Patrice Riemens on Sun, 27 Jul 2014 14:23:35 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Ippolita Collective, In the Facebook Aquarium Part Three, section #1 (begin)

Ippolita Collective, In the Facebook Aquarium Part III

The Freedoms of the Net

(section 1)
On-line revolution and couch activism: between myth and reality

Occupy's media exposure and Anonymous' logistic and technical support
bring us back to considerations on the perspectives and practices of
(political) engagement, democracy and on-line organization. (Digital)
Social networks have become successful because of the opportunities to
make and maintain contacts they offer: potentially, their constituency
encompasses the whole world. However, it is not to the user to make a
choice about how to establish that contact with others, but it is her/his
service provider, who, by using his 'default power' decides as he pleases
on the functionalities and mode of operation of this shared environment.
(Now it turns out that) It is easier to engage on-line than to commit
oneself into an off-line ('real world') organization. For example, the
effort needed to create a Facebook group to collect funds for refugees of
this or that environmental or other catastrophe is of a totally different
order than the resources mobilization required to build up a sort-alike
initiative in an non-digital, off-line setting. Moreover, when it comes to
facing the brutal realities of non-virtual organizing - Byzantine
bureaucracies, group discussions going no-where, material hurdles, etc. -
the non-digital citizen feels fatally powerless, whereas his on-line
counterpart is imbued with a feeling of omnipotence that goes with being
'on the Net'. The main strength of couch activism is that it offers a
simulacrum of participation, going with a good whack of 'Like' and 'Share
this Link', while one can fume with indignation about all the world's
misery, well-protected behind screens allowing for this 'sharing
experience', all provided and run by other (commercial) parties 'for our
own good'.

The Western medias' enthusiasm for the 'Arab Spring', and, not long after,
for the Iranian Green Movement, springs forth from the techno-eagerness
and the Internet-centrist perspective we wrote about in the first part of
this book. But, even more deeply, it is the outcome of a blind faith in
information as the purveyor of truth. Activists, and, generally, the
citizens of Western democracies are so much reality-hungry that they have
become convinced that you only need to remove the screed of censorship to
let democracy blossom. (In this perspective) Freedom is therefore the
result of a proper use of appropriate technology, and Information shall
thus release the Holy Host of the democratic gospel: if the Chinese were
allowed to communicate freely, the Party hierarchs would be swept out just
like the Soviet Politbureau ones in 1989. One can bet on the fact that all
coming insurrections will be read through the (distorting) prism of
liberation tech. But we should remember Gil Scott Heron's words: "you will
not be able to stay home, brother. (...) Because the revolution will not
be televised" [1x].

The technological 'glaze' that covers everything these days turns into a
one-size-fits-all garment allowing for 'cut-and-paste' analysis of all
social contexts, however different. And foremost, it also produces
preventive solutions to all social problems. (In this view,) Class
oppression is the result of communicative misunderstandings, of inaccurate
information. This is precisely the discourse of the technocrats who
provide (Internet) acces and/or shape the communication tools, and who
furnish politicians with bespoke marketing strategies [2]. A freer society
demands an intensification of information's circulation by accelerating
transactions and bettering the networks' interconnectedness. Here again,
technology plays a reassuring role by convincing 'honest citizens in the
West' that their standpoints and attitudes are Okay. The emotional getting
closer, enabled and caused by being witness of repression, and that almost
in real time, translates into a generalized support of the cause of
liberty (of the people). However, the walls that must fall to achieve this
are not, at least most of them, technological fire-walls, but social,
political, and cultural obstacles of major proportion.

One can summarize the rebuttal (technological) progressive will most often
voice when confronted with the sort of radical critiques we have developed
in these pages: every tool can be put to use in a revolutionary way.
However, within the Facebook aquarium (the 'real' thing, not the book -
transl.) we are constantly bombarded by /stimuli/ of information. In this
downpour of information, political content gets hopelessly mixed up with
all other contents, and does not have an autonomous space to it self - and
never will. The relationship of one to many, the illusion of 'spreading
the news' at a mouse click should not blank out the white noise caused by
the ensuing perpetual chatter. The revolutionary event shall be forgotten,
buried in the eternal present of real time recording (of everything),
without testimony nor memory. Technology is indeed neither good nor evil
in itself but needs to be analyzed in the context of its specific

Seen this way, Facebook has been extremely successful in realizing its
economic and political, radical transparency project. This technology
works fine if and when the aims of different (categories of) users square,
or at least are compatible with each other, such as with /social media
marketing/ in public relations or events planning, for example. But it
does not imply that the tech is good in itself. The fact that Facebook and
Twitter were (massively) used as communication tools during the North
African 'revolutions' and during the uprisings in the Middle East and in
Asia does not ipso facto transform them into revolutionary devices. It are
the people who make revolutions. Technologies do not rebel and rise up:
people do, and make use of whatever instruments is at their disposal. In
these cases they also went on corporate-owned (digital) social networks.
Every instance should be analyzed in a specific fashion: languages are
different, histories and backgrounds are different, territories and
populations are distinct and not readily comparable. And in fact, if one
cares to delve a bit deeper behind the news about spectacular
technology-enabled uprisings, one (often) discovers a much more mundane

In 2011, the West reached, a bit too quickly, the conclusion that the
Egyptian regime had fallen due to its powerlessness to face a popular
insurrection exacerbated by the Internet. The inference being that the new
wind, which had started blowing in Tunisia, would blew all over the
(South) Mediterranean, or at least up to Syria. In reality, the only thing
that became clear is that old, clueless autocrats like Mubarak were not
secure, especially not if they left opposition groups free to agitate on
Facebook for months on end. If we now focus a bit more on the (South and
East) Mediterranean, we see that nothing has moved in Algeria, whereas a
full-blown civil war has erupted in Syria. Meanwhile, Egypt and Tunisia
were democratically handing themselves over to extremist islamist parties,
which are far better at home with the social media than the previous
regimes [*]. Libya also looks like taking the road (down) to (islamic)
fundamentalism, following on a bloody civil war backed by the West bent on
securing its oil resources (for itself). Hence, optimism is not really at
the order of the day, and yet enthusiastic observers still
near-unanimously uphold the idea that the social media were the paramount
factor of change [3].

The techo-enthusiastic interpretation of events in Iran is possibly even
more disturbing. An extremely large number of Persian-language [Farsi]
tweets posted during the street protests in Iran came from dissident
diaspora Iranians using their Twitter profile while comfortably ensconced
in their United States or Great Britain abode rather than on the streets
in Teheran [4] Moeed Ahmad, Al Jazeera's director, put it this way in
April 2010:

"I believe Twitter was used ways too often, including by news channels
which have broadcasted videos and tweets on this issue without first
checking the source. We did identify a hundred-some dependable sources,
sixty of which proved really useful. But in the days following the start
of the protests only six of them continued to pass on informations. I
think it is important to realize that on Twitter only 2% of the
information is first-hand. All the rest is re-tweeted. So the only
strategy where you are going to use social networks purposefully in a
journalistic context is to identify the real source of the information and
to work with that source only." [5]

We do not very much know yet about how effective Twitter's role was in the
Green protest movement in Iran, save that it was doomed to fail from the
onset. The movement itself aborted in the end, and there is not very much
more we will come to know in the future, as the Iranian theocracy remains
solidly in power and is hard at work to flush out the opposition,
including on the technological front. Many activists among those who
managed to have their voice heard, were skeptical [6]. The fact that there
were so many tweets circulating in the West (about the revolt in Iran)
does not stand for so many Iranians (in Iran) actually being on Twitter.
The concrete outcome was rather that the Iranian government, having taken
due notice of Twitter-enthusiastic statements by American and European
politicians, brutally came down on everybody in Iran who was or had been
in touch with 'Western media', sending a flood of threatening SMSs and
rigging up a special IT police force. Bypassing the censorship of social
media in Iran has now become a lot tougher.

Modern securitarian states, in the Middle East and in the rest of the
world already exercise control on the two main instruments of power:
weapons and money. They are now learning to live with the (over)flow of
digital information - as long as this does not translate into concrete
political actions that might threaten or even overthrow the ruling elites.
Rami Khouri, foreign correspondent for the Libanese newspaper /Daily Star/
fears that the global impact of the new communication technologies on the
political conflicts in the Middle East will be highly negative on balance.
He believes that 'the new media' will rather function as a mitigation for
impotence- generated stress than as an instrument of real change:

"Blogging, reading politically racy Web sites, or passing around
provocative text messages by cellphone is equally satisfying for many
youth. Such activities, though, essentially shift the individual from the
realm of participant to the realm of spectator, and transform what would
otherwise be an act of political activism ? mobilizing, demonstrating or
voting ? into an act of passive, harmless personal entertainment."

So it is all again about spectacles - the spectacles the authorities
allow. Dictatorships are not led by clueless autocrats, easily dislodged
through the pressure of free communication media. On the contrary, these
leaders learn very quickly and very well all what they need to apply
technological innovations to their own advantage, to the point that
carrying on a rebellion making use of these even becomes dangerous (- so
Rami Khouri).

(to be continued)
Next time: More on digital repression and the corporates-government nexus
in IT

 . . . . . . . . . . . .
[1x] See:
Full lyrics at:
[2] /Spin doctors/ are the rhetorics experts of our time, the
professionals of public opinion manipulation. They orchestrate massive
disinformation campaigns to cover up scandals and arrange publicity stunts
for the promotion of their clients, usually politicians. A backbone of the
US lobby system, /spin doctors/ have now started playing an increasingly
important role in Europe also. They are a spin-of (!) of the development
of the advertisement industry and of its logic: if policies are simply
products put up for sale, democracy will more and more look like a
Hollywood movie - or a bad sitcom.
[*] At the time of translating, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had been
ousted from power, and then violently crushed by a smarter successor
version of Mubarak's military regime, with the support of the 'modern'
urban elites. Meanwhile, the situation in Tunisia remains somewhat
unsettled, but not totally desperate in  terms of democratic, civil
society values.
[3] A techno-enthusiastic compendium on the North African and Egyptian
uprisings 'Twitter, Facebook and YouTube?s role in Arab Spring (Middle
East uprisings)':
 (January 2011, updated in July 2013)
[4] Oxfordgirl, for instance [nomen set omen], was a Twitter user who
posted thousands of times of during this period, sharing informations
about the protests. But she is an Iranian journalist based in Oxfordshire
[5] "Al Jazeera e i nuevi media. L'intervento di Moeed Ahmad, Milano, 27
Aprile 2010":
[Moeed Ahmad speaks in English, yet the quote's translation is from the
book's original.
Another good interview with him about journalism's proper use of the 'new
[7] Vahid Online, an Iranian activist blogger who posted from teheran in
2009 before taking refuge in the United States, stated on several
occasions that the influence of Twitter and Facebook inside Iran had been
near-zero, even though Westerners believed they were actually
participating, real-time, in the revolution: .
Blogger Alireza Rezai pointed out on his side, that the chaotic unfolding
of the protests did not really conform to the idea of a Twitter-organized
[8] Rami G. Khouri "When Arabs Tweet" International Herald Tribune/ NYT,
July 22, 2010:

Translated by Patrice Riemens
This translation project is supported and facilitated by:
The Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences
The Antenna Foundation, Nijmegen
( - Dutch site)
( - english site under construction)
Casa Nostra, Vogogna-Ossola, Italy

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