Porter’s Take On Libya’s Upcoming Elections

Dr. Geoff Porter, a foremost Knowledge Ninja in the view of this blog, provided insight on Libya’s transition to a democratic state post-Qaddafi in a recent NY Times Op-Ed entitled “Libya’s Franchise Fiasco.”  Geoff’s past posts at this blog (1,2,3,4) have provided some alternative perspectives to what is commonly discussed in the news. In this Op-Ed, Porter outlines the complications with former Libyan regime soldiers not being able to vote in Libya’s upcoming election.

LIBYA’S new electoral law, passed by the National Transitional Council last month, provides guidelines for selecting the country’s first-ever democratic government. Many, including the United Nations, hailed the law’s passage as a significant step down Libya’s rocky political road.

But even if, as planned, a government is elected later this year, the law contains a plank that may ensure that Libya remains unstable and economically precarious, a danger to both itself and its neighbors: namely, it prohibits members of the military from voting.

Geoff explains it may often be a good idea to exclude the military from voting (i.e. Egypt) as a measure to insure military leaders don’t occupy political positions within the government.  However, Libya’s militia members, numbering almost 200,000, far outnumber Libya’s formal military.  Geoff notes that the new electoral law may very well undermine the country’s stability and democratic future.

Why would militias, whose members can vote and thus express themselves as a powerful bloc, disband so their members can join the military, which is explicitly excluded from elections? In other words, the law’s consequences — keeping the militias alive — will run directly counter to its aim, namely that of reducing the role of armed groups in Libyan politics.

Excellent insights from Geoff in this NY Times article and I encourage all interested in Libya to have a read.


More on Social Media Movement Leaders from ICSR

Ryan Evans at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) extended the discussion on Wael Ghonim and the challenge of leadership amongst the Arab Spring’s Twitter Uprisings with a new post entitled “No Matter what he says, Wael Ghonim is a Leader.”  Last week, I remarked that the inability of Egypt’s Facebook/Twitter uprisings to move from the virtual to the physical world has led to those initiating the revolt seeking little fruit as those organized both virtually and physically (e.g. The Muslim Brotherhood) seized the opportunity to exploit the political vacuum after Mubarak’s fall.

Ryan takes the discussion one step further noting that Wael Ghonim is a social movement leader whether he likes it or not.  He says:

“Whether or not Ghonim wants to acknowledge it, he is a leader, although he was a more important one than he is now, having been overcome by the superior “organizational weapon” of the Muslim Brotherhood political machine and others who are not so shy about their status as leaders.

Things that social movement leaders do:

•    Inspire commitment
•    Mobilize resources
•    Create and recognize opportunities
•    Devise strategies
•    Frame demands
•    Influence outcomes

Although he seems happy to take a backseat now (like his former patron, Mohammad El Baradei), Ghonim did all of these things.”

Ryan’s points are right on target.  While I admire Ghonim’s courage and initiative, I hope he and his social network recognize the need for some form of leadership to advance their objectives.

Egypt’s Google Dude Illustrates the Weakness of Twitter Revolts

For those interested in all things related to the Arab Spring and particularly the uprising in Egypt, Wael Ghonim, Egypt’s Google dude, responded to questions related to his new book Revolution 2.0 during a recent NPR interview.  Ghonim’s interview and likely his book echo many of my concerns from last year (here and here) and reinforce many of assertions of Malcolm Gladwell’s arguments for why the next revolution won’t be retweeted.  A more appropriate title for his book is probably “Uprising 2.0” as the Facebook/Twitter enabled inspirational uprisings initiating the Arab Spring have proven uneven in their revolutionary results – especially in Egypt.

Ghonim, a business and marketing major in college, wasted no time in churning out his book.  However, Ghonim has not proven to be what many had hoped: a viable, young leader bringing democratic change to Egypt. I admire Ghonim’s efforts in leading the Facebook uprising, but even he admits that good virtual leaders don’t necessarily correlate into great physical leaders of rebellion.  Ghonim reads a passage from his book noting:

 “I’m not a people person, I’d rather communicate with people online…in short, I’m a real life introvert and yet an Internet extravert.”

I really like this discussion and admire Ghonim for admitting his own limitations.

Ghonim also illustrated two of the crucial weakness of the Twitter uprisings seen across the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movements.  First, the reluctance by the Facebook generation to collaboratively and physically discuss, compete and compromise as a organization around a central agenda and stated long-run objectives.  Twitter and Facebook were excellent in achieving the immediate objective of an uprising – a critical first step in a revolution.  Consistent with crowdsourcing theories, Ghonim and his compatriots used Twitter and Facebook to solve a coordination problem: show up at this location, for this reason and do this act.  However, this uprising fell flat after the fall of Mubarak as the Facebook revolutionaries failed to organize collectively and physically to devise a longer run strategy with deliberate objectives.  The Facebook revolutionaries could have done this, but chose to return to their laptops and cellphones in hopes the change they wanted would materialize through their Internet connections.

The second glaring weakness of the Twitter uprisings comes from the Facebook revolutionaries outright aversion to developing, appointing and following leaders.  Ghonim states in the NPR interview:

“This revolution has no leader, has no face to it, and the collective effort of all the Egyptians is what matters at the end of the day”

I assume living under an oppressive dictatorship would make one loath leadership in general.  However, both the Occupy Movement and in many cases the Arab Spring have rejected the notion of leaders to their own demise.  Notions of leaderless movements are the rage on social media platforms and corporate America loves talking about flat organizations.  But, those structures work well only in certain situations where motivations and values are shared equally amongst the organization’s members and objectives are clearly defined.  Revolutions are conflicts and during the fog of war, sustaining the organization’s values, the motivation of the troops and keeping actions in line with objectives requires leadership.  In the security vacuum created by Egypt’s horizontally organized Facebook uprising, physical-vertically structured organizations (e.g. Muslim Brotherhood) seized the initiative to pursue and achieve their collectively determined objectives.

I still hold hope and see value in the Facebook/Twitter uprisings of 2011.  But Wael Ghonim and his leaderless non-organization may have to change their approach if they want to realize the change they so relentlessly tweet about.

For the Ghonim’s audio interview, which is a good listen, click here.

And for a funny take on the leadership vacuum of the Occupy Movement, I highly recommend this Stephen Colbert clip.

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Spoofing Revolutionary Victims on Facebook

In a natural follow up to my post earlier in the week about Twitter being used by oppressive states to target dissent, “Knowledge Ninja” – Internet Haganah pointed me to the new Atlantic article The Strange Saga of a Made-up Activist and Her Life – and Death – as a Hoax.” 

Essentially, an “Uzbek woman Gulsumoy Abdujalilova” told a story on Facebook of returning to her native Uzbekistan from Germany only to be detained and tortured.  Distraught from her torture, Gulsumoy committed suicide.  All of these actions occurred on Facebook.  And in fact, that’s the only place where these events occurred – as Gulsumoy and her story were all a hoax.  However, this hoax didn’t stop people from following her on Facebook nor did it stop many Western outlets from covering this story that wasn’t.

Overall, an interesting take on social media and worth a read if you are interested in contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet as a tool for resistance.  Ultimately, false stories like this undermine the utility of social media as a mechanism for social movements to generate support and gain commitment to action. Instead, false stories create doubt amongst followers weakening the platform’s effectiveness.

Similar questions were raised in 2009 when many Iranians began using Twitter to mobilize resistance.  The only problem was many of these Iranian tweets for resistance were in English.  So were they tweeting from Iran or just simply tweets for Iran? Who were they trying to communicate with? Other Iranians or the West? Who knows?!  Either way, social media has opened up an entirely new era of information warfare…and conspiracy.

Sarah Kendzior sums it up nicely with regards to this Uzbek situation in this quote:

Yet while the internet allowed dissidents to overcome the communication barriers inherent in geographic dispersion and political repression, it did little to alleviate long-standing internal feuds. The internet is a useful tool, but it raises questions of anonymity, authorship, and audience that are far more problematic for activists operating in a cynical political culture — a hallmark of Uzbekistan’s dictatorship– than for activists in more open societies.

Decapitating Revolutionary Leaders via Twitter

During the Arab Spring, several comments countered my skepticism of how much revolution was actually being achieved in places like Egypt.  I had several reasons for my skepticism, one of them being:

3- Social media provides a platform for the oppressed to speak out and the government to identify resistance.

Social media is great for expressing one’s opinions. However, Iran demonstrated to the world that Internet postings and Tweets also mark dissidents. Middle East and North African governments monitor the Internet and use it as a tool for rapidly identifying and snuffing out resistance. In the end, social media brings the rapid rise and possibly the rapid fall of potential new leaders.

So it was with close attention I keyed on the recent NPR report entitled “The Technology Helping Repressive Regimes Spy.  The interview of journalist Ben Elgin and his Bloomberg series “Wired for Repression” explores how countries like Iran and Syria use new technology, largely made in the West, to identify and quell young revolutionaries on social media.  Elgin explains how:

“[One Iranian engineer] became caught up in the protest movements after the election of 2009 and he was arrested. He was beaten and put into prison and interrogated 14 times over 50 days,” Elgin says. “During these interrogations, not only was he presented with [his] text message transcripts; he was presented with a very sophisticated diagram of who he had called, and then who those people had called. And he was interrogated on every connection within his network of contacts.”

The era of social revolutions inspired by Twitter and Facebook (I should say enabled, not inspired) will likely end soon.  As seen in a typical arc of innovation, a technological advantage achieved by a revolutionary adversary is quickly countered by a new technological defense – providing sufficient resources exist by a regime to develop/acquire needed surveillance technology.

In line with my previous thinking on the weakness of Twitter revolts, I find this new information technology (IT) enabled leadership decapitation particularly troubling in several ways.

  • While Twitter uprisings can be rapid, new IT surveillance tools also mean revolutionary leaders with some gravity can be more rapidly identified as well.  A regime used to have to wait and assess the leader’s following and try to pin down where the leader operates, etc.  In the old days, it was challenging to even confirm identity.  Social media makes all of this much easier for repressive regimes.  Not only can you pinpoint virtual rebel leader locations, you can also find one or many photos identifying the upstart.
  • If a revolutionary blogger/Tweeter is captured, tortured and killed for inciting unrest and no one knows about it, did it even happen?  Much like the “tree falls in the woods” conundrum, social media revolutionaries are isolated from others.  While anonymity initially empowered Twitter uprisings, this same isolation now makes virtual leaders ever more vulnerable.  Oppressive regimes can snatch up a blogger/Tweeter and eliminate them without many fellow opposition members even knowing – especially since virtual revolutionaries often don’t know their leaders in person.  Unlike the days of Martin Luther King where he was surrounded by supporters, virtual rebel leaders operate alone and often die that way too.  When regimes physically target revolutionary leaders surrounded by their followers, the backlash can further empower the revolution.  Meanwhile virtual rebel leaders can be eliminated and most times (not all) no one even knows who the virtual leader was or that he/she is gone.  Likewise, it’s difficult to become reinvigorated and fight harder against oppression for a compatriot you’ve never actually met in person. Note, I say harder but not impossible.
  • The last implication is for Western social media users.  In the past year, it’s been quite popular for Western Twitter users to retweet the plight of virtual uprisings amidst the Arab Spring.  However, Westerners empowering the leaders of virtual rebellion should tread cautiously.  Oppressive regimes will look to snuff out all rebel Twitter leaders but the first targeted will likely be those gaining Western attention.  Oppressive dictators quelling uprisings fear Western support of Arab revolutions more than the revolutionaries themselves.  Thus, Westerners re-tweeting Arab Spring Tweets (something I’m guilty of BTW) should ask themselves, “when I retweet the plight of Arab Spring Tweeters, am I helping spread word of their cause or am I more likely to be painting a bullseye on someone’s back.”  I’m not sure of the answer, but I’m fairly sure I’ll keep retweeting. But, I’m starting to wonder if I’m doing more harm than good.