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CHAPTER II - Networks in Action

Networks in Action
One of the most noteworthy recent demonstrations of the power of networks is the role that social media played in sparking the Arab Spring, and particularly in precipitating the massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square in January 2011 that were the epicenter of the popular uprising in Egypt that led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. An analysis of the events in Egypt that appeared in WIRED shortly after they occurred concluded that social media did not “cause the revolution…but [they] did speed up the process by helping to organize the revolutionaries, transmit their message to the world and galvanize international support.” According to one expert quoted in the article, “Facebook helped to organize the activists inside the country . . . while Twitter functioned to help get the message out to the broader world.”

In her book, Anne-Marie Slaughter cites the Egyptian uprising as a distinctive example of the ability of networks to mobilize people non-hierarchally:

The protestors. . .refused to appoint a leader. Even [Wael] Ghonim, who mobilized tens of thousands of protesters with his Facebook page and Twitter feeds, rejected the leadership mantle. . .As digital natives, the protesters saw the world not in terms of atomized actors requiring leaders to represent them and organize cooperation, but as a vast network of individuals who needed only to be coordinated and activated to take to the streets and demand change.i

However, now that time has passed since these events took place, the benefit of hindsight provides a more nuanced assessment of the role of networks in the Arab Spring. According to Jerry Green, President and CEO of the Pacific Council on International Policy, subsequent events show that while social media may in fact have the power to promote social and political change, they are not nearly as effective in governing a nation. Anne-Marie Slaughter agreed that the lesson of Tahrir Square is that “networks are better at destroying things than creating things,” and that hierarchies—or hybrids of networks and hierarchies—still have important roles to play in governing.

New connections . . . and old. Of course, revolutions are not new, and neither are networks. In many places, older forms of connection of networking—remain potent. Marc Nathanson, Chairman of Mapleton Investments, recalled a time when as Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the body that oversees Voice of America and Radio Free Europe), he visited Africa with Madeleine Albright and met with groups of young Kenyans. On the surface, at least, they were very similar to young people in the U.S.—active Internet users and quite sophisticated about political issues internationally as well as in their country. But when it came time to vote, these young adults voted along tribal lines, which represented older and deeper social connections.

Haroon Ullah, Senior Member of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff in the U.S. State Department, added that he is concerned with people who are not on the Internet, not part of any of the new networks. In many places, in fact, TV “is still king.” He worries about people who live in traditional communities that are not part of larger structures and who may be becoming more isolated. These are places that are ideal for groups like ISIS and the Taliban to do recruiting since alternative messages simply do not get heard.

The tension between newer and older forms of connection can also be found in developed countries, including the U.S. Alec Ross, Distinguished Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, cited the work of David Goodhart, who describes the deep divide between two social groups: “Anywheres,” who tend to be well educated, welcome globalization and the opportunities that it brings, derive meaning from their careers and are deliberate builders and users of networks; and “Somewheres,” who are largely non-college graduates, identify most strongly with their family and local social ties and relationships built through sports and church.ii Although Anywheres are a minority of the population, their social and economic success has given them considerable power and prestige. But Somewheres are the majority who have demonstrated their power through the rise of populist, nationalist movements. It was the latter group who, according to Goodhart, were responsible for voting to take the U.K. out of the European Union.

The importance of speed. Although networks, both local and global are not new, the arrival of the Internet has provided a powerful tool that speeds up the process of creating social networks among groups of people and broadens participation in those networks. Given the speed with which information can be spread, events that used to unfold over days or weeks now can be compressed into hours. To illustrate this aspect of “network power,” Anne-Marie Slaughter related the story of Mona Eltahawy, a well-known Egyptian-American activist. In November 2011, Eltahawy was arrested in Cairo, but managed to tweet a five-word message, “beaten arrested in Interior Ministry” to her sixty thousand Twitter followers. The message was quickly picked up and relayed widely and was almost immediately brought to the attention of the U.S. embassy in Egypt. Within a few hours, Eltahawy had been released.

Felipe Estefan, Principal of Governance and Civil Engagement for the Omidyar Network, provided another, larger-scale example of how a network can be used to mobilize quick action. On June 1, 2017, immediately after President Trump announced that he had decided to withdraw from the Paris Accord, the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda (a national network of U.S. cities and towns that had formed in 2014) announced that more than 300 mayors were publicly committing their communities toadopting, honoring and upholding Paris Climate Agreement goals.” (Among the participants was the mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, who responded to the President’s tweet of having been elected by the voters of Pittsburgh not Paris, with his own tweet that noted that his city had voted for Hillary Clinton, and stated that “Pittsburgh stands with the world & will follow Paris Agreement.")

The Darker Side. In the early days of the Internet, most observers were quite sanguine about its potential for expanding freedom of speech and broadening participation in political processes. In fact, in 1983, a decade before the Internet emerged as a global force, MIT Professor Ithiel de Sola Pool published a classic study titled Technologies of Freedom that argued that the new electronic networks were inherently democratizing and that “the easy access, low cost, and distributed intelligence of modern means of communication are a prime reason for hope.” But Pool also recognized that there was no guarantee that the potential of the new media would be achieved, particularly if governments attempted to limit them by applying old regulatory constraints and warned that, “communications in the future may be unnecessarily regulated under the unfree tradition of law that has been applied so far to the electronic media.”

In 2001, California Governor Gray Davis appointed Geoffrey Cowan, who was Dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at USC at the time, to head a new state commission on Internet political practices. The group came to the unanimous conclusion that “what was happening with the Internet was more good than bad” and that the state should adopt a laissez-faire approach to regulating it.

In recent years, some of the optimism about the democratizing power of networks has given way to more skeptical views. Shanthi Kalathil, Director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, raised the question of whether networks do, in fact, have inherent characteristics such as promoting openness and transparency. The Internet has proved to be a useful tool for a variety of “bad actors,” enabling them to communicate with each other and to take advantage of the broad reach of the Internet to cause trouble of various kinds. At the same time, governments have become wary of the destabilizing power of the Internet and have begun to act to limit the freedom of expression that the Internet promised to provide, much as Pool had feared.

While the U.S. has generally taken a light-touch approach to regulating the Internet, the same has not necessarily been true in countries with autocratic governments. While the Internet is highly popular in less open countries like Saudi Arabia and China, it does not operate with the same freedom in those countries as it does in the U.S. and other democracies. Power can flow both ways: statecraft affects webcraft as well as the other way around. Geoffrey Cowan added that he now believes that we need to revisit the questions that were asked by the California Commission in 2001 and determine if anything has changed that requires action. If new rules are warranted, the challenge remains to create rules that are not worse than having no rules.

We now recognize that networks, just like hierarchies, have weaknesses as well as strengths. Esther Dyson, Executive Founder of Way to Wellville, pointed out that while (good) hierarchies have well-established means to provide accountability, networks generally do not. The lack of accountability makes it difficult for networks to establish trust, which means that networks may be more effective at disrupting than building institutions, since “disruption doesn’t require, and rarely builds, trust. We see that in most revolutions, and their usually painful aftermaths, and also in the cynicism fostered by 'fake news.’” Karen Kornbluh, Senior Fellow of Digital Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, added that networks appear to provide “authenticity” by allowing people to express themselves directly, but that authenticity can be faked. Ironically, one of the hallmarks of new networks—their openness and lack of barriers to participation—makes it easier for “bad actors” (including non-human ones) to participate and subvert the legitimacy of a network and its ability to support democratic goals. Esther Dyson commented that while the Internet has been described as “a digital nervous system” for humanity, we may also need to create a “digital immune system” to ensure that it can detect pathogens and toxins and contributes to maintaining good social health.

Allentown vs. Youngstown. To underscore the fact that not all networks are created equal, Anne-Marie Slaughter concluded the discussion with the story of the differing fates, when faced with the same economic crisis, of Allentown, PA, and Youngstown, OH, based on the research of organizational theorist Sean Safford and the theories of sociologists Robert Putnam and Mark Granovetter:

The main reason Allentown bounced back and Youngstown struggled to recover was not the presence of civic networks; each city had a civic infrastructure linking business leaders, social clubs, arts and cultural institutions and charities. It was the diversity of people and organizations that were connected.…In Youngstown, the economic and social networks largely overlapped, so that the virus of globalization and technological transition hit both equally hard. In Allentown, the two networks intersected at critical points but diverged enough that when the local economic leadership was decimated, other civic leaders could connect the key constituencies who needed to cooperate in the face of the region’s crisis.

When the steel industry began to founder, the Garden Club couldn’t save Youngstown because the Garden Club members were mostly the wives of the very business elite that was in trouble as the steel industry foundered. But in Allentown, the region’s most important business leader, the head of Bethlehem Steel, focused his civic activity on the board of the Boy Scouts, “a cross-class-based organization” that connected him to a much wider array of civic leaders.…In Youngstown the ties were too strong, reinforcing one collective view and creating stasis. Allentown’s civic network had more bridging than bonding capital, weaving together more disparate groups and illustrating “the strength of weak ties.”iii


i Slaughter, pp. 197-198.
ii David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. Hurst, 2017.
iiiSlaughter, pp. 103-104.

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