Observers and participants alike have described the recent Arab Spring as ‘leaderless’ —but this obviously has a downside to match its upside,” say Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, the authors of The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, writing in The Wall Street Journal:
In the day-to-day process of demonstrating, it was possible to retain a decentralized command structure (safer too, since the regimes could not kill the movement simply by capturing the leaders). But, over time, some sort of centralized authority must emerge if a democratic movement is to have any direction. Popular uprisings can overthrow dictators, but they’re only successful afterward if opposition forces have a plan and can execute it. Building a Facebook page does not constitute a plan.
“The empowered citizen,” said Henry Kissinger, “knows the technique of getting people to the square, but they don’t know what to do with them when they are in the square. They know even less of what to do with them when they have won.”
“If you are a revolutionary, show us your capabilities. Start something. Join a party. Build an institution. Solve a real problem,” he argues. “Do something except running around from demonstration to march to sit-in. This is not street work: real street work means moving the street, not moving in the street.”
Building tangible support
“Historically, a prominent position grew out of a degree of public trust (with the exceptions of, say, warlords or machine bosses),” according to Schmidt and Cohen, Google’s executive chairman and director of Google Ideas, respectively:
The visibility of a high-profile leader corresponded with the size of his or her support base. But in the future, with the broad reach of digital media, this equation will be inverted. Prominence will come earlier and more easily; only then will a would-be leader start to build tangible support, credentials and experience.
Opposition groups will have to compete with each other to have the best plan for their country’s future, the best set of internal and external alliances and the most useful operational tool kits and hubs for organizers. If you’re running an opposition group, your influence will be measured not only by the number of supporters you can get to a rally but also by the number of times your field manual is downloaded, the comments on your proposed constitution and the guest posts on your blog.
The revolts that have convulsed the Arab world were not Facebook or Twitter revolutions, however much cyberutopians would like them to be, analyst Jeffrey Ghannam wrote in Digital Media in the Arab World One Year After the Revolutions.*
“The Internet’s potential as a tool that can help the process of democratization is undeniable,” he observed, but “the Internet also can be used for oppression by authoritarian governments in the Arab world and elsewhere.”
That’s a view echoed by Google’s Schmidt and Cohen.
Technology has the potential to bring about change, but there is also “a dark side to the digital revolution that is too often ignored,” they argue:
There is a turbulent transition ahead for autocratic regimes as more of their citizens come online, but technology doesn’t just help the good guys pushing for democratic reform—it can also provide powerful new tools for dictators to suppress dissent.
Fifty-seven percent of the world’s population still lives under some sort of autocratic regime. In the span of a decade, the world’s autocracies will go from having a minority of their citizens online to a majority. From Tehran to Beijing, autocrats are building the technology and training the personnel to suppress democratic dissent, often with the help of Western companies.
Rather than facilitating China’s democratization, for instance, the internet has allowed the ruling Communist Party to consolidate its power, Gady Epstein wrote in a recent Special Report for The Economist.
“Despite the expense, everything a regime would need to build an incredibly intimidating digital police state—including software that facilitates data mining and real-time monitoring of citizens—is commercially available right now. What’s more, once one regime builds its surveillance state, it will share what it has learned with others,” Schmidt and Cohen contend:
We know that autocratic governments share information, governance strategies and military hardware, and it’s only logical that the configuration that one state designs (if it works) will proliferate among its allies and assorted others. Companies that sell data-mining software, surveillance cameras and other products will flaunt their work with one government to attract new business. It’s the digital analog to arms sales, and like arms sales, it will not be cheap. Autocracies rich in national resources—oil, gas, minerals—will be able to afford it. Poorer dictatorships might be unable to sustain the state of the art and find themselves reliant on ideologically sympathetic patrons.
The great paradox of “liberation technology, analyst Evgeny Morozov recently wrote, is that its growing salience as a political tool “may push Internet-control efforts into non-technological areas for which there is no easy technical fix.”
“Authoritarian governments control the Internet through the combination of technological and sociopolitical means,” he wrote in a Journal of Democracy article. “It is unclear what the most potent combination of those types is; an Internet-control system that wields mainly the sociopolitical means may end up being more draconian than one that relies on technological means only.”
All-encompassing surveillance states
“Democratic and autocratic governments alike will soon be able to collect biometric data,” Schmidt and Cohen caution:
By indexing our biometric signatures, some governments will try to track our every move and word, both physically and digitally. That’s why we need to fight hard not just for our own privacy and security, but also for those who are not equipped to do so themselves. We can regulate biometric data at home in democratic countries, which helps. But for newly connected citizens up against robust digital dictatorships, they will need information and tools to protect themselves—which democracies and nongovernmental groups will need to help provide.
“Dictators and autocrats in the years to come will attempt to build all-encompassing surveillance states, and they will have unprecedented technologies with which to do so,” they conclude.
“But they can never succeed completely. Dissidents will build tunnels out and bridges across. Citizens will have more ways to fight back than ever before—some of them anonymous, some courageously public.”
*Digital Media in the Arab World One Year After the Revolutions is published by the Center for International Media Assistance. CIMA is an initiative of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.