The Dark Side of Twittering a Revolution

The same technologies that have allowed for a potential democratic revolution in Iran could emerge just as readily in support of something far more sinister.

Rally in IranThe emergence of Twitter as a heroic enabling technology for the pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran this past week has been a thrilling reminder of the power of distributed communication tools. I'm impressed at how useful this simple application has been shown to be, and at the clever hacks the Iran-based commentators have employed to stay online. As so many tech pundits have said, this has been a golden moment for social networking technologies.

And, I have to admit, it's scared the hell out of me.

Not because I have any sympathy for Iran's government, I should hasten to say, or because I see any threat coming from this particular use of Twitter. It scares me because of how close it aligns with something I noted in my talk at Mobile Monday in Amsterdam earlier this month, an observation that happened almost by accident.

In noting the potential power of social networking tools for organizing mass change, I thought out loud for a moment about what kinds of dangers might emerge. It struck me, as I spoke, that there is a terrible analogy that might be applicable: the use of radio as a way of coordinating bloody attacks on rival ethnic communities during the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s. I asked, out loud, whether Twitter could ever be used to trigger a genocide. The audience was understandably stunned by the question, and after a few seconds someone shouted, "No!" I could only hope that the anonymous reply was right, but I don't think he was.

iran twitterConsider, for a moment, what we're seeing happening in Iran: mass-action coordinated, at least in part, through Twitter; traditional media in Iran having lost any legitimacy for the angry populace, alternative media--like Twitter--increasingly becoming the sole source of information; and a growing sense of persecution and crisis, abetted by the limited streams of rumor-heavy news. Let me again emphasize that I don't think that what's happening in Iran is a misuse of social media; what I do think is that the same kinds of dynamics that have allowed for a potential democratic revolution in Iran could emerge just as readily in support of something far darker.

In a 1999 presentation for the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Professor Frank Chalk noted five circumstances that would allow the maximum intensity of a media-driven response to a crisis:

  1. the introduction of a new medium of communication, such as radio [or Twitter];
  2. the use of a completely new style of communication;
  3. the wide-spread perception that a crisis exists;
  4. a public with little knowledge of the situation from other sources of information, and
  5. a deep-seated habit of obeying authority among the target audience.

All of these circumstances pertain to the promulgation of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and many of them are found in other cases of genocide and genocidal killings, as well.

It's easy to see how well this model applies to the Iranian situation, too.

This shouldn't be read as an indictment of social networking technologies in general, or of Twitter in particular. As I said at the outset, I'm thrilled at how critical this technology has been to the viability and potential success of the pro-democracy demonstrations. As the cat-and-mouse game around proxy servers further suggests, the only way for a state to entirely cut off the use of these kinds of tools is to kill its own information networks, blinding itself and effectively removing itself from the global economy.

What I'm arguing, however, is that we shouldn't see the positive political successes of emerging social tools as being the sole model. We should be aware that, as these tools proliferate, they will inevitably be used for far more deadly goals.

At the end of my brief exploration on this idea at Mobile Monday, I asked--in a bit of gallows humor--what the hashtag would be for something like genocide. The audience's nervous laughter reflected my own recognition that this wasn't an entirely rhetorical question. I'm sad to say that we're almost certain to get an answer, probably far sooner than we'd like.

Images:
Iran Election by Shahram Sharif, licensed under Creative Commons
iran-twitter screen capture by Jamais Cascio

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7 Comments

  • Eli Bell

    I agree with Sean and Ramia, it seems that if something is public and open source it tends to be only useful for democratic, rather than authoritarian or destructive ends. If your enemy can hear you, where's the strategic value? If you're proactive and creative, there isn't really an enemy. Fear of that openness can easily be used to try to clamp down on internet freedoms, net neutrality, and open source free collaboration, which is what authoritarian elites want, especially if they can convince a mob that that it's protecting them from terrorists or 'evildoers'(as an aside, both epithets were applied to George Washington by the British, so they really are a matter of perspective).

  • Eli Bell

    I agree with Sean and Ramia, it seems that if something is public and open source it tends to be only useful for democratic, rather than authoritarian or destructive ends. If your enemy can hear you, where's the strategic value? If you're proactive and creative, there isn't really an enemy. Fear of that openness can easily be used to try to clamp down on internet freedoms, net neutrality, and open source free collaboration, which is what authoritarian elites want, especially if they can convince a mob that that it's protecting them from terrorists or 'evildoers'(as an aside, both epithets were applied to George Washington by the British, so they really are a matter of perspective).

  • Eli Bell

    I agree with Sean and Ramia, it seems that if something is public and open source it tends to be only useful for democratic, rather than authoritarian or destructive ends. If your enemy can hear you, where's the strategic value? If you're proactive and creative, there isn't really an enemy. Fear of that openness can easily be used to try to clamp down on internet freedoms, net neutrality, and open source free collaboration, which is what authoritarian elites want, especially if they can convince a mob that that it's protecting them from terrorists or 'evildoers'(as an aside, both epithets were applied to George Washington by the British, so they really are a matter of perspective).

  • Ramla Akhtar

    Rwanda was a closed space.

    Twitter is open to the world. What transpires on Twitter is the sum total of the human spirit. Is our spirit evil? Or does it have the propensity to do good?

    Clearly, the Twitter users could sometimes be flawed an make questionable judgment calls, but the leading Twitter influentials and the users have not shown an inclinations towards "darkness."

    Overall, any open space today has shown a tendency towards the better in the human spirit than that which is dark.

    There is a grassroots level shift taking place in the world, and increasingly, people are coming together to do the benevolent. The fears are just that -- fears.

    However there is a potential for mass hysteria in viral communications. One needs to be deliberate in their engagement with viral social media, or one may be swept away.

  • Sean Mulholland

    As a communications platform I agree, Twitter could be used for many things. Genocides, drug cartels, even street gangs in American cities. But so can cell phones, or email, or radio, or smoke signals. Twitter may have some unique advantages in terms of ease of use and whatnot (for those who 'get' it anyway) but a bunch of guys on Nextel push-to-talk phones could probably be a lot more efficient and deadly that a bunch of guys tapping away in T9 on their cell phone.

    If the message is, "Gather here at 8pm!" then yeah, Twitter is great for broadcasting such a message. But coordinated attacks are a little tougher via Twitter (especially since its public, so the opposing force could anticipate your every move).

    When it comes to genocides, they're like revolutions in a way - one group for a variety of reasons decides another group needs to go. I think it's much more to do with human tribal psychology/sociology than communications tools.

    Some have even hypothesized that Neanderthals went extinct at least partly because Homo Sapiens killed them off in the competition for resources. To some degree, we're all wired for this tribalism, that the "other" is never as valuable we are.

  • Scott Smith

    Though this may have been an epiphany for Mr. Cascio I'm sure the intelligence community is watching closely both here and abroad.

    The use of free Internet tools such as Yahoo mail and the like have been mentioned often as possible tools of evildoers. Evildoers, of course, will do what they do to do their evil, so if there are efficient means of doing evil via Twitter, texting or good old fashioned note drops so be it.

    Technology innovation breeds process innovation. It's there for all to see and take advantage. Sadly, the advantage isn't only used for doing good and making the world a safer, happier and more prosperous place.