The Revolution Will Be Technologized
“Listen, my children, and you shall hear. Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” So begins Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s highly influential poem retelling the history of the prelude to the American Revolution’s first battle at Lexington and Concord. In the famous Midnight Ride, Revere took to horseback to gallop through what is present day Middlesex County, Massachusetts to inform dozens of patriots that the British were approaching. Together with Robert Newman, who famously lit two torches in his church to signal the choice of a nautical offensive on the part of the British, Revere prevented what could have easily been a slaughter by the British. In 1775 it took a sleepless night of riding on a horse over hundreds of miles. Today, a similar warning could be achieved with a text to a revolutionary’s contact list. Or a tweet that aggregates through hundreds of millions of Twitter users. Or even a posting to a Facebook page that has the potential to be seen by more profiles than there are people in China. These tools—cell phones, the Internet and social media platforms—are the things most valued by revolutionaries today. With their ability to shape, influence and spread ideologies, there’s no chance of putting the genie back in the bottle. Now the world must prepare for what technology means when it comes to dealing with mass social and political change.
Who Needs a Revolution?
The term revolution traces its origins back to the Glorious Revolution which ousted King James II from England and empowered the parliament to pass the Bill of Rights 1689. Now, it’s popularly used to refer to any event that attempts to fundamentally alter a country’s political system. The anti-Communist movements in Eastern Europe during the 1980s, sometimes referred to as the Autumn of Nations. The Palestinian revolt against Israeli occupation known as the First Intifada. The first Chechen Rebellion. The Second Intifada. The widespread revolt of the Middle Eastern public against authoritarian rule, now known as the Arab Spring. Potentially a third, “Silent” Intifada in Jerusalem in 2014. All are some shade of a revolution, whether the actions of the participants lead to drastic change or not. Some revolutions are long and drawn out affairs that escalate into full on civil war as in Syria. Others are bloodless and built on political activism, like the sweeping parliamentary and presidential victories of France’s La République En Marche! earlier this year. It would be the height of arrogance to suggest one could accurately determine when a revolution is coming, but there are some common threads. Economic dissatisfaction, often exacerbated by large gaps in wealth between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Lack of political power among the largest segments of society. A sudden weakness in the occupying government. All are hallmarks of pre-revolutionary countries, though not necessarily all at once. The various motives, agendas and ultimate outcomes of revolutions are not important to the discussion on technology’s ability to influence them. The message isn’t as important as understanding how the message is spread. As such, even movements that are considered “failed” or that lack a credible risk of escalating to widespread violence are to be considered “revolutionary” for this article’s purpose. Even grassroots movements like the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump fall under this umbrella.
How will the rapidly changing world be reflected in future revolutionary movements? Well if Sanders supporters and Trump supporters are any indication, we will see far more emphasis on cyberspace communications. Social media will be used to set the date and time. When people do meet up, there will be more focus on photos and video than conversation. These visual elements will be used to enhance the role of organizers in the public eye, and lend legitimacy based on views. It never hurts if they go “viral” and spread throughout the web either in their original form or as some form of mutated “meme,” all will confer the legitimacy of the originating organization in some way. And something even more important than legitimacy: money. And with a host of new payment services and platforms, there will be no need to quibble over coins and bills.
With each change in the status quo of revolutionary messaging comes dangerous corollaries, however. Social media can be used to shine a light on inconvenient truths, but it can also be used to sew falsehoods into the fabric of society, hiding the stitches in the folds of half-truth and ambiguity. Authoritarian regimes can and do use social media to track citizens, cutting off protest and smothering dissent. Even in the United States, video can be confiscated, and then released piecemeal or outright edited to make authority figures look better. Funding a revolution too can be considerably harder when alternative currency like Bitcoin is rife with scammers, and payment processors like PayPal have final say over the movements that are allowed to utilize their service.
Pushing for change in such a volatile environment seems almost certainly to fail. Yet two of the decades earliest revolutionary protests show the design isn’t fatally flawed.
Peer to Peer
When street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest his mistreatment at the hands of a Tunisian municipal inspector on December 17, 2010, it was not immediately clear that his act would spark a series of protests across the Arab world that would continue into the current day. Yet spark protests he did, and largely because of communication between social networks. Twitter was a particularly staunch ally; in the week leading up to Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in Egypt, 2300 daily tweets about political change in the country multiplied by a factor of 100. While all 230,000 tweets were not from Egyptians, the huge increase in global awareness of the issue is another positive factor for social media platforms. Twitter wouldn’t be nearly as powerful of a tool if it was region restricted.
Disaffected citizens in authoritarian regimes historically faced two huge issues. First, their governments weren’t responsive to their needs, and indeed were often the source of their problems. Second, they had no capacity to reach out to others in their own society, much less outside of it, without fear of reprisal. Now citizens in one country can appeal directly to citizens in another. Egyptians can appeal directly to Americans, peer to peer. Who in America cares about democracy in Egypt? Politicians, particularly if the social media frenzy escalates to the kind of significant degree as when 276 girls attending school in Chibok, Nigeria were kidnapped by Boko Haram. There are limits to what people a continent away can accomplish, but if groups are savvy enough to mold their messaging around democracy, or preventing harm to children, they are sure to pull the heartstrings giving politicians a mandate for anything up to “boots on the ground” action. Trending hashtags detailing the horrors of the Libyan Civil War eventually bled over into the political realm for then Presidents Barack Obama of the US and Nicolas Sarkozy of France, leading to their support for a NATO no-fly zone. The same could certainly happen in future revolutions, with activists in one nation influencing those in another.
Within the framework of the nation state, social media is more readily utilized to organize protests and keep people on message, which is where the United States’ Occupy Wall Street movement both succeeded and failed. The 2011 movement was a broad, leaderless movement wherein protesters were united by a hatred for the general notion of wealth inequality. With slogans like “We Are the 99%” it became clear the enmity between the “main street” citizens and the wealthy bankers, investors and money managers found on Wall Street had outgrown the mainstream political system. Ironically, it was Canadian activist magazine was the originator of the hashtag, which first appeared on July 13, 2011 in Adbusters Twitter feed calling for a “shift in revolutionary tactics.” A shift indeed, as now movements all over the world can organize over essentially a catch phrase. It’s hardly the first time a slogan was used to get a revolt moving. Popular phrases “Give me liberty or give me death,” “Viva la Revolucion,” Even ephemeral social movements like the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution garnered mottoes like “Havel to the Castle” to synchronize supporters’ efforts. The hashtag difference is the ability to distill all sorts of information beneath it. Instead of a poster with a cheeky picture of (soon to be) President Vaclav Havel’s face being passed around, maybe with enough space for an address of future movements or phone number to call and voice support, a hashtag can be used to link to Facebook pages with the whole history of the movement; along with the thousands of personal profiles connected to it. Supporters located nowhere near the event in question can figure out how to stage parallel events in their own community. Worse comes to worst? They’ll put together a video about it.
They’ll Do It (YouTube) Live
Syria’s current civil war is not a recipe for change that any movement wants to follow, but the costs the Syrian people are paying have shown the great influence social media has had on activism. Including the kind that helps to staunch the bleeding. The NGO officially known as the Syria Civil Defence—more commonly referred to by their namesake headwear, The White Helmets—tasked themselves with evacuating men, women and children suffering through the violence in war torn Syria. Videos of them collecting children from collapsing apartment buildings and shepherding men and women to pop up medical tents circulated through the Internet starting in the spring of 2014. By 2015 they’d gained international recognition and funding from the United Kingdom. A Netflix documentary was produced in 2016. While the effects of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow people already attuned to the particular type of movement to congregate, visual content has a wholly different purpose: it helps recruit new allies in the fight.
Not every organization should expect to obtain a contract with Netflix, of course, but even relatively low quality, shaky camera phone video can be disseminated across the web at frightening speeds. It’s better than text based social movements for lighting the fires of passion within comrades because photos and videos can be largely devoid of context and still carry weight. Though this naturally creates the potential for manipulation, a topic explored more later, the value of a good video is hard to overestimate. With the increasing sophistication of cell phones and portable cameras, there’s likely to be much more of it as well.
Photos and videos also have more practical uses, like their familiar position as evidence. During war people are more concerned with getting by and surviving one day at a time, but after the war the survival would mean nothing if there was no capacity to deal with atrocities, no matter what side one is on. Citizens of Syria are making sure any failing will be on the prosecution itself, as opposed to the lack of evidence. Abdelkader Mandou, director of Syria’s Institute for Justice is training individuals to capture photos and videos of crime scenes. A regime defector and forensic photographer who goes by the alias “Cesar” escaped the regime’s grasp with over 5000 photos and videos. Outside of the life or death conflicts, video is also relevant. The Black Lives Matter movement was built on the backs of citizen journalists chronicling their interactions with police. Now, regardless of whether confrontation between a person and police ends in triumph or tragedy, the public at large is likely to see it. While every potential revolutionary organization operating today will tend to have a level of resources for creating and disseminating video that is beyond those of even 10 years ago, before cell phones could reliable record and store hours of content behind an encrypted lock screen, gaining Netflix documentaries will require a different level of resources. Cold, hard cash. Or, more frequently, temperature-less, software-based digital currency.
Built by Bitcoin
In the ramp up to the Russian presidential election of 2018, Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption politician who many believe is the only candidate capable of taking on Putin, has begun funding his campaign in earnest. Back in December of 2016, he received his first 1,000,000 rubles, 85% from online payment processors including PayPal and its popular Russian alternative, Yandex. But the truly remarkable segment of funds came courtesy of Bitcoin. 15% of this first million for his campaign were delivered in Bitcoin (BTC), adding up to about 20 coins total. In December of 2016 they were worth around $16,000 USD. As of this writing, they’re worth $112,000 USD. In rubles? $6.4 million. It’s safe to say that any difficulties Navalny’s revolution faces will not come from lack of funding.
It’d be premature to declare that before BTC there was no way to fund revolutionary parties or organizations. The people that want the revolution are the primary source for funding, and while individual locals may lack the deep pockets needed to take on an entrenched regime, enough pennies and dimes can add up to big enough sums to be a real threat and at least win concessions, if not elevate newcomers to political office. But even in liberal democracies, sitting parties have a host of powers that make funding this way less than straightforward. They can devise complex campaign laws, brand organizations as unpalatable, or even confiscate funds under the guise of protecting citizens. Digital payments sidestep some of these issues, but digital payments from digital currencies like BTC essentially sidestep them all. No need to worry about donation limits, or cash being confiscated as “evidence” if payments are made digitally and untraceably. For regimes with less scruples than democracies, this is a real game changer.
The clearest potential for BTC and its alternatives (altcoins) to be used to fund whole new governments can be seen in Rojava, the Kurdish region of Syria. There one of the contributing coders to the Bitcoin project, Amir Taaki, is helping the anti-government Kurdish forces fight back. When he’s not on the front lines providing support behind the barrel of an AK-47, he’s planning out the electronic infrastructure to allow for the exchange of digital currency between outsiders and the Rojava’s fledgling government. His work on a “Dark Wallet,” an alternative to the normal BTC receptacle that is intended to make exchanges of the currency completely untraceable, could allow for the thousands fighting in Syria to fund the war without needing to worry about their supporters being found out and punished, or outside nations blocking funds for any reason. Bitcoin is already being used to help support Syrian refugees because of its low overhead and high liquidity, so there’s no reason for it to stop there. Well, other than the suspicion of worldwide governments, who have more than a few points of contention with the currency.
Since its inception, BTC has had an uneasy relationship with sovereign governments. The US allows BTC to be used for transactions, so long as applicable taxes and laws are observed, but the Federal Reserve and law enforcement regularly caution against this lenience due to fears it may be used to facilitate nefarious activity. China has initiated a crackdown on BTC exchanges, with Russia’s Central bank following suit. To be sure, there are some instances of BTC and digital currencies being used for villainy. Terrorist organizations have used BTC as an additional layer of protection when sending or receiving funds, and one of the most famous criminal networks of the 2000s, Silk Road, encouraged users to pay for drugs, assassinations or child pornography via BTC. But these uses are dwarfed by the people who simply want a way to safely and privately pay for goods and services, or receive payment for their work. Bitcoin’s encryption and network based validation make it ideal. As such, it seems likely that much of the resistance to Bitcoin comes from its utility when funding anti-establishment groups. It’s a trend that gets more evident when looking at the other technological practices of countries that attempt outright bans of the currency.
China’s BTC crackdown was easy to predict because of its tendency to censor anything that threatens the ruling Communist party. The Golden Shield Project—more commonly known by the infamous moniker “The Great Firewall”— blocks access to websites and monitors keystrokes to ensure users are getting the government preferred experience. Iran and Russia similarly monitor users as they peruse the web. Even worse, as VPNs, the technology that allow users to flout content bans, have become more popular, all three nations have crafted laws banning their use. State run media, generally the only widely available media in these countries, is frequently contradicted by international news sources, particularly when stories would be damaging to their governments. Essentially China, Russia, Iran and the like coopt the social media apparatus on top of controlling the Internet. How do you share content pointing out corruption or calling for mobilization against a government that controls what content is shared? And on the flip side, the government has a powerful new tool for manipulating the masses. The same implements that allow for instant documentation of abuses or injustices can be used to propagate lies and spread propaganda. After Russian backed Ukrainian separatists shot down civilian passenger plane Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) in July of 2014, Russian media reported that a Ukrainian Su-25 aircraft was the responsible party, backing their story with digitally altered images of radar and satellite photos. RT then produced a documentary supporting the Russian narrative, cementing the story as a viable alternative, if not the actual truth, in the minds of many watchers.
Even democracies have an uncomfortable handle on manipulating social media to gain the favor of certain segments of the population. Though private interest does much of the heavy lifting, with news conglomerates choosing to cover some stories and not others. Or some people and not others. In the 2016 presidential election, almost every candidate charged the media with not doing their jobs to properly represent them at some point, though Senator Bernie Sanders and current President Donald Trump were perhaps most vocal. As it turns out, Sanders had cause to feel less than represented, at least according to a pre-primary study that found he received 7% coverage devoted to issues, 21% less than then front runner Hillary Clinton. Though Clinton received more negative coverage overall throughout the rest of the election. The real private sector problem, however, comes from the platforms themselves. PayPal has recently been accused of bias for banning right wing groups. Facebook and Twitter have also been accused of bias by conservative organizations after ex-employees revealed they were to place extra scrutiny on content from conservative websites. It’s certainly a respectable policy to ban organizations that use hate speech, harassment, or threaten violence, but many are pointing out the inconsistency in this policy, as some groups supporting extremists in Syria or Iraq are not banned. It’s also apparent that the divide need not be between right and left, or even between separate organizations. Sanders supporters accused the Democratic National Committee of biasing the 2016 primaries, an accusation which likely would have been written off as youthful exuberance if not for leaking of emails that all but confirmed an implicit bias within the Committee, including one that detailed Donna Brazile providing a question in advance for CNN hosted Clinton-Sanders town hall event in March.
Of course, for the most striking (mis)use of technology in the 2016 election, a return to Russia is necessary. The troll armada that built the MH17 story was deployed once again to support Donald Trump in the general election. Though the debate over how much Russia influenced the outcome of the election is still ongoing, it’s clear that the state intended to assert influence over the proceedings by crafting negative stories about Hillary Clinton. Vladimir Putin’s history with her (he blames her for meddling in his own most recent election) provides more motive than the historic enemy needs. As for the means? Russia is known to have purchased ads on Facebook, pen inflammatory “fake news” stories about Clinton’s health, and hack into email servers and disseminate unflattering private content. There’s no question that these techniques would be more powerful when deployed against the kind of ragtag citizen armies that make up most revolutions.
The Fight Goes On
Despite all the difficulties that can impede revolutions, however, we will not be seeing fewer of them. Indeed, as time marches on, the social, political and economic strife of nations will lead to more revolutions. Indeed, as this article is being written, an uprising in the Catalonia region of Spain may lead to a full secession in the coming years. The vote was covered by major media outlets. Video of voters heading to the polls was juxtaposed against video of police brutally attacking said voters. International opinion is being shaped by the flurry of tweets and messages in support of Catalonia’s citizens. Julian Assange and others are suggesting Bitcoin would be a massively useful tool in the revolutionaries’ toolbox. Technology may not make or break a revolution, but it will absolutely shape the proceedings. Governments that are currently in power must learn not to fear and attempt to ban these tools, but to use them to engage with their citizens and prevent the kind of revolutionary fervor that hides beneath censors from forming. The days of midnight rides are over; the revolutions of the future will have the ability occupy our lives 24/7/365, let’s hope they will bring change for the better.