Google and others cyber-arming protesters

As I surfed the web exploring the Internet’s role in the Arab Spring for a cyber politics class, I stumbled upon the website http://www.movements.org/. The site’s homepage immediately grabbed my attention with a large advertisement for a “How to Bypass Internet Censorship” guide. Not typical of the average political blog, I decided to investigate further. I was amazed to find Google-owned YouTube, CBS News, Pepsi, MTV, Facebook, MSNBC, and National Geographic listed as sponsors of the site. Moreover, the co-founder of Movements.org is Jared Cohen, the current Director of Google Ideas.

In its mission statement, Movements.org says that it “represents a new model of peer-to-peer training wherein these leaders lend their experience in digital organizing, especially short term protests and campaigns,” and is “dedicated to helping these activists to build their capacity and make a greater impact on the world.” Initially, it seemed like the Google-endorsed site was promoting some sort of social agenda, which seemed odd considering the site’s big name sponsors. Moreover, I was curious as to what this agenda could be, and what “training” activists were being given. I continued browsing the site.

I then found that its website had an entire section of “how-to guides” that “identify best practices for the use of digital technologies for social change” and that they could be instantaneously translated into 51 other languages. These “how-to guides” are offered on topics like “Plan and Strategize,” “Build Awareness,” “Mobilize,” “Stay Safe,” “Access Blocked Information,” “Collaborate,” “Fundraise,” and “Keep Supporters Engaged.” Each of those topics is supplemented with a step-by-step guide that explicitly outlines how to achieve a particular end-goal. The “Plan and Strategize” section, for example, outlines a 10-step plan that teaches cyberactivists how to spark massive crowds and inspire “plazas teeming with protesters,” and clearly states how to use blackberry BBM for nonviolent protest. It was clear that Movements.org not only taught people “how to” just use social media sites like Facebook, but actually sought to teach people how to use social media for the purpose of galvanizing protests and revolutions — just shocking.

Additionally, Movements.org has a section called “country profiles” that only highlights a select group of six countries — Bahrain, China, Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam. Each of these countries is supplemented with a profile, historical narrative, revolution timeline, and/or social media feed that provides readers with detailed information about cyberactivism in that country. The information posted there, however, is skewed heavily towards a pro-protest narrative, and does not offer much in-depth historical analysis.

In this way, Movements.org identifies potential “digital activists,” teaches them how to use social media for change, and connects them with other activists in the hope that these “matches” will eventually “ignite and evolve over time.” In practice, therefore, Movements.org does not simply teach people how to use email and Facebook. Rather, it provides straightforward explanations on how to shrewdly utilize social media tools for significant political and social change. The site is overt in its desire to influence with purpose, and to change the global social climate.

Although Movements.org advocates peaceful methods for social change, the cybertools it deploys might just as easily be used to organize violent protests or the overthrow of governments. After all, once a weapon is deployed it can be used for both self-defense and harm. This second possibility is all too real in light of the role of cyberactivism in the Arab Spring revolutions, which, not surprisingly, are prominently displayed on the Movements.org site as major success stories.

Do the founders of Movements.org recognize the danger that their site poses to world order and stability? The answer is not clear, but I would like to ask Jared Cohen that very question. Google has an international reputation as a technology giant, not as a political actor. Movements.org, however, clearly catapults Google, MSNBC, Pepsi, and the rest of the site’s co-sponsors into the perilous sphere of politics. The American people deserve to know that today their news agencies, beverage providers, and for-profit tech companies are endorsing, releasing, and supporting cybertools that threaten national stability abroad and have the power to arm revolutions. I am not sure why this is not at the forefront of media attention, but it needs to be. These days, apparently, there is a lot more to buying a Pepsi than you think.

1 Comment
Anonymous over 11 years ago

While the possible implications of cyber-arming protesters is clear, one must consider this as well: are not a great number of those whose actions you warn against already well-armed to do it anyway (e.g. hackers)?

I dare say many of these possible coup-organizers do not organize violent protests because they fear reprisal from their governments.

It seems of utmost importance to me to teach citizens how to utilize the tools made available to them - namely mass social media.

If these tools were not available, or protesters did NOT know how to use them, how then would then as easily organize the "correct" (as lined out by you) sorts of protests? Blogging? That can be censored quite easily. Just cut off the the revolutionary's intended audience, and his words mean nothing. That is far harder to accomplish when people are sharing it via social media networks.

Just something to think about.