Facebook ‘lets Iran trolls silence on-line dissent’

irantavaanaFacebook is inadvertently acting as the “morality police” for authoritarian regimes eager to silence on-line dissent, activists report. 

Tavaana, a civil-society empowerment initiative has trained thousands of Iranians in live e-learning classes about democracy, women’s rights and similar topics, say Mariam Memarsadeghi and Akbar Atri , the group’s co-founders and co-directors. Our Facebook page is one of the most popular in the Persian language, engaging more than one million people a week with civic-education resources and updates on human-rights violations, they write for The Wall Street Journal:  

On Wednesday last week, we were unable to open Tavaana’s Facebook page and then discovered that our account had been logged out. When we tried to sign in, Facebook presented us with a photo of a woman in a bikini, one that we had posted nearly a year ago, and told us that publishing such content violates Facebook’s terms of use. …. The woman is Jackie Chamoun, a Lebanese Olympic skier. When photos of Ms. Chamoun posing on skis for a calendar shoot were released last year, many Lebanese and regional social networks protested her so-called immodesty and lack of morality. Others defended her brazenness. Tavaana joined this socially significant discussion, posting the image and asking our community to weigh in. 

irancyberWe have a hunch about why this happened. The way Facebook’s detection systems work, once a post is reported by enough users—no matter the content, intent or who is reporting it—the post is marked as a terms-of-use violation. As it happens, the Iranian regime, much like the Chinese and Russian governments, is adept at mobilizing trolls to report activity it doesn’t like.  

The same tyrants benefit from other well-intentioned Facebook policies. The prohibition on anonymous users, for instance, has kicked off thousands of activists who use pseudonyms to protect their own safety. Whistleblowers, advocates for political prisoners, rally leaders, labor activists, feminists and bloggers all use the platform to organize without detection..                             

Organizations that exist out in the open, like ours, have trouble getting official page verificationfrom Facebook, something that could help protect us from threats and troll attacks from the Iranian government,” they write. “Even requests from the U.S. government go unanswered: Our donors at the State Department and United States Agency for International Development have told us that they have tried to relay these concerns to Facebook several times. No luck.



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Democracy, the West and the ‘global marketplace of ideas’

end of arroganceInstead of the post-Cold war triumph and expansion of democracy anticipated by some observers, what has been emerging is a “global marketplace of ideas” marked by three main dynamics, argues Bruce Jentleson, co-author of The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas (Harvard University Press, 2010):

(1) greater doubts about Western models at both the international system and national domestic levels; (2) increasing affirmation across the non-Western world for ideas rooted in their own history, culture and identity, as well as their own national and regional politics; and (3) technology as a driver of a profoundly different discourse and competition of ideas enabled by a digital infrastructure that increasingly connects everyone to everyone.

Rather than democracy/non-democracy, the debate is over what constitutes a capable state. A capable state meets two criteria – internal legitimacy in the eyes of its own people and the policy capacity to deliver on the challenges its national society faces, he writes for the Center for Transatlantic Relations:

This conception is both less than and more than democracy. It is less than democracy in allowing for the possibility that a people may deem its political system and government legitimate even if it is not based on elections. This does NOT include peoples cowed into submission. But it does acknowledge that for countries with mass poverty, endemic injustice, and other pressing human needs – that is to say, much of the world today – people are looking not just to be protected from government, but also to be protected by government.

That never has and never will justify repressiveness, but it does recognize that in many societies political legitimacy is a function of performance not just process. It cannot be just about freedom from; it also has to be about the capacity to. In this sense capable states entail more than democratic practices like elections in stressing policy capacity in going beyond the “input” side – elections, legislative processes, lawmaking – to policy “outputs”.


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Western aid will help consolidate Tunisia’s emerging democracy

tunisia demoAn official under former hardline ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali appears set for a close run-off in Tunisia’s presidential polls with a rival who says he represents the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising that toppled him, Reuters reports:

Preliminary results in the country’s first presidential ballot since the uprising are expected later on Monday. But the parties of two frontrunners said initial tallies showed they would face off in next month’s second round…..One frontrunner, Beji Caid Essebsi, who was parliament chief under Ben Ali, has cast himself as a veteran technocrat. He will face off with Moncef Marzouki, the current president who has warned against return of “one-party era” figures like Essebsi.

Many Tunisians weighed security concerns against the freedoms brought by their revolution and by its democratic reforms, which have remained on track in sharp contrast to the upheavals brought by the Arab Spring elsewhere in the region, including the military coup in Egypt and the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, AP reports.

Exit polls suggested that neither of the two leading candidates was likely to win an outright majority and that a runoff between them would be necessary. Official results were not expected for one or two days, The New York Times adds.

“The presidential election is the last milestone on Tunisia’s transitional path,” said Abdel Latif Hannachi, a professor of modern history at Manouba University in Tunis. It should herald a period of “democratic consolidation,” he said.

tunisia_ugtt(1)Outside the cosmopolitan coastal capital of Tunis, front-runner Essebsi, an 87-year-old politician who served under two autocratic regimes, is seen as an unsettling relic of the autocratic regimes that ruled Tunisia from its independence from France in 1956 until the 2010 uprising, The Wall Street Journal reports (HT: FPI).

“There is a guarantor of our revolution and it is our civil society,” said Ghazi Mrabet, a prominent civil-rights attorney and political analyst. “It has proved uncompromising in our transition to democracy and forced compromise and dialogue,” he tells the Journal:

Through a vibrant array of worker unions, legal associations and women’s rights groups, Tunisia’s citizens have held unusual sway in moderating between the dominant forces in the nation: Islamists who gained early support for their opposition to Mr. Ben Ali’s regime, and former regime figures who have recast themselves as experienced statesmen uniquely equipped to manage the nation during a turbulent period.

The next round is likely to see a framing of ‘democrats versus anti-democrats’ rather than ‘secular versus Islamists’ as in other countries, notes David McLaughlin, an election observer with the National Democratic Institute for the election.

This is because the second-place party in the legislature, the Islamic Ennahda party, did not field a presidential candidate. Their support for a coalition government led by a prime minister in the legislature remains a deep unknown in Tunisian politics, he writes for The Globe and Mail:

For democrats, Tunisia offers the prospect of stability and progress. But western democracies will need to pay it serious attention. Democratic progress must be accompanied by economic progress. Tunisia requires western aid and development beyond the significant democratic assistance countries like Canada have already given.

Monica Marks, a Tunisia analyst from Oxford University, told PRI that Essebsi is winning Tunisians over by strumming on very familiar chords.

“He’s offering a kind of paternalistic, big man approach to politics,” she says. “[Essebsi is a] highly charismatic personal leader who says to the people, ‘I offer you safety and security, I’m offering you state prestige. If you invest trust in us, the old political elite, the statesmen, we are going to solve your problems.’”

In what some analysts interpret as a setback for political Islam, Ennahda didn’t field a candidate or indicated any preference, a signal that the party can live with Essebsi and allowing it to avoid backing a losing candidate, said Riccardo Fabiani, a senior analyst for North Africa at Eurasia Group.

tunisia ghannouchi“Reaching this historic moment today is a proof the democratic experience was a success in Tunisia” Rashid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader, said while waiting to cast his ballot in Tunis. “Regardless of the results, the success of this election is in itself a victory.”

“People in the Arab world will watch Tunisia as a laboratory,” said political analyst Hammadi Rdissim. “We can do it, it’s not a myth, it can be a reality, and elections and democracy are possible in an Islamic country.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated the Tunisian people for their success in holding presidential elections, POMED adds.

“Tunisia’s democratic path will remain an inspiration to all those in the region and around the world who are working to build the foundation for an inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous future,” he said, adding that the U.S. will continue to provide Tunisia with economic and security assistance. A number of U.S. NGOs participated in observation missions, including the Carter Center, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute - the latter two being core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Tunisia at a Crossroads: Between a Nascent Democracy and the Old Guard

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

12:30pm – ICC 270, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Radwan A. Masmoudi  is the Founder and President of the Center of the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID), a Washington-based non-profit think tank dedicated to promoting dialogue about democracy in the Muslim world. He is also the Editor of the Center’s quarterly publication, Muslim Democrat. In April 2012, he was elected as a member of the Steering Committee of the World Movement for Democracy.

Seating is limited. Lunch will be provided. RSVP

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Democracy disrupted: Russia and the New European Disorder

democracy disrupted krastevRussia’s annexation of Crimea made Europeans suddenly realize that although the EU’s political model was admirable, it was unlikely to become universal or even spread to many in its immediate neighborhood, say two prominent analysts.

Russia has been searching for a new European order for over ten years, one that can secure the regime’s survival even after Vladimir Putin, according to Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard. But what Putin wants from the West is something that it is unwilling and unable to promise him, they write for the European Council on Foreign Relations:

In 1943, Joseph Stalin dissolved the Communist International to convince the Allies that his priority was the defeat of Nazi Germany, not the triumph of the Communist revolution. Putin has been hoping that the West would similarly end its policy of promoting democracy. …. Unfortunately for Putin, this is not something the West could either promise or deliver. There is no “Democratic International” that is spreading democracy in the way the Comintern supported international revolution – and what does not exist can also not be dissolved.

The annexation of Crimea showed that the West had got Russia wrong on a number of counts, Krastev and Leonard contend:

Firstly, Europeans had mistaken Russia’s failure to block the creation of the post-Cold War order as assent. They mistook weakness for conversion. After 1989, it was the Soviet Union and not Russia that embraced the European model. ….

Secondly, European leaders and European publics fell victim to cartoonish depictions of Putin’s elite. … Russian elites are greedy and corrupt, but some of them also dream of Russia’s triumphant return to the global stage. …The Russian elite, more than the European elite, tends to think about its role in history and to combine mercantilism with messianism. The nature of Putin’s revisionism was more profound than Europeans realized. ….

Thirdly, Europeans failed to appreciate the psychological impact of the “color revolutions” and the global financial crisis on Russia. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine was Putin’s 9/11. Since then, the Russian president has viewed remote-controlled street protests as the primary threat to his regime. The Kremlin is convinced that all color revolutions in the post-Soviet space, including the protests in Russia, have been designed, sponsored, and guided by Washington. ….

Fourthly, Europe miscalculated the advantage of strength. Western analyses comparing the West and Russia were full of figures and graphics demonstrating the West’s advantages in economy, technological development, or even military spending. But while it is true that the West is stronger than Russia, Europeans neglected what David Brooks has called “the revolt of the weak”….

europe 21 cWhy Europe won’t run the 21st century

“The annexation of Crimea has forced the EU to confront the fact that its post-modern order is not going to take over the continent, let alone the world. It is clear that Europe is not going to remold Russia in its image – but nor can it accept a return to the balance of power or spheres of influence,” Krastev and Leonard write in “The New European Disorder”:

The EU must co–exist with its powerful neighbor, by deterring aggression, decontaminating the values-based institutions of the European space, and by cooperating with Russia’s own integration project, the Eurasian Union. This offers the best chance for shifting Russia’s activities from the military to the economic sphere.

The urgency for decontaminating values-based institutions comes from the growing popularity of Putin’s “sovereign democracy” among some in the EU. For instance, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently declared: “We are searching for and we are doing our best to find – parting ways with Western European dogmas, making ourselves independent from them – the form of organizing a community that is capable of making us competitive in this great world-race.”15 For Orban, Putin looks strong and decisive and European democracies look confused. The EU must convince Orban that Putin’s model can work outside of the EU, but not inside it, and it is up to Hungary to make its choice.

The authors cite the United States’ relationship with China – two regions co-evolving and engaging with each other but with clearly demarcated red lines – as a model for a new EU relationship with Russia. The essay outlines a roadmap for rebuilding engagement with Russia by:

  • Maintaining NATO as the major provider of credible security guarantees for the territorial integrity of EU member states.
  • Considering the expulsion of Russia from “value institutions” like the Council of Europe to protect the liberal nature of the EU project.
  • Engaging with the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union to acknowledge officially that Russia has the right to have an integration process of its own. 

Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Centre of Liberal Strategies in Sofia, permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, and a council member of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum. His most recent book is Democracy Disrupted. The Global Politics of Protest (UPenn Press, 2014).

Mark Leonard is co-founder and Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. He writes a syndicated column on global affairs for Reuters and is Chairman of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on geo-economics. He is author of Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century (Fourth Estate, 2005) and What Does China Think? (Fourth Estate, 2008).


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Cuba Posible: extolling moderation to confront politics

cuba posibleRoberto Veiga González and Lenier González Mederos have created a space where Cuba’s dissidents, dyed-in-the-wool communists, artists, exiles, bloggers and academics can discuss national issues, both in print and at seminars held in a Catholic cultural center in Old Havana, Jose Goitia reports for The New York Times:

Their new project, Cuba Posible — part forum, part online magazine, part research organization — aims to do the same, and will test the government’s threshold for debate as well as Cubans’ appetite for finding a third way.

Serious and circumspect, Mr. González and Mr. Veiga lack the caustic eloquence of Yoani Sánchez, whose blog Generation Y has millions of readers, and the daring of some dissidents. They tread carefully, advocating political change without rupture and keeping some distance from the Castros’ most outspoken adversaries.

Cuba Posible does not advocate democracy, Veiga said in a telephone interview, but promotes dialogues that incorporate “discernment of the question of how to advance towards fuller democracy.”

Mr. Veiga and Mr. González are not the only, nor the first, Cubans debating national politics, Goitia adds:

Publications, including New Word, the magazine of the archdiocese of Havana, have bluntly urged much faster economic reforms. Temas, a cultural magazine, has, for years, held monthly discussions that are open to the public.

Antonio Rodiles, a physicist by training, has gained recognition for hosting discussions and jam sessions that are broadcast online under the name State of SATS  an activity for which he has been arrested more than once.


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