Monday, April 26, 2010


Just as critics of the Bush administration have condemned Bush for failing to plan for the post-war insurgencies and terror that we faced, proponents of the value of Twitter to lead social revolutions have failed to plan what happens when they win (tip to Instapundit):

The Green Movement hasn't disappeared. It's still there. But the regime achieved battlefield dominance in the technosphere over the past year. Iranian authorities have used a range of technologies to block, surveil and infiltrate social media. One young Iranian I met in February in a neighboring Middle East country told me he and his friends were having a hard time getting accurate and reliable information about when and where to go for Green Movement protests. Pro-democracy advocates were intimidated from joining key rallies last fall when warnings were tweeted and posted to Facebook about snipers pre-positioned on the roofs of buildings. The rumors turned out to be false. Through disinformation, it seems, Iranian intelligence services were able to disband demonstrations before protesters ever arrived on the scene. Brute force has played its role, too. Thousands have been arrested. It's the regime's technological edge, though, that has likely made the critical difference in hindering the Green Movement's progress.

Other heavy-handed governments are catching on, too. Countries like Russia and China have been standing up well-trained, handsomely financed cyber militias. Tyrants, it turns out, like Twitter, too. Innovative cyber dissidents will eventually sort this, perhaps with a technological assist from the United States.

But there's a bigger problem than states engaging dissidents on the social media battlefield. This has to do with understanding the limits of the technology. Twitter (or its next variant) will continue to bring protesters to the town hall square. Protesters may even succeed in toppling corrupt, autocratic regimes. But Twitter won't tell the opposition how to govern, how to develop democratic institutions or how to inculcate and defend the values, habits and behaviors that belong to democracy. These things require an immense amount of intellectual, conceptual and political work. And patience. This is especially so in countries that have little or no experience in democracy.

Social media can be used by a despot to disrupt the Twittering Class and nullify their online organizing. That's problem one. Second, the regime doesn't restrict itself to online combat. The regime has force at its disposal to kill, arrest, torture, rape, and otherwise intimidate online revolutionaries when they step on the streets.

The basic problem is that it isn't enough to skip over the actual toppling of the despot to move on to the problems of Phase IV. At least the Bush administration did topple Saddam, even though post-war planning assumptions didn't work out and made winning the post-war far more costly than certainly I expected.

Remember, when you Twitter a king, kill him:

Twitter is surely a great tool for overthrowing a regime. But in the end, high-drama meetups don't defeat despots--killing despots defeats despots. You have to take the next step and actually kill the king.

Twitter (or Facebook, or any other social medium) is no silver bullet. Indeed, it is not a bullet at all.