political software - II

radical networks - nyc - 2016

This is the second of a three-part post (on top of an introduction).

The first part looks at protests as a historical phenomenon, and attempts to highlight features that seem to form the common basis of successful political protests. The second part focuses on today's use of software for protest, while the third part looks at potential avenues for how software could be used in the future.

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If we look at the Arab Spring, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter seem to have an unprecedented positive effect on political protests. During those protests, software allowed for the creation of a protest network, it allowed people to say “We are all here, we all have those same thoughts, we all share the same disagreements”. It also allowed for the coordination of people at crucial moments (e.g. meeting up at specific locations, coordinating aid packages through the Twitter accounts @tahrirdoctors or @tahrirsupplies, in Egypt's case)

However, it became clear in the aftermath of those revolutions that it didn’t allow for a unified narrative. It gave people voices, and not A unique voice, and ended up still being a mess overall because people wanted to overthrow a regime, but did not talk about what regime they would replace it with.

These particular countries have an extensive censorship system, which means that they will not let anyone communicate about anything. In that case, the possibility to form a the network, the very first need for a protest, does not exist. So yes, in that case software can work wonders, but they can also fascinate too much.

When you think about it, what does the “Facebook revolution” mean? Does it lead to a “Facebook democracy” or to a “People’s democracy”? Where do we do the transition between Facebook and the people? The lack of answer to those questions are just another, deadly, consequence of techno-messianism.

In the West, let's take the example of #BlackLivesMatter. The good part of the digital component of that protest movement was that it offered another narrative. Information technology is used to make people realize what is going on, and is used to fight the dominant perspective of the mass media with the media of the masses. They allow people to say that a network exists, that they are not alone, in a similar fashion to the way it is used in non-democratic states. And yet, they still run into similar problems as those non-democratic states.

  • - No unified voice. There is no specific leader, no unified demands. Three years later, I still don’t know who I should talk to if I want to learn more about BLM. Well, that used to be true until this summer, when they released a very impressive set of proposed policies.
  • - It does create a feeling of participating for people on twitter. but no equivalent presence on the ground. If there were as many people tweeting as people demonstrating, maybe that would have made a difference?
  • - And yes, there is a sacrifice component, but it is stealthy, not public, so you lose the advantage. That happens through state monitoring of the mass media, when protesters are jailed after the protest.
  • - And, finally, the problem of actually having oversaturated the media sphere, and contributing to that media echo chamber that they were trying to denounce. The ebb and flow of Twitter makes the news, which are somehow problematic, that’s when protesting just becomes content.

So it does create a network, but a self-fulfilling, messy network, where it is hard to find both legitimacy and coordinated action. When you think about it, the biggest BLM protests/events were triggered by the non-indictments of police officers/killings. In that regard, they were reactive, and not set up beforehand, a consequence, and not an anticipation.

There are simply too many voices in the public sphere to have a consistent, coherent discourse, which cannot grasp the valuable attention of the media, so that same media ends up saying: “The protesters did X”, instead of “The protesters did X because of Y”.

On top of that, you also have the technical, yet arbitrary limitation of discourse on Twitter which is the greatest definition of counterproductive software. You can’t form sentences longer than 140 characters. At some point, you need a bit more to explain your point. Do we really think that protesters from the past would have agreed to use twitter as the main part of their tools for expression in the past?

Another problem is that, in the long-term, by continuously talking about how the system is doomed without ever offering possibilities, we also adapts people’s expectations. Joshua Epstein has some research which shows that it is actually better to have a one-time, radical denunciations of government (like the sporadic appearances of Mao or Khomeini), so that the legitimacy of the system is violently undermined at once, rather than chipping away slowly, because the citizens get used to a less and less legitimate government.

So what we have here is a use of software for preliminary work and for context. Yes, it is informing people, telling them that the dominant narrative (which states that “everything is fine”) is actually untrue. The thing is that social media networks can disseminate content, and not actually create it, and that’s what happens for a lot of the time.

For some reason, people seem to try to talk to each other on social media, but nothing constructive seems to come out of it. These systems were designed as a broadcast for breaking news or sharing person. For it to be constructive, it looks like it has to move to another platform (wikis/offline). There’s a reason why we live in a representative democracy, we need representatives to discuss and debate. Social media can help reach existing representatives, but it cannot help us decide what is the best thing to do regarding any particular issue.

But still, it seems a bit frustrating that all we can do is provide after-thought context. They act, and we provide the context. We document their actions, but mostly our indignation. They offer a law we disagree with, we do all in our power to make it fail. There are a lot less occurrences of laws being passed from the ground-up.

So does there exist a means for us to actually act pre-emptively? How could software help with that?


Online petitions are some kind of pre-emptive political action. There is a problem you think about, you ask others to rally to your cause, and you present formally your disagreement. It does not have anything to do with current legislation. As long as it is of concern to the people, it can be a petition.

Right now, private petition platforms are the most popular: Change.org boasts more than 150 million signatures. And for good reason. They make us feel good (disruption without the sacrifice). we are doing something. we are doing something with others (part of tens of thousands of people signing with us). They also use marketing techniques (most of these platforms offer “sponsored content”, analytics, A/B testing, etc.). But they don't actually end up anywhere. They might be delivered to Congress, but Congress has no legal obligation to examine them. Furthermore, their dissemination technique rides on the waves of closed-communication circuits, as they are shared from pre-emptively agreeing communities, without trying to reach out to other people. The implied power of the physical version of a petition is that it was reflecting a relatively average sample of the population. Today, nothing distinguishes it from a vocal minority boosted by advertising techniques.

So, yes, you could argue that “sharing is caring” but it doesn’t actually do anything. When you share petition, you're pushing even further the game of data-commodification. These companies learn what your concerns are, so they can sell more things to advertisment companies -the only point you're making is a data point.

Their success still speaks to two things: the power of community, and mildly present desire for action, and the easiness to do so. So if people are willing to click, what is the maximum amount of weight we can give to that click?

On the bright side, it seems that the most consistent findings is that those petitions work better when they are directly integrated within the system. The case of the Edinburgh city council allows for clear outcomes, and clear guidelines, all accessible from a mobile phone. Because, in the end, we have a system that is on our side, we have democratic tools to get what we want (not withstanding lobbying).

This is also why, I believe, SOPA and PIPA have been repelled by incredibly good and efficient activists, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, La Quadrature Du Net or CAGE, to only name a few. They knew exactly what to fight and how to fight it. This kind of action is still not active protest, technically, but it’s efficient at counteracting legislation. As a corollary, if you’re good at counter-lobbying, you’re also good at lobbying, you're good at getting your point through. As a matter of fact, that’s more a feature of software developers than a feature of software. We’re ok at reading documentation, we don’t mind digging into the nitty-gritty.

The lesson here is: there is a system, let’s figure out how it work, and leverage that knowledge.

If we jump back to the Tea Party for a second, it's easy to see how they do it. The Tea Party knows how the system works, what are the leverage points, but they keep it for themselves, and they act with high precision. If we can find those leverage points and make them accessible through software, then we have at least as much influence as the lobbyists.

Petitions sent to The White House are not as effective, because they actually target the wrong organ, they target the executive branch rather than the legislative branch. Sure they can say something about it, but it's unlikely that the President will sign a relevant executive order.


Finally, what is becoming more and more present on the media today are Distributed Denials of Service (DDoS), particularly through the actions of Anonymous. A DDoS as simple as using software to take down other servers, to prevent websites from displaying their message -which would amount to a Denial of Speech. In the past decade, then, it has mostly been used for purely evil gains, such as blackmailing or corporate competitive advantage. So far, the qualities of DDoS as a tool for political action has only been reflected by the actions of Anonymous. As mentioned in part one, then, the most obvious problem is that of legitimacy -and we'll come back to that-, but it still is pretty effective at inflicting direct damage to the institutions they want to counter. And still, the targeted corporate entities have yet to see these as legitimate protest actions. Un-acknowledged, they are not “useful” protests, they are seen as just kids in masks on forums. Aaron Schwartz was arrested and seen as a martyr, but Anonymous were arrested and seen as criminals.

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So let's recapitulate briefly what is the role of software in political protests today:

- creating a network- organizing that network in the long-term
- initiating a discussion of issues- anticipating political issues
- sharing alternative ideas- interfacing with existing systems
- making you feel good about yourself- having a targeted impact

Organizing a network in the long-term: i believe that is something that comes from human behaviour. networked software can put people in touch, and there are already wikis and emails. there are all the tools needed, the effort that needs to be made is on the side of protesters.

Anticipating political issues: how do we stay ahead of what is going to happen? In an ideal world, there are no physical protests, everything is just fixed during discussions.

Interfacing with existing systems: right now, software is commercial, so it lives in the private sphere. how do we make software embedded in the already existing public sphere?

Targeting the right part of the system: how do we make the people into a threat again?