in internal affairs and expelled its correspondent Jon Leyne from Iran.

The Empire Strikes Back

Given all of the above, it would be naive to believe that social media tools or counter-measures won't be used by the incumbent power. Case in point: The Iranian government shut down cellular service, blocked social network sites, and used power outages to disable uploading through proxies. It also engaged in its own social media counter- offensive. This battle is still raging at the time of this writing with list of "infiltrator" accounts being posted and updated by supporters of the protesters, misinformation is being planted by multiple parties, and even a guideline for cyberwarfare in this crisis has been published.

Social media undoutebly democratizes content creation and distribution. But distribution can only happen where and when social networks are available.
So the fundamental question becomes: who actually owns or enables the infrastructure required by social networks (SN) to function, i.e. the SN servers or "cloud", the storage, and the pipes connecting users to them. The answer is sobering: in almost all cases these are owned by governments or large corporations, who have the capabilities to monitor all content and to stop the service if deemed necessary for their interests.

So we have a wide spread ownership of content production means on one side but a tightly controlled ownership of or influence on distribution channels on the other. This means that social media can be severely impeded through disablement of its distribution networks if the changes demanded by people are too radical or undesirable for the entities controlling the infrastructure.
A good example for this is the global battle for open proxies in the Iranian context brilliantly shown in this visualization, and the people unfortunately don't seem to be winning it. Preparing safe proxies (as the renesys blog suggests) may help, but I don't think it is the answer.

What Is Missing

For social media then to fulfill it's promise of change reflecting people's needs and desires, it would seem that we need a distributed technology and ownership for SN. Conceptually, this is what the peer-to-peer technologies provide: a decentralized network of independent nodes connecting as and when needed in constantly changing topographies that no one can shut down easily.

Michael Lewkowitz (a.k.a @igniter) of the ChangeMedium initiative has been writing about Public Micro-messaging Medium (PMM) like Twitter "as the most participatory public medium in history." He is proposing coordinated research to accelerate the evolution of this tranformative medium. I tend to agree with him on the potential of this emerging "real-time internet", but am convinced that for such potential to be reached, we must have fully distributed technology which would enable distributed ownership of the SN, that are so crucial to social media in general.
Substantial R&D has been done on so-called ad-hoc networks (initially for the military, first responders, conference organizers etc.). I am interested in learning about any technologies that could enable such decentralized messaging systems for the crowds.

Incumbent powers are resisting anything peer-to-peer or trying to "incorporate it" into their institutional structures. The next great battles are going to be around these issues. Stay tuned for interesting times.

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