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Skepticism in the Face of Evidence Is No Virtue

All Info All Ways

Barrett Brown

February 16, 2011

If dictators are so fond of the Internet, as some claim, why did Mubarak turn the damn thing off?

In the space of its short life, this column has emphasized the dynamics of the information age as of extraordinary but poorly understood relevance to skepticism as both a system of thought and a movement within society. Ongoing events require that this now be explained in a bit more detail.

Since 2005, I have been involved to various extents and capacities with the Anonymous movement. For the past year, I’ve been in communication with several of its most active participants, including one who had been outed by the Church of Scientology after helping to launch Operation Chanology, a global campaign intended to remove that organization’s grip on lives and government agencies alike. And for the past month, beginning with the Anonymous movement’s assistance programs to Tunisians, Algerians, and Egyptians who seek to win their freedom, I’ve become more actively involved in tactics, messaging, and now legal defense for my fellow Anons. Some have been raided by the FBI and other agencies, which have been investigating a campaign involving DDoS attacks against financial companies—those that had given in to government pressure to deny their customers the ability to donate to Wikileaks. All of this is now in the public record, and I confirm it here as a prelude to the subject of this column and in the interest of full disclosure.

We are coming to the close of a two-decade debate over whether or not the explosion of communicational possibilities brought to us via the information age is sufficient to allow a subject population and its supporters to overthrow a government and perhaps establish a freer one. In light of the demonstrably key role that the Internet played in Tunisia and Egypt thus far, and in a certain small sub-Saharan country soon enough, that debate should be coming to an end. Nonetheless, it will go on forever, because certain people are impossible to defeat via argument alone because they are invincible—at least in a rhetorical and professional sense.

A few months back I argued that Foreign Policy editor Eugene Morozov was not qualified to assess the above dispute, being incompetent on the subject and having at any rate committed himself to a certain position that was silly even before recent events rendered it sillier still. “Tweets don’t overthrow governments; people do,” Morozov proclaimed then, thereby dispensing with those who have presumably gone around claiming that Twitter will gain sentience and begin liberating populations into a Greater Social Networking Co-Prosperity Sphere. Out of fairness to Morozov, I’ll note that he does make somewhat more cogent arguments; out of fairness to everyone else, I’ll note that his arguments tend to be of the following caliber: “Neither the Iranian nor the Burmese regime has crumbled under the pressure of pixelated photos of human rights abuses circulated on social networking sites.” Thus it is that the infancy of the information age has not yet brought down two of the world’s most repressive regimes.

As I noted then:

Not only has Twitter failed to take down either of the two regimes Morozov lists, but one of those regimes has attempted to use the service for its own ends. Indeed, the Iranian authorities have been as eager to take advantage of the Internet as their green-clad opponents. After last years protests in Tehran, Iranian authorities launched a website that publishes photos from the protests, urging the public to identify the unruly protestors by name. We are not told how effective this turned out to be or why this necessarily cancels out the effectiveness of Twitter in organizing the protests to begin with or how the fact that dictators use websites shows that they are not being undermined by the use of Twitter. The fellows talent is being wasted in socio-political commentary when he could be writing mystery novels.

Today, I have a better and slightly less catty answer to Morozov regarding the question of whether or not the Internet is a greater boon to dictators or to populations. Rather, I have a question, for him and for everyone else who has spent the past few years building their careers on this incompetent brand of pseudo-skepticism: If dictators are so fond of the Internet, why did Mubarak turn the damn thing off?

Former “President” Ben-Ali of Tunisia did not turn off the Internet, of course, when Tunisian activists began coordinating with Anonymous and other parties in taking down the government’s websites and in some cases replacing them with messages of support to the Tunisian people, thereby proving that their government was not so powerful as it seemed; when Anonymous-affiliated journalists began bringing attention to the nascent protests, in an effort to alert those around the world who themselves were in a position to help Tunisia succeed; when guides were written by experts and distributed by Tunisians and other North Africans to the many among them who had no knowledge of street confrontation, but who now know as much as any black-bloc anarchist; or when the great and still-growing network of Tunisians, Anonymous, and other parties began building darknets and other solutions to the problem of government censorship and infiltration. Ben-Ali should have done so, but he didn’t, and even if he had, many of the same techniques used to reconnect Egyptians during the shutdown would have been employed in Tunisia with similar results. Tunisia, incidentally, is not finished with its ongoing troubles, but nor is this coalition finished with its ongoing work, which will at any rate be ignored by those whose professional interests coincide with those who would prefer that we spend less time thinking up new ways to aid subject populations and more time reading about how such a thing is impossible—despite the evidence before our very eyes.

Contrary to all the evidence, there are two general views on this matter: 1) that perpetuated by Morozov and others like him who believe that such things as Wikileaks, Twitter, Anonymous, and Facebook are not quite as relevant as many would believe, and 2) that perpetuated by those of us who have used those very same dynamics to prove that they are already more relevant than even the most enthusiastic of us were predicting not long ago, when we thought in terms of years rather than the mere months it has taken to proceed to the current situation. Everyone among the thousands of North Africans and others who poured into our IRC channels would seem to agree with the latter view, having consequently watched and participated in those things which are necessary to making any informed decision on the matter. When you have seen a teenage Tunisian girl translating into French and Arabic the guides that were minutes before compiled by activists living in five different countries and then passing them on to her family and friends and then asking what else she can do to help free her country—and receiving a dozen answers, all of them good—it is difficult to take seriously the output of those whose first instinct at such a moment is to downplay it in accordance with the opinions they already held to begin with.

This dynamic will continue and will have in fact already expanded by the time this piece is read, this being an age in which events overtake the quickest of mediums (and the slowest of dictators). Already a number of this column’s readers have worked to promote such a dynamic, and we hope that more will join us at this crucial time. Many operations are run out of irc.anonsops.ru in #OpTunisia and #OpEgypt; other efforts are hatched at irc.freenode.net #projectpm. I may be reached at barriticus@gmail.com or, for secure communications by those facing surveillance, transistor@hushmail.com. Join us for proof that in such a time as this, one can act against tyranny in the time it takes to complain about it.

(For Freemary, who earned her name.)

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Barrett Brown is the instigator of Project PM, a distributed cartel intended to reduce certain structural deficits that have arisen in the news media. He's a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, and True/Slant. His first book, Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny, was released in 2007; his second, Hot, Fat, and Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures of the American Chattering Class, is set for publication in 2010. Brown can be reached via e-mail at barriticus@gmail.com.