Middle East and North Africa

Social Media for Collective Action

Zeynep Tufecki

Climbing aboard the social media train ... I’ve been thinking about the special role of social media and collective action under authoritarian regimes since I caught a talk by Zeynep Tufecki at the Berkman Center last week. Tufekci’s research considers the question: how does an unpopular regime stay in power for so long? and how does social media play a role in how these regimes fall? Part of the answer is by solving the collective action problem.

So what is a collective action problem, and how does one solve it? Collective action problems are situations that require wide participation to solve, have high participation costs, and high costs of failure. This triple-threat makes collective action problems especially tricky to organize and solve. Authoritarian regimes often pose collective action problems, as there are few ways of organizing and the cost of failing often results in torture or being thrown in jail. Whenever dissidence appears, governments quarantine and isolate the hubs to ensure that protests don’t spread.

Factor in the challenge of misinformation - as a measure of self-protection, citizens who might privately oppose the regime publicly claim to support it. This in turn creates a false perception (or pluralistic ignorance) that friends, neighbors, and other potential collaborators are content with the status quo, although their views are different in private. READ MORE »

Power to the People

Twenty-Eleven has been a year of social media. From the Arab Spring to the London Riots and now even the Wall Street protests, this year's unfolding events have sparked discussion about the impact of social technology in our world. Understanding the connections between social change and social media has become a priority for activists, organizations, and governments alike. But the story isn’t straightforward.

The discourse around Twitter and Facebook has become more critical as experts, news stories, and even humor websites have started questioning the influence of such tools. A recent Washington Post article challenged five common misconceptions about social media. This article raises interesting points about who’s actually using these tools, how governments are reacting to them and what they are actually accomplishing. READ MORE »

Libya is Back Online! Sort Of?

Benghazi Internet

So first and foremost: this was not a social media revolution. This is just your friendly recap of what’s known of network connectivity in Libya during the past six months. Oh--and hai! I'm back.

A few months ago, a member of the NDI Middle East team walked into our office and asked how difficult it would be to wire downtown Benghazi.

She had just returned from eastern Libya and observed a need. Enterprising engineers had rigged a VSAT connection, turning the square in front of Benghazi’s main courthouse—the original site of the protests that would launch a revolution—into a public hotspot. People would cluster around laptops, waiting patiently on the shared network, scanning for updates from friends and family in the Ghaddafi-controlled west, or comparing official news against frantic rumor.

The answer was that wiring a city wouldn’t actually be that difficult in theory. In practice, it’s not exactly NDItech’s bread and butter (although I certainly offered to be on a plane that evening). Shortly thereafter, the question was mooted—the Libyans had restored Benghazi’s connectivity on their own. READ MORE »

Lessons Learned from the Arab Spring - SXSWi

The #arabspring panel at SXSW, photo courtesy of @celinecelines

I love SXSW, but hadn't planned to attend this year - work had been busy, and I couldn't quite find the angle of interest... and then Tunisia and Egypt had their revolutions.

Suddenly, the event was chock-full with panels, conversations, and lectures on the role of technology and social media, and the implications of the revolutions on the future of the Middle East - and as someone following the region and events with great interest, I found myself on a last-minute plane to Austin to speak on a panel, "Lessons Learned from the Arab Spring Revolutions". It was a dizzying few days, but here they are: highlights from my #arabspring panel and the week:

  • Azmat Khan, a journalist at Frontline PBS and associate producer of the documentary "Revolution in Cairo" told stories that were new to many in the room, including one about the mashup of high tech and street tactics. Activists - including the Muslim Brotherhood and football (soccer) clubs - had infiltrators in pro-Mubarak forces and would communicate news of impending attacks on Tahrir via mobiles. Activists inside Tahrir would consult printouts of Google Maps and use microphones to conduct dynamic crowd control, directing reinforcements and resources as necessary.

Technology For Peace : Strengthening Democracy

Flickr user “baggis” / Magazine cover art from Science 1985

ICT in the service of “peace” often refers to a broad range of activities encompassing conflict prevention and management, peace operations, humanitarian relief and disaster assistance, and post-conflict peace building and reconstruction.

For example, the ICT4Peace Foundation is committed to effective communication in “crisis management, humanitarian aid and peace building”.  A recent USIP collaboration, Blogs & Bullets examines how new media can change the politics of unrest, revolution, violence, and civil war.  Their work emphasizes five levels of analysis: individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime policies, and external attention.

NDI’s approach to ICT & Peace has focused on how key tools can help communities and stakeholders improve communication, facilitate negotiations, increase transparency, and build trust.

Democracy assistance is often seen as falling in the range of activities associated with peace building and conflict resolution, as democratic institutions help maintain peace by providing mechanisms for managing or resolving conflicts without resort to violence.  READ MORE »

Noise to Signal: Southern Sudan Referendum

SuNDE staff examine observer data in the Juba National Information Center

The final results were announced last week in Southern Sudan’s independence referendum.  While voter’s preference was never in doubt (nearly 99% voting for the “open palm”), the results were not officially announced for more than 3 weeks after the last day of voting. In an instantaneous news media culture, which often demands updates on an hourly, or minute-to-minute basis, this delay of information on an electoral process would often mean that audience attention gets diverted, or politically-motivated groups can more easily compete for narrative and truth in a vacuum.

However, those following the referendum closely had an (over?) abundance of options for finding out how the process went. These options reflect how technology is enabling new voices to participate in the process, and how established organizations can reach new audiences.  These new tools have their strengths and weaknesses, however together they allow a broad account of an evolving political situation.

This abundance of tools is even more profound given a political and social environment where the majority of the region is inaccessible, the communications infrastructure is weak, and reporting is challenged by divisive politics and years of violence.

Social Media by Journalists and Citizens READ MORE »

A Data Revolution

Egyptians record the revolution for posterity with digital cameras and cameraphones.

This blog is cross-posted from the ONE blog, where I was a guest blogger on Monday.

What's happening in Egypt is unprecedented -– and not only politically. Despite extraordinary efforts on the part of the Egyptian regime to silence pro-democracy protesters, this may be the most communicated, documented and media-ready political upheaval in history. On January 25th, Egypt caught the world's attention when thousands poured into Tahrir Square, Cairo's biggest public plaza. Protests were organized on the social networking site Facebook, on pages of groups like "We Are All Khalid Saeed"; by anonymous administrators embodying generational frustrations. READ MORE »

"The Internet Perceives Censorship as Damage and Routes Around It"

Detour Sign

Way back in 1993 the Internet had a trifling 20 million users and the Web was little more than a twinkle in the NCSA's eye. At the time John Gilmore, cyber-utopian par excellence, was quoted in Time as saying "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."

That struggle between censorship and freedom has gone back and forth for a long time, but never more directly than in Egypt, culminating in an unprecedented complete shutdown of the Internet, as Katherine discussed earlier.

That wasn't the last word, though. A variety of systems - from satellite uplinks to old-fashioned dialup modem pools - have kept a trickle of information flowing out of the country. One of the most impressive was the joint Google/Twitter effort to enable tweeting via landline phones. (Google blog post; Grey Lady writeup.) READ MORE »

What Happens when Eighty Million Egyptians Disappear?

Where did Egypt Go?

UPDATE: It's hard not to speculate on the political implications as events unfold. Protestors are defying curfew, police are using violent and aggressive tactics in the street, soldiers are being greeted with flowers. It's difficult to understate the significance of what is happening in Egypt right now. Likely no one - not the protestors, the government, nor the observers on the outside - knows where this is headed. Landlines, of course, are still up. People are using them to continue to access the outside world, through voice and dialup. Protesters are spreading the news through Twitter, phone calls, word of mouth. Al-Jazeera is broadcasting live - its earlier reticence long forgotten. There's almost too much to keep up with. The technology at this point is a documentary tool for history - the momentum is offline. READ MORE »

What's Happening in Tunisia?

Students spell out 'Free Tunisia'

On December 17th, a 26 year-old unemployed university graduate named Mohamed Bouazizi drenched himself in petrol and set himself on fire in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid in protest of economic conditions. Bouazizi, who succumbed to his injuries early this morning, had been the sole breadwinner for his family when his unlicensed produce stand was confiscated by local police.

With greater than 30% unemployment rates for those between the ages of 15 and 29, the circumstances surrounding Bouazizi's suicide attempt are not unique: READ MORE »

Selling Cell Phones

Africa Mobile Technology

I woke up waaay too early this morning to go see Alec Ross, the State Department's Senior Advisor for Innovation speaking on 21st Century Diplomacy, the Obama Administration's branding for their thinking about tech in foreign policy. Some have mocked the State Department for their rhetoric on the topic, but for a very, very large bureaucracy State has made some rapid shifts.

State, and Alec's remarks, really emphasie mobile tech. Ross observed that the number of mobile devices has increased 20% in the 18 months he's been in his job. It's now the case that a very large percentage of all humans on this planet are in areas with cell coverage.

Oh, and all of this happened on the back of private business. All these cell towers went up without a gazillion dollar World Bank-funded project or the work of foreign charities because it's profitable. Make that very profitable. Many of the richest businessmen in Africa (e.g., Mo Ibrahim) made their fortune in mobile networks, and Safaricom is one of the biggest firms in East Africa. READ MORE »

NDItech is Hiring: Election Monitoring in Closed Political Space

We're looking for an online messaging guru to travel to the Middle East for a 3-week field assignment to work with NDI partners (local NGOs) who are monitoring and highlighting government conduct during an electoral period. This position is similar to the previous Thailand gig mentioned by Katherine.

We're looking for someone to work with our local partners to tell their stories about the election, and to use data collection and compelling visualization to further citizen understanding of the process. See full skills description here.

HTML: The Universal Language

The ancient citadel at the heart of Erbil.

Just back from a trip to Erbil, Iraq. NDI is working with the Iraqi parliament on a new project, and one of my main roles was finding local coding wizards to build the software.

I was impressed with the local talent. I've spent some time as a developer myself, and these guys were very professional and entirely competent. Some of the graphic design work was a bit mid-nineties, but animated gifs never really went out of style, right?

The NDItech team could code up programming projects like this ourselves or hire well established firms in the US and probably get the job done a lot faster and cleaner - but the extra trouble is worth it.

Like all development groups, NDI's goal is to make the world a slightly better place. If we can provide a bit of seed capitol and credibility and serve as a support to such new software firms that will get them that much further as successful entrepreneurs in their local community.

Field Trip

Tea in Erbil

I'm currently in Erbil, Iraq in the Kurdistan region, doing an assessment of an upcoming project with the Iraqi Parliament.

It's hot.

The NDItech team travels a good deal for this kind of assessment. When one of NDI's regional teams is going to be running a program that has a significant technology component, we'll get involved to make sure that the best technology given the local conditions is put into place and implemented well.

There are a lot of questions to consider when getting a technology and development project up and running. READ MORE »

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