Kyber-Revolts: Egypt, State-friended Media, and Secret Sovereign Networks
April 05, 2011
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.
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.