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January 27, 2013, Sunday

‘Open Networks, Closed Regimes’

The headline of this article is the name of a book written by Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor Boas, published by the Carnegie Endowment in 2003.

Their conclusions were vindicated by recent political revolutions, ranging from the Orange Revolution in Eastern Europe to the Arab Spring.

The authors claim that advances in information and communication technology (ICT) have played an important role in advancing the revolutionary passion in many authoritarian countries where the political organization of the opposition is either hard or impossible.

We know that three factors are necessary for revolutionary conditions to mature: leadership, ideology and organization. Recent revolutions or revolutionary currents did not have concrete leadership that can be identified with charismatic figures. Old revolutionary ideologies have lost their attractiveness. Few people follow the totalitarian line. The new ethos that is widely shared is democracy. Although democracy is not an ideology, it has replaced all other causes for mobilization in contemporary political movements.

Authoritarian regimes do not allow organized opposition. So opposition movements either hide within traditional institutions until the day they hatch or organize as a virtual community using ICT. Mosques and other religious organizations have become the breeding ground for opposition in Islamic countries. What many Europeans thought of as a rise of political Islam was in fact the organization of political opposition within existing religious networks in order to protect themselves from the oppression of tyrannies. This does not mean that they were fundamentalist groups/movements that interpreted the whole world through the prism of religion, thus politicizing it.

Lack of organization to build a democracy and to bring down the ancien régime was compensated for by creating a virtual community through the Internet, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. This electronic networking reached such proportions that, in the case of Egypt, the opposition could rally millions of people to appear out on the streets in various cities in a single day.

Of course, governments also make use of the same ICT, but so far evidence suggests that their ability to use it for coercion has not been as efficient as that of the opposition in using it against the government. So far, ICT has served to liberate more than to suppress. There is evidence, however, that governments use ICT to legitimize their agenda. One stark example is the Turkish government’s initiative to launch a 24-hour Kurdish TV channel as part of the official broadcasting system. This helped the government boast of not oppressing minority languages.

Governments have many instruments of intimidation as well as persuasion. But non-governmental actors, especially those in the opposition, are best able to use ICT to convey their messages to the public. So today’s political opposition in many authoritarian states may be said to have been nurtured by ICT.

We are now witnessing a “fourth wave of democratization,” following the third wave that began at the end of the Cold War. This fourth wave was made possible with the convergence of two factors: the expansion of ICT use and the uncontainable desire for democracy and individual emancipation. The new ICT helped to assemble and mobilize democratic sentiment.

The free flow of information empowers civil society. An informed and organized society can’t be so easily manipulated by authoritarian power centers or totalitarian ideologies. US President Ronald Reagan foresaw this in 1989 when he said, “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.”

The new ICT not only facilitated the growth of democratic movements throughout the world, but it has also acted as an instrument of political change by way of comparison and opinion sharing. Satellite television in effect created a supra-national global community that is hard to control or to subdue. This network is slowly building up a common “cognitive language” and culture that has democracy and shared human values at its core.

Exposure is the new political virus that tears down the traditional means of isolating and controlling a population that can now communicate and interact with itself directly.

Previous articles of the columnist