Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Building Babylon

The simplest things in life pass with so little notice that they have to jump up and bite you in order to be understood. Evidently, so is also the case with social media and the political particularities and mechanisms of about any country. As once the tower of Babel was wrought by confusion of language, social media risk becoming a mere edifice of a failed attempt to combine politics and technology.

Addressing a Fokus magazine conference on "How technology changes politics" last week, I was struck by a feeling that I spoke a different language than most other participants. This was peculiar to me, as I am well-versed in Swedish political and media culture, and knew many of the other participants. At first, I could not get a grip on why such was the case, before realizing that the combination of politics and social media was at the core of the problem. I simply did not relate to the use of social media in politics in the same way as most other participants did.

Why was it so? The simplest explanation is that dealing with social media on an international level - mainly with Central and Eastern Europe - the way political topics and issues are addressed there has little similarity with how things are dealt with in a Swedish context. The social media culture is totally different, as well as the mechanics of political and social media interaction. Despite knowing the language and context of Swedish politics, I had no way of understanding the mechanisms of how social media are used in a Swedish context. Giving a global outlook, I got the impression that portraying realities of politics-social media interaction internationally - in striking accordance with the political landscape in countries concerned - was received almost as cynical by parts of the audience. But hey, this is normal. If the security services in e.g. Uzbekistan boil political dissidents alive, then it is destined to leave an imprint on politics and the social media landscape in that country. This is not acting the devil's advocate. It is addressing the issues at hand without either malice or idealism.

A paradox is perhaps that I felt I had a lot more in common in terms of social media with the conference keynote speaker, Alan Rosenblatt of the Center for American Progress, than I had with my fellow countrymen, of whom I had known several for decades. A relevant question is, of course, if lessons learnt from a US context are applicable to that of another country or culture. This is usually not a problem, but the mere dynamics of social media and consequent development causes difficulties when regarding both politics and social media, because they evolve interactively and must therefore by nature be different to each particular context. Or else they would be to no use. Besides the cultural caveat, disabling copycat application of social media in political campaigning, there is also the issue of repetition. Techniques are largely applicable only to limited scopes and spans of political action, as social media as a means of communication is dynamic and sui generis.

For me, web activism and the use of social media is still a matter of simple political logics. You have a political content and then you use social media as an instrument for interaction and exchange of ideas with an open mind and willingness to argue your case. What struck me as odd was however that despite knowing the particular "language" or context, the social media culture was so different from the one I am used to relating to, that I had difficulties understanding how Swedish political activists could have any use of them in campaigning or communication. Still, that is hardly for me to say, as my main point is a lack of understanding, of course, provided I do not do that too well, which I lay no claim to.

One great exception to the lack of lingua franca was the enfant terrible of the show, Pirate Party leader Rickard Falkvinge. Using social media in political communication seemed as natural to him as it is to me. So, are Swedish politicians losing out on something important here? Possibly, but not necessarily. It all depends on what kind of political and party culture that exists. If you have an open mind and are ready for equally open-ended communication, then social media might become an invaluable instrument of mutual communication between people and candidates during political campaigning. If so is not the case, it may well be both money down the drain, and serve as a political liability, as not knowing how to use social media may well expose greater flaws of your policy.

All in all, it was a very worthwhile experience to attend the Fokus seminar, as it raised my awareness to matters that should really be self-evident, but I have previously not been wholly aware of. I also got an oppportunity for self-reflection and a portion of humility, which will be very useful when reflected against a more international social media context. Last but not least, it was great meeting so many bright and initiated people, who did not think of matters the way I did, thus providing an element of intellectual enrichment. However, judging from my impressions of the seminar, the one advice I might venture to give Swedish politicians as for social media is to either go full in if you have a massive message to convey, or else keep it on a low or moderate scale in proportion to what party culture, modus operandi, and campaign programme may allow. Or else you may be in for a lot of unwarranted trouble. After all, building a Babylonic tower needs finding a language in common even if you speak in different tongues. That is perhaps the greatest challenge for political establishment to overcome.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Baku Blues

"Shut up! Parliament is not for debate!" Make no mistake: These are the words of authoritarian statehood, words of utter arrogance to an open society of freedom and democracy. These are no heady opinions fired off in the heat of debate. They are the words of a speaker of parliament - the key guardian to freedom of speech in any nation that lays claim to democracy. The country is Azerbaijan, the situation a travesty of all values dear to the Western world.

Some 100 days have passed since Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli were arrested by police in an apparent case of regime provocation. Their true crime was exercising their constitutional right to freedom of expression and conscience, with social media and the web as their venue. Freedom for freedom - its exercise in exchange for its loss - was the price the two young bloggers and student activists had to pay for something taken for granted as norms of civilized society. Despite fraudulent and fabricated criminal allegations, their true "crime" was making fun of realities known to all but raised by few. Did they speak the unspeakable, call for chaos and upheaval? No, Hajizade and Milli simply posted a parody of politics on the web, coming too close to realities of government in current Azerbaijan: A video of a mock press conference with a donkey commenting on the country's repressive NGO-legislation.

However, comedy turned tragedy, as government decided to set an example to deter others from even the most harmless forms of regime critique. With a unique display of foolhardedness, the Azeri police and legislature staged a travesty of justice, by prosecuting Hajizade and Milli for a crime they had been victims of, adding allegation to allegation, charge to charge. In the dark gulfs of government conscience, fears inspired by the role of social media during the green revolution in nearby Iran, may have been one reason why Azeri officials all of a sudden reacted so sternly against the bloggers. Any more concrete reasons are obscure, but for the normal workings of an authoritarian system.

In its 2009 "Freedom in the World" report, Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan as "not free" and provides the following analysis on the development up till 2008:

Azerbaijan received a downward trend arrow due to the increasing monopolization of power by President Ilham Aliyev and the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, as reflected in a flawed presidential election in October and measures to eliminate presidential term limits. [---] President Ilham Aliyev and the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party further marginalized the political opposition and other institutions of democratic accountability in 2008. The government’s fierce suppression of media freedom was integral to Aliyev’s victory in a controlled presidential election in October. In December, the parliament approved a constitutional change that would eliminate presidential term limits, clearing the way for a referendum on the issue. Meanwhile, the country’s energy wealth continued to swell state coffers, stunting other sectors of the economy and permitting the government to postpone meaningful institutional reforms.
In its 2008 "Press Freedom Barometer" Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan as number 150 out of 173 countries worldwide, and points to the "difficult situation" of media in the country:
Ilham Aliyev’s relations with the very few independent media in Azerbaijan are tinged with authoritarianism and terror. Journalists who dare to speak out about the evils of the regime including corruption and high unemployment expose themselves to real danger. [---] And exposing crime in the country can be as dangerous as exposing corruption. [---] Several journalists are currently in prison in the country. [---] This hounding of the press also extends beyond the country’s borders as far as foreign media. [---] The BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America can no longer be picked up [in] Azerbaijan. There is a lack of pluralism in the country’s media landscape. Energy policy has taken precedence over democratisation as Aliyev prefers to boast of his country’s oil and gas riches. Moreover the president secured the constitutional right in a March 2009 referendum to unlimited runs at the presidency.
One may easily conjure up predisposed images of Oriental despotism - of "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet", but reality is starker than cultural prejudice. A country couched at the shores of the Caspian, Azerbaijan with its cosmopolitan metropolis Baku, has always been at the crossroads of cultures, trade and human encounters - whether conflict or cooperation. After soviet demise, Baku has looked westward, profited from its oil resources, and been embraced by the West, if for no other reasons than its still large energy reserves. Western sponsorship is however not unconditional. Despite projects such as the BTC oil pipeline and plans for the Nabucco gas pipeline, there is a limit to European and US indulgence with human rights' violations, which no dependency on oil may compensate for. Patience and tolerance is one thing, but even the greatest realist would realize that this kind of negative domestic developments eventually may amplify tendencies towards the entire region turning completely into a geopolitical and geoeconomic hotchpotch. That even the usually so market-conscious BP has reacted against the jailing of Hajizade and Milli shows that there is no turning a blind eye to Azeri human rights' violations anymore, especially if put in a larger context.

As the sun sets over the capital on the Caspian, the dusk of democratic disability descends on the people of Azerbaijan. Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli have now been jailed for a hundred days. It is a hundred days too many. Enough is enough. Free Adnan and Emin!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Direct democracy or digital mob?

A spectre is haunting Eurasia - the spectre of activism. As cyberage sets in, the mentality of old Eurasia grapples to grasp the power of the people when politics enters a new age and arena. Is this truly the case or are we but suffering from the same delusions as we tend to when lured by novelties, choosing the complex over simplicity, iPhone and 3G over pencil and paper?

Paraphrasing the 1848 Communist Manifesto may seem out of place addressing the dramatic changes that our Eurasian continent has undergone over the last decades. In essence though, it illustrates the difficulties of the old political and economic establishment to come to terms with new rules of the game, where citizens enjoy and use ever expanding tools of empowerment, where the Great Communicator is not necessarily the President, but the People. It is a transformation from "we are the people" to "who are the people?".

What this people is, still remains to be determined. Is it a demos - people - without krateion - rule? An unruly crowd with its own heterogeneous interests that only seldom forms into a concrete political agenda, but still looms large influencing and potentially discapacitating policy goals and implementation of elected officials? Is it an anonymous and shrouded rule that manages both people and politicians with no saying who is in charge?

198 methods of nonviolent action is a "dummies' guide to revolution," applied to all popular uprisings forming a tattered trace of coloured revolutions in Eastern Europe over the last decade: Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine... Today, such approaches for achieving peaceful change are so integrated in our mindset of popular action, that we seldom stop to reflect upon if they are righteous or represent the will of the people. Furthermore, the very same mechanisms have found their way into Internet activism, as Gandhi goes web 2.0, as the Mandelas and Sakharovs of our age increasingly turn up from out of cyberspace.

We take these thruths to be self-evident and hail the principles and mechanisms of coloured revolution as singularly in the service of democracy. However, if we think revolution, we must also think reaction. Confronted by external change, Russia by no means was or could be ignorant of this, as stability was the name of the game both to preserve power and protect people from a return to the upheavals and chaos of the 1990s. Nashi became the recipe for reaction, to support and not subvert an authoritarian regime. As also Gargantua went web 2.0, we witnessed cyberwars waged against Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008. This Russian experiment has now come to an end, and Nashi put in mothballs, as Kremlin seeks new venues of state-directed instead of state-inspired web activism.

Why? What have the Russians realized that the west fails to understand? The answer may be the difficulty of controlling the digital mob. As each and everyone can turn a cyberwarrior or warmonger on one's own, such spontaneity is destined to conflict with the interests of authoritarian government. Directing the webcrowds in the spirit of Gustave Le Bon has proven an overwhelming task in the 21st century, as rulers realize the risk of spiralling into new nights of broken glass. Whereas methods may work in concrete operative and tactical contexts - by blogs, twitter, and other social media - it has proven much more complex and difficult to achieve any strategic and tenuous goals.

The Georgian example also illustrates a paradox if regarded from the perspective of information operations, viz. info warfare. Whereas aerial superiority is deemed the key to victory in modern warfare, the winner may quickly turn loser in the information battlefield. The cyberattacks on Georgia in 2008 gave Russia near total dominance in the information field. However, it also raised the temperature of the Russian information flow for it to boil over into increasingly unreasonable and uncorroborated accusations of Georgian war crimes and even genocide on South Ossetians. In one blow, Russia lost its credibility. At the same time, it gave the Georgian government an information monopoly to send its message, its truth, and its propaganda, as most alternative information sources had been taken out. The exception was bloggers, acting eyewitnesses directly from the hotbeds of battle.

So, have all the powers of old media and politics entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre? Realising its potential, will social media be seen as a friend or foe by forces of traditional society? What it takes to turn the tide and surf the waves of Internet activism is a combination of factors: Understanding of areas, countries, or regions of concern with comprehension of mechanisms such as Gandhi goes web 2.0 and the digital mob. A growing but still too small number of journalists and politicians are getting the message and have started developing such competence, but in the heat of battle, during drastic developments, the question is if this competence may be applied to account for what goes on in the online political arena - with direct or indirect influence on the flow of events - and act or report accordingly.

As trivial a statement as it may seem, the Internet is what you make of it. Friend or foe dichotomies lead nowhere, and seeing Internet as a threat by repetitious rantings about cybercrime and pornography degrade the very thought of human interaction - whether on the web or in real life. Statements saying cybercrime exceeds international drugs' trade, or that a majority of Internet usage relates to pornography (in reality 10-25%), just bring out hysteria about something that for most people has no connection whatsoever to either crime or sex, but for whom interaction by social media has become a part of everyday life, including the potential to actively influence one's life and society by the use of the web.

For people, raising their voices and exerting influence, is not essentially a matter of being online or not. It is true, that social media facilitate social and political interaction, when applied to that purpose. Still, it is the same logics and tactics that are seen IRL political and societal interaction. Age-old methods of political action - whether Gandhi's application of ahimsa to non-violent change or Hitlerite seduction of the crowd inspired by Le Bon - are as integrated into web activism as they are into general political action. The choice - as always with phenomena rightly or wrongly deemed as new - stands between embracing or vilifying web activism. Is standing apart, studiously neutral, the road ahead when cyberspace - for good or evil - becomes but another arena for government of the people, by the people, for the people? Is it a choice between greater direct democracy or the digital mob, or will we simply have to live with both?