Kyber-Revolts: Egypt, State-friended Media, and Secret Sovereign Networks

Contributed by Jack Z. Bratich Rutgers University
April 05, 2011
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The public focus on social media and the Egyptian insurrection has, like the display of branded graffiti on the streets of Cairo, occluded the processes that produced this event. The Egyptian uprising of 2011 is an historic turning point for many reasons, not least of which is the rise of a new network sovereignty among the mutants of mediated multitudes. News accounts of the Tahrir Square events focused on one major divide: sovereign power of Mubarak (depicted in the repetition of his face on street signs) vs. ‘people-power” (conveyed via images of crowds in these streets). We’re witnessing a reconfiguration of network power, new distributed asymmetries beyond the molar cut between network (freedom) and state/institutional (power). We need to train our eyes to see the proliferation of these mutations.

            On the February 11 Day of Victory, Tahrir Square contained a message assembled on the street (in relief): “We are the Men of Facebook.”  In this gesture, the crowds were hailed to witness the revelation of the social media plotters who became the leadership core of the Revolutionary Youth Movement.[i]  In other words, the plotters simultaneously self-revealed and made a bid to become the representatives of the protestors. State Department official-turned-Google official Jared Cohen tweeted that this was a "basically leaderless" movement, This is accurate insofar as no visible representation presented itself from the outset. But the presumption here is that the lack of visibility equals lack of existence.[ii] Instead, we can say the young plotters announced themselves at the precise moment when leadership was strategically useful to come out of the shadows.

            And what was lurking in those shadows?  We can startwith Jared Cohen’svery visible Google co-worker, Wael Ghonim.  Ghonim, after vanishing in Cairo for almost two weeks, reappeared with a teary interview on Egypt’s DreamTV on February 7, followed by a western media blitz via CNN, 60 minutes, Time magazine and other outlets. On Tues the 8th, Time already promoted him as potentially “the leader of the faceless group of young revolutionaries” (and subsequently put him at the top of its annual 100 Most Influential People List). Other outlets quickly chimed in as well: Foreign Policy claimed Mubarak’s regime “may have just created an undisputed leader for a movement that in recent days has struggled to find its footing,” the Wall Street Journal called him a key figure who was “adopted as symbolic leader” by protest organizers, while CNN posed the question “is he not inevitably the spiritual leader"?

                                        

This noopolitician[iii] told Wolf Blitzer that "This revolution started online," specifically that it “started on Facebook.” When asked about what happens after Egypt, the Google exec replied, “Ask Facebook."

  

            Some reasons for Ghonim’s deference to Facebook are obvious. During his DreamTV interview, he revealed that he was the Facebook page admin for “We are All Khalid Said,” a key mobilizing site for the uprising. Going by the moniker El Shaheed (The Martyr), Ghonim shrouded himself in the identity of an actual martyr (the first version of the page was “My Name is Khalid Said”). A lesser-known reason for Ghonim’s praise was his access to Facebook security admins. When his first page was shut down for not using a proper email, he was given a loophole to overcome the impasse by Richard Allan, Facebook’s director of policy for Europe. Allan also noted that Facebook “put all the key pages into special protection” so that they would not be closed down by Mubarak’s forces. The mysterious Ghonim admitted that he had an “open line” of communication with Facebook throughout the 18 days of the uprising. While many can become friends on Facebook, few can be friends with Facebook a la Ghonim.[iv] No wonder, then, that soon after his resurfacing, a Facebook group called 'I delegate Wael Ghonim to speak in the name of Egypt's revolutionaries' emerged (prefiguring the street revelation by the RYM later that week).

    Subsequently he has created his own profile as a politician, likely indicating his ambitions for the national elections in the Fall (and, in a oddly macabre reference to his previous disguise, has called it "My Name is Wael Ghonim").

                          

  But Ghonim is only one figure, one whose hypermediated visibility occludes the larger story of a complex of institutional actors involved in fomenting a social media revolution. Let’s start by going back to Jared Cohen, our Google Ideas exec. 

                                          

Cohen’s last significant media appearance was in the summer of 2009. During peak moments in the June Iranian demonstrations a Twitter co-founder was emailed and asked to delay a scheduled maintenance downtime. Who made the request? Jared Cohen, who was then working for the State Department. His major contribution during his tenure there was as co-founder of something called the Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM).

  

Launched in 2008 with a summit in New York City, the AYM gathered together an ensemble of media corporations, Obama consultants, social network entrepreneurs, and youth organizations, under the auspices of the State Department. Representatives came from Old Media (MTV, NBC, CNN) and New (Google and Facebook). The AYM created an online Howcast Hub, which “brings together youth leaders from around the world to learn, share & discuss how to change the world by building powerful grassroots movements” (Alliance of Youth Movements). Among the series of how-to videos produced for the site: How to Create a Grassroots Movement Using Social-Networking Sites, How to Smart Mob, How to Circumvent an Internet Proxy. [see one of the videos here: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2009/02/03/gmgos-directed-ac…]

Undersecretary James Glassman described the event as “Public Diplomacy 2.0.”[v]

Elsewhere I have called this Alliance an example of a “Genetically Modified Grassroots Organization” (GMGO). Neither wholly emerging from below (grassroots) nor purely invented by external forces (the astroturfing done by public relations groups), emergent groups are seeded (and their genetic code altered) to control the vector of the movement. These are hybrids, mutations without clear identities or immediately obvious affinities.  They are rather movements whose potentialities are shaped by their conditions of emergence. How are we to make sense of these mutants?

We can begin with an agential cut that distributes these actors. In residual Cold-War logic, the sovereign adversaries like Iran and Egypt are said to have State-run mass media (which needs to be fought via social media). On the other hand, Twitter-usage in Iran as well as Facebook (and Google) in Egypt follow a certain model set out by AYM in terms of tactics and, most importantly, objectives. We can say that the US has State-friended social media. In the case of Egypt, we know that at least one of the April 6 Movement leaders attended the 2008 summit.  Moreover, according to WikiLeaked State Department documents, another activist (name redacted) affiliated with the Egyptian revolt also participated in the conference.  Regardless of whether this “secret agent” eventually reveals him/herself and the direct links to Egypt’s RYM, we can note the importance of AYM and its tactics (as well as its co-founder).

            AYM here acts as a programmer of social media movements. It simulates grassroots by working with elements of it, replicating and disseminating tactics. In the case of Egypt, the Revolutionary Youth Movement demonstrated that (to revise the Arquilla and Ronfeldt mantra) it takes a network to fake a network. A small group embedded among the crowds, hidden at times until representation required revelation, sought to cloak itself in the martyrdom of one and the will of many. The network of emergent leadership needed to take enough credit for its organizing and mobilizing in order to claim legitimacy as representatives while simultaneously negating its actions in “the people.”  Ghonim and others manage their publicity and secrecy, strategically donning online disguises while revealing themselves as the faces behind the facebook group. In their final act they transform themselves from technocratic tricksters into “youth.”[vi]

            Emergent leadership is a logical outcome of a statecraft that for over a decade devoted itself to netwar.  Rand Corporation studies of leaderless resistance focused on both state and non-state actors.The Egyptian hybrid is of non-state actor and future state actor, of the not-yet state actors. Yet not too far away are state (department) actors as well as the state-friended media actors comprising the milieu out of which a specific network individuates itself.

            The preface to another Rand collection edited by Arquilla and Ronfeldt gives us a way of conceptualizing this individuation. Alvin & Heidi Toffler (1997) introduce the notion of a “deep coalition” comprised of a variety of state and nonstate actors in a multidimensional and nonequilibrial alliance. Tiziana Terranova understands this deep coalition as a dispositif within information warfare, “a model whereby some parts of the media system no longer function as passive outlets for government propaganda but become instead active and equal members of a network of alliance (or deep coalition) that connects heterogeneous partners bound by a temporary commitment to a specific project of warfare” (Terranova 2007 132).

            In the recent cases of “social media revolution,” this dispositif encompasses the AYM, but would also include such Federal agencies as the Defense Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors that have been funding technology firms (e.g. the Tor Project—which promotes anonymizing—and Ultrasurf) that provide institutional-technical fixes to users who need to work around State-run blockages and surveillance. The State Department, perhaps following up on the success of AYM, is gearing up to spend approximately $30 million on technology companies and human rights groups to help and train people to avoid online detection and break through firewalls.

            In other words, Egypt’s revolt was not leaderless, but contained a hidden emergent leadership whose milieu (unstable and temporary though it was) warrants scrutiny. It means examining initial conditions: the code that unleashes and controls the directions of probable emergences (and even their subsequent selection). Leadership here did not naturally arise from grassroots spontaneous popular will.  An individuated network helped set the initial conditions, disappeared within them temporarily, and then made itself known when the time was right. In other words, we witnessed an occult leadership arise based on the skillful use of anonymity and revelation. 

            The GMGO is a genetic principle that immerses without becoming immanent, a mix of unpredictable elements and shaping factors that seek to set the parameters and selections for composition and state transition. Success is not guaranteed, but the range of virtuals and their likely actualization is guided by an embedded but relatively occulted agency (or in the case of Ghonim, a spectacular secret agency).[vii]  Ultimately then we can call Egypt a ‘cyber-revolution’ if we keep in mind the etymological origins in the Greek kyber, meaning to steer or govern.

            The Egyptian kybernitiki (or steerers) are an example of what Galloway and Thacker note as the convergence of sovereign and network powers. Is the GMGO a case of total programming? Network sovereignty expresses new modes of control, but doesn’t exhaust the topology of power. The mutant network sovereigns also set the conditions for new forms of antagonism.

            GMGO network sovereignty is predicated on asymmetries. For one thing, we have to ask, “who is able to set initial conditions?” Who has the resources and capacities to form such deep coalitions?  The hybrids of state and nonstate actors convened by the State Department at the AYM, along with the decentralized flows of tech and financial support produce an accumulation of mechanisms.  At the same time, an accumulation of this sort does not exist in isolation—it delineates an antagonism. Network sovereignty, it turns out, individuates itself via the classic distinction between friend and enemy. State-friended media can thrive only upon the repression and dissuasion of other individuations of social media usage. The determination of friendliness immediately encounters a peer hybrid, a “State-enemied” media usage.

            Take, for instance, the well-worn story about despotic attempts at blocking or criminalizing net usage. Part of Mubarak’s sovereign abuse (or “stupidity” as Ghonim called it) was to try and stop social media access. Meanwhile, Barack Obama and Congress have been working on a controversial bill that would allow US government takeover of privately owned computer systems under a declared "national cyberemergency" (one not to be reviewed by courts).

How would these takeovers be determined?  Maybe we should ask Eliot Madison, part of the Tin Can Comms Collective during the 2009 G20 protests in Pittsburgh, PA. His use of Twitter during the demos (which was tame in comparison with AYM’s own How-To videos) resulted in his being charged with “criminal use of a communication facility, hindering apprehension or prosecution, and possession of instruments of crime.” Or ask members of Anonymous, who were arrested on warrants issued at the same time our collective gaze was on Tahrir Square crowds and Ghonim’s noopolitics.

The context defining State-enemied media usage is of course a Terror-War discourse. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Alicalled the activists in his country “terrorists,” while pundits in the US routinely use the terrorism designation for Anonymous and Julian Assange. More officially, Pentagon personnel refer to domestic dissent as “low-level terrorist activity.” And recent raids on antiwar activists in Minneapolis were, according to the FBI, carried out to root out "activities concerning the material support of terrorism.” The FBI’s four major categories of domestic terrorism include “anarchist extremism,” which encompasses anti-globalization and anti-capitalist movements (which could be said to apply to the G20 protestors such as Madison).

            Network sovereignty has agendas against agency, especially that of the “unspecified enemy.” And this is ultimately the source of public secret asymmetries, in which the US projects its own network sovereign shadow activities out onto individual sovereigns. What happens when these shadows come back into public awareness?  Let’s take it straight from one of the network sovereigns within a deep coalition: Daniel B. Baer, deputy assistant secretary in the State Department, said the department is “unequivocal in its support of a free Internet and the rights of protesters in the Middle East as well as other regions where governments restrict Web use or monitor dissident movements (italics added). What might Anonymous do with this opening, this exploit? Perhaps we, as Guy Debord once hoped, can make use of what is hidden from us.  Otherwise, we might as well continue to generate content not as users, but as used.

  

 References:

  

  

Galloway, Alexander R. and Eugene Thacker. (2007). The Exploit: A Theory of Networks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Terranova, Tiziana. (2007). “Futurepublic: On Information Warfare, Bio-Racism and Hegemony as Noopolitics.” Theory, Culture & Society 24,3: 125–145.

Toffler, Alvin and Heidi Toffler (1997). ‘Introduction’, in John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (eds) In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

  

                       



[i]Variously called the Revolutionary Youth Movement or the Revolutionary Youth Alliance, these young bloggers and organizers have called for a "civilian, technocratic cabinet" to replace Mubarak’s military rule.

[ii]I am not saying here that Egypt is reducible to this explanation, or that the RYM has successfully steered the revolt, or that the US is behind the event.  The chaos of Egypt is multidimensional, with a variety of groups and aspirants unleashing their potential on the streets and beyond. What I want to highlight here is how our enthusiastic turbomancy (divination by looking at crowds, e.g. prolonged attention-time to Al-Jazeera feeds) can  also distract from attunement to the specificity of the actants involved.

[iii]“Noopolitics” is what Terranova (2007) following Maurizio Lazzarato examines as the mediated complement to Foucault’s notion of biopolitics.  The nous, or mind/spirit, is what connects a public in a mediated age. 

[iv]And that wasn’t the only friendly corporate communications help Ghonim received. Telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris announced that he was in the negotiations with Vice President Omar Suleiman that eventually led to Ghonim’s release. "The boy is a hero," Sawiris said. "When he is released, he will become the living hero of this revolution."

[v]Glassman notes the difference from Official Diplomacy, which happens at the formal, visible levels of governance.  This quasi-covert funding of civil society, under the name of the public is part of what I call the Public Secret Sphere.

[vi]Already there are facebook groups calling for the nomination of  the absurdly abstract “youth” for the next Nobel Peace Prize. Meanwhile, the specific work of the RYM in post Day of Victory Egypt needs addressing (e.g. how they got to be among the key negotiators with the Egyptian army, whom Ghonim has gone on record saying he trusts.

[vii]Other factors were in play even in Egypt, with different ambitions (e.g. the socialist organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood, the nonformalized desires for democracy). So while there is no cause-effect logic that secures an outcome, the intervention at the level of conditions sets up the likelihood of results and regular pathways. For instance, the post Day of Victory turn against protestors by the “youth,” the continued reliance on military power to ensure transition, the efforts to censor subsequent street signs are not just betrayals after the fact—they were likely results from the outset.

*The author wishes to thank the Technology and Subjectivity Colloquium Series at CUNY-Graduate Center and the 16Beaver Group for hosting presentations of early formulations of this argument, as well as for the insightful feedback. 

We are the Men of Facebook
ultrasurf.jpg
tor_project.jpg
Public Diplomacy 2.0
mynameisghonim
Jared Cohen
Ghonim in the spotlight
AYM 2009 Summit
'I delegate Wael Ghonim to speak in the name of Egypt's revolutionaries'

Comments

susannah vila's picture
Response from
susannah vila

April 25, 2011

Re: Kyber-Revolts: Egypt, State-friended Media, and Secret Sovereign Networks

  

I’ve watched the conspiracy theories about AYM 2008, Egypt, etc. swirl over the past few months and I’m bummed to see this group subscribing to them.

By trying to find clandestine leadership in movements that actually are leaderless despite international assistance (ask an Egyptian if the movement was leaderless and see what they say), you end up obscuring the huge challenges that these movements face right now-  post-revolution.  The networked nature of the protest movement has by no means seamlessly transitioned into governing and civil society capacity building. If, as you’re implying, these global networks were such forces to be reckoned with, then why is the most well known leader starting an NGO to fight poverty and not taking on political leadership? If i were genetically modifying a grassroots org, i would make sure it was prepared to reconsitute itself and create strong leadership after its first big success.

That’s not to say that global networks do not influence social movements and protest. Of course they do. But it is a) not a new phenomenon- you can trace this trend at least back to 1983 when Reagan created NED. And b) not necessarily institutional in nature: tools like Twitter allow for informal networks of activists and human rights defenders to share information with each other rapidly, so that, with or without institutional facilitation, networks of people on the eastern seaboard of the US will support grassroots activists in MENA.  While this is in my opinion a positive advancement, one problem it poses is that only some of the people in need of this support will get it on account of the tendency of networks to push a few big nodes into visibility and favor those who are already visible with more visibility (see:  http://technosociology.org/?p=366). That's a challenge worth exploring.

And a few fact adjustments: the reason Ghonim had connections at Facebook was because one of the other admins was a comms manager for a DC based NGO; there were many admins of that group, not one; AYM now exists as movements.org and is an independent NGO (I work there!); the April 6 Movement was only represented at the 2008 event by one person - his name is Ahmed Salah and this is not a secret.
jbratich's picture
Response from
Jack Z. Bratich

April 25, 2011

Re: Kyber-Revolts: Egypt, State-friended Media, and Secret Sovereign Networks

  

 Susannah,

I’m sorry to hear that discussions of the group you work for bum you out, and that it automatically triggers images of conspiracy theories. I’d recommend reading more on netwar and public diplomacy to round out your approach to the world.

ask an Egyptian”: well, it depends on which Egyptian.  Those that were forcibly removed from Tahrir Square after the official “Day of Victory” or one of the tens of thousands protesting on April 9 against the form and pace of the transition might not be so taken with the claims of “leaderlessness”.

My concern, like yours,  is precisely the post-revolutionary moment. Whose voices get heard, which “leaders” get to participate in the negotiating teams with the military council? The tactics of post-Mubarak military “youth” might not be to create a strong leadership right away.  Elections require time to construct well-funded and well-organized parties, so the way you would genetically modify a group might not be the most effective way in Egypt. 

Yes, I agree that this is old news, and the Reagan reference precisely displays the bipartisan commitment to imperialism hard and soft. 

Thanks for the fact adjustments.  Maybe you can futher clarify:

*I thought Ghonim was in contact with James Allen, head of FB euro security, who allowed the DC-based person to use her email account, thus bypassing the FB policy against complete anonymity.  But maybe you’re referring to someone else.

*Also, I thought the Wikileaks doc was not in reference to Salah, but someone else.  Or maybe Salah has subsequently been revealed as the person whose name was redacted in the cables?

*name changes of groups and their statuses as NGOs are great indicators of precisely the ways deep coalitions and network power works.  This doesn’t do anything to mitigate the origins of AYM or its role.

Finally, I agree wholeheartedly with your statement that “only some of the people in need of this support will get it on account of the tendency of networks to push a few big nodes into visibility and favor those who are already visible with more visibility.” Therefore I hope that your NGO will consider supporting Anonymous as well as future domestic uprisings whose democratic aspirations require special social media protection and access to decision-makers at the tech companies.

susannah vila's picture
Response from
susannah vila

April 25, 2011

Re: Kyber-Revolts: Egypt, State-friended Media, and Secret Sovereign Networks

  

In some of the literature on social movements, which I am admittedly rusty on, the degree of a movement's success is in part contingent on its abiility to mobilize resources. I think Anonymous can be one of those resources, as are informal networks unnafiliated with any particular organization.  

I'm not sure what you mean when you say that April 9th protesters would disagree with the claim about leaderlessness. Egyptian protesters took many cues from Otpor in Serbia, and the people who organized both are the first to say that that their movement is leaderless and horizontal, and that's part of why it was succesful. “…cut off one Otpur head, and another 15 heads would instantly appear…” said one. Do you disagree with that? Who is the leader, if it's not leaderless? Please tell me - i'm curious!
 
Cheers.
Nick_Mirzoeff's picture
Response from
Nick Mirzoeff

April 24, 2011

Network Multitudes?

In reading this, I was left uncertain as to the role of the network multitude in all this, those people that immolated themselves, put themselves in front of the police, the baton-wielding secret police and so on? Are they simply the dupes of the new network sovereigns? Is the "revolution" just another conspiracy?

There's an implication also that Wael Gonim was not, as he has said, in prison during the twelve days of his disappearance: do you intend that?

jbratich's picture
Response from
Jack Z. Bratich

April 25, 2011

Re: Network Multitudes?

  

Nick, great point. I completely agree that what's crucial to this moment in history is the way ordinary people were able to overcome their fears and put their bodies on the line. What happened in Egypt certainly cannot be reduced to the line of influence I’ve laid out—this is why I want to talk about conducting and steering (and ultimately betraying).

  

The Egyptian crowd power (networked even before Facebook entered the picture) is an event that is hopefully a sign of revolutions to come. The key thing for me is that these desires and actions didn’t end on Feb 11, the Day of Victory when Mubarak stepped down and when military (along with members of the “youth”) told protestors to go home—that their work was done. Instead, many, especially those associated with workers’ groups, saw the Mubarak resignation as the first step.  Just a couple weeks ago, on April 9, tens of thousands poured into Tahrir Square to demonstrate against the pace and form of change happening (Mubarak is gone but Mubarakism lingers).  Where is Anderson Cooper now?  Where is the Facebook solidarity? Where is the much- lauded Al Jazeera and its US spectators?  The networked multitude’s stories need to be told now even more than in Jan/Feb, when it served specific interests that harness then betray that multitude.

  

As for Ghonim’s imprisonment, it’s quite likely that it occurred (if it didn’t happen, then my point about Sawiris’ role in releasing him would have less impact!).  I did want to note the mysterious circumstances—the video of his alleged public kidnapping was debunked by his friends, who said the person in the video wasn’t him. I do think Ghonim is a master of controlling his own publicity and secrecy, from his admin anonymity to his spectacular re-emergence as “hero” to his recent claim that his current projects demanded “media silence” to his re-emergence last week in Silicon Valley looking to drum up venture capital investment in Egypt.  The local news called him the “face of the revolution” (even before Time called him #1 influential person).  

biella's picture
Response from
E. Gabriella Coleman

April 25, 2011

Re: Network Multitudes?

Jack, this is really a stunning piece. I can't wait to use it in my politics of digital media class next spring. What I find so helpful is the nuance and distrinction brought to bear on the actors and the new political formations (( he State Department, individuauals who are literally well networked, and the aptly phrased Genetically Modified Grassroots Organization) that are "behind" or at least moving forward certain supposed leaderless actions but I share some of Nick's reservations. While these are key actros/instigators, these types of uprising represent a complex, unpredictable, and often difficult to reconstuct convergnce of multiple social forces/initiatives, events, and forces. I think it is important to keep that as visible all the while making very visible the "steering" (and quite institutional in nature) behind some of the most dramatic and celebrated uses of social media.

jbratich's picture
Response from
Jack Z. Bratich

April 25, 2011

Re: Network Multitudes?

Thanks Biella. There's obviously much more to say here to evoke the nuances of the Egyptian uprising. I tried to answer some of Nick's reservations above. It's a delicate matter to tease out agency here without falling back into the language of causation and reductive explanations.  Given the continued lionization of "youth" and especially Ghonim, it's important to situate their actions. Almost a century ago Walter Lippman noted that the public needs images and stories that signal heroes and villains.  My analysis is an attempt to prevent such stories from distracting us from the concrete possibilities of democracy and its subversion. 

In one version of this argument, I talked about the western media spectator's investment in Egypt.  What was the shared enthusiasm for this historical event?  More importantly, why did so much of it disappear once Al-Jazeera and CNN left the scene? The US public was part of a media machine that withdrew its collective gaze when it mattered most to the people (who stayed) on the ground. 

I absolutely agree with you that we need to keep the broader significance of democracy's potential in the foreground. I only wish Western media outlets were doing the same right now—the post Mubarak scene in Egypt is where democracy is being worked out (even on the streets again), yet the wholesale neglect of it has me worried that many of the people who courageously went to the streets will now find themselves marginalized with a more diffuse, but no less powerful, leadership.