Online Activism as “Virtue-Signalling”

An article in The Guardian from 2014 about a “Save Darfur” page on Facebook said that:

At its height, this cause was one of the largest on the social network. The research team analysed the behaviour of its members over a 989-day period. Out of the one million-plus people who had signed up, less than 3000 ever donated, raising around $90,000 over three years – pitiful statistics compared to the wider Darfur campaign, which raised over $1m in 2008 alone. As the authors point out, the page simply conjured the “illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing”.

Over the last three years this kind of “slacktivism” has been given a name: virtue-signalling. James Bartholomew, a British journalist claims to have coined it, and in an article for The Spectator described it as:

the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous.

By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.

First we have to look at the ways in which online activism differs from traditional, out-on-the-streets-with-placards-protesting activism.

Traditional activism often represents only a small fraction of public opinion. A Dublin protest with ten thousand people might be reported with much interest by the media, but the press seldom takes into account the opinions of the hundreds of thousands who stayed home. The reasons for people not protesting obviously vary. Take a movement like Repeal the 8th, the abortion rights group. In March 2017 they had a widely publicised march in Dublin. The Irish Times reported that “thousands” protested. Lovin’ Dublin put the figure at 15,000. Over the following weeks further related protests took place, like the one outside the Dail “to oppose the decision to allow ownership of the €300m taxpayer-funded National Maternity Hospital to be given to The Religious Sisters of Charity”.

activism1

The reality on the ground often lies in the application of simple mathematics. The number of people living in Dublin is 1.345 million. 15,000 protestors represents about 1% of the population. What does this mean? Does it mean only 1% of the city sympathises with the Repeal the 8th movement? No. But people who do not actively demonstrate do so for a number of reasons.

There are people who simply disagree with the motives of the activists in general. Ireland is – relatively speaking, when compared to most other countries in the European Union – conservative on the matter of abortion. So clearly it would be folly to expect especially large turnouts on such a controversial topic.

Most protestors are of a certain demographic. Images from the Irish Times’ report of the Repeal march will illustrate what I mean.

activism2

activism3

Most protestors pictured look of university age. These are the exact kind of people who have the time and energy to demonstrate. They are young, have plenty of free time, lots of energy, and are unlikely to have serious jobs, bills to pay or children to look after. This means that demonstrations fail to give an accurate impression of public opinion. This is why liberal people seem to be genuinely in shock when Fine Gael, the Conservatives, Donald Trump and Brexit win votes. This echo chamber idea was raised by Adam Curtis in his short 2016 film Living in an Unreal World

Protestors fail to realise there are multitudes of people who have families, are tired after a long day’s work, are in middle age and above, who simply don’t have the time or the energy to protest. They also forget that older people are happy to do their “protesting” at the ballot box. Governments know this. When protestors say that they feel like the State doesn’t care, they are right. They don’t.

How is this related to online activism? Well, it tells us something. With online activism – particularly Facebook, which has almost 2 billion users as of early 2017 – the sample size is enormous. The tired middle-aged people who don’t have the time or the energy for street activism have less of a problem finding time for virtue-signalling Likes on social media. Granted, just like street protests, a certain type of demographic uses social media, though the stereotype of the young tech-savvy college student as typical user is long gone.

The longer that goes on and the more ubiquitous social media becomes, the more likely we are to be able to make accurate predictions about public opinion. Famously the pollsters got both Trump’s election and Brexit wrong. The Washington Post reported in October 2016 that “Donald Trump’s chances of winning are approaching zero”. In the lead up to Brexit almost every poll indicated that Remain would win.

How could they have gotten it so wrong?

The obvious answer is that people polled were afraid to answer honestly. We know that in the United States just 7% of journalists are Republicans, and Republicans have a right to feel aggrieved about this given that a Republican sits in the White House. They often perceive demonisation by an overwhelmingly liberal media and many may answer untruthfully to a question like: “So are you going to vote for Hillary Clinton, America’s first ever female president, or are you going to vote for Donald Trump, you sexist, racist piece of shit?”

Forget about raising money or even changing the law: online activism’s importance will lie in its ability to forecast political change and public opinion.

Advertisements

MMOs as Third Place

Bloodbath_of_B-R5RB

A screenshot of the “Bloodbath of B-R5RB”

Almost exactly a year ago, just before teaching a Business English class, one of my students, who sat in the front row every week, asked me if I was familiar with a game called Eve Online. I confessed that I was not, but I could see he wanted to tell me something so I asked him what it was all about.

His description was pretty much the same as that found on Wikipedia:

Eve Online is a space-based, persistent world massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). Players of Eve Online can participate in a number of in-game professions and activities, including mining, piracy, manufacturing, trading, exploration, and combat (both player versus environment and player versus player). The game contains a total of 7,800 star systems that can be visited by players. The game is renowned for its scale and complexity with regards to player interactions — in its single-shard game world, players engage in unscripted economic competition, warfare, and political schemes with other players.

He told me that something really big was currently happening in the game. As reported on the gaming site Polygon, 31 March 2016:

Earlier this week players in Eve Online were involved in one of that game’s famously large and expensive battles. But sources tell Polygon that this was just the opening round of what could be the largest military mobilization in that game’s history.

This battle – officially called the “Bloodbath of B-R5RB” even has its own Wikipedia page, which describes the events of the “war”:

The Bloodbath of B-R5RB or the Battle of B-R5RB was a massive-scale virtual battle fought in the MMORPG space game Eve Online, and was possibly the largest player versus player battle in history. Pitting the Clusterfuck Coalition and Russian alliances (CFC/Rus) against N3 and Pandemic Legion (N3/PL), the 21-hour-long conflict involved over 7,548 player characters overall and a maximum of 2,670 players in the B-R5RB system at one time. The in-game cost of the losses totalled over 11 trillion InterStellar Kredit (ISK), an estimated theoretical real-world value of $300,000 to $330,000 USD. This theoretical value is derived from PLEX, an item purchasable with real currency that can be redeemed either for subscription time or traded for in-game currency.

Part of a larger conflict known as the Halloween War, the fight started after a single player controlling a space station in the star system B-R5RB accidentally failed to make a scheduled in-game routine maintenance payment which made the system (a key staging area used by N3/PL in the war) highly vulnerable to capture. The CFC and Russian coalitions began pouring players into the system in a swift offensive, and N3/PL moved in a large fleet of players as a response as well. A massive battle erupted in the system and numerous smaller engagements occurred throughout the game universe as players attempted to block reinforcements from joining the battle. CFC/Rus gained a clear win by inflicting heavy losses on N3/PL and successfully capturing B-R5RB. The losses totalled 576 Capital-class ships including 75 Titans (the largest ships available to players), along with thousands of smaller vessels.

To commemorate the sheer size and cost of the battle, the game’s creators, CCP Games, erected a permanent monument in the system B-R5RB named “The Titanomachy”, consisting of non-salvageable capital ship wrecks.

Such detail! Such intriguingly impenetrable minutiae! Such confidence in the reality of the conflict!

This was my introduction to MMO gaming.

What explains the success of these MMOs? Marshall McLuhan is often quoted in this context. In the 1960s he described (non-electronic) games as “dramatic models of our psychological lives providing release of particular tensions”. McLuhan said this long before video games as we understand them; even before Atari’s Pong, which was released in 1972. Was he right? Well, the most popular video games of recent times are titles like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, in which killing people is central to the gameplay. Can it really be that all the people playing these games are “releasing tensions”? It is possible. Steven Pinker’s recent book The Better Angels Of Our Nature argues convincingly that far from getting more violent, statistics indicate that global violence overall remains in retreat, which hints tantalisingly at the idea that violent video games may in fact act cathartically for people harbouring dark fantasies.

McLuhan also referred to games as “collective rather than private dramatizations of inner life”. Here we move into the territory of MMOs. The collective element, the interactions with others in an alternate reality, all add to the sense of realism. Artificial Intelligence today is nowhere near good enough to provide this, meaning other players are currently necessary. Perhaps in the future players will become lost in their own games, with themselves the only “real” participants in vast gaming universes hosted on private servers, but for now this is mostly impossible.

What is the appeal of experiencing these alternative lives in parallel and often strange, alien worlds? Escapism for one thing. The following is a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings:

On two chairs beneath the bole of the tree and canopied by a living bough there sat, side by side, Celeborn and Galadriel. Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of silver long and bright; but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.

Anyone who has read Tolkien’s book will know such descriptions abound, and yet Tolkien said that a common complaint he received from fans was that his magnum opus was simply too short. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for all its length, is devoured by readers who adore its breadth and attention to detail. The same thing goes for Star Wars and Star Trek fans with their focus on extended universes and the importance of the “canon”. Most recently, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was lauded for the immensity of its gameplaying world, with journalists gushing over a map size that dwarfs games like Skyrim and The Witcher 3 – themselves enormous games and huge critical successes.

My own theory is that the huge, intricate worlds of fantasy, science-fiction and MMORPGs are explained by the times we live in. Wikipedia tells us that

By 1950, “sword and sorcery” fiction had begun to find a wide audience, with the success of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. However, it was the advent of high fantasy, and most of all J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which reached new heights of popularity in the late 1960s, that allowed fantasy to truly enter the mainstream.

Here is a map showing the years European colonies gained their independence.

MMO1

It is perhaps noteworthy that the growth of fantasy coincided with the end of empire. The world had been discovered, colonised, de-Orientalised, raped, pillaged and industrialised. Men and women who before might have joined the foreign service and been shipped off to New Caledonia or Timbuktu or Darjeeling now had nowhere left to wander, no great wars to fight. They were born after the age of discovery and before technology would allow exploration of the galaxy. What was left except to conquer the new worlds of our imagination?

Some Thoughts on Gamergate

Take a look at the Wikipedia entry relating to Gamergate below.

GG1

The article tells us the movement stemmed from a “harassment campaign”. That it “targeted several women”. That people falsely accused Zoe Quinn of entering a relationship with a journalist for positive coverage. That Gamergate’s attempts to dissociate themselves from misogyny have been “insincere and self-serving”.

This is clearly far from impartial, despite Wikipedia’s stated goal to be neutral as possible – Wikipedia even has a page dedicated to helping contributors understand neutrality:

GG2

However, even the most partisan observer would have to admit that the language used in the Wikipedia entry is biased on the anti-Gamergate side.

Have a look at this post on the Kotaku In Action subreddit:

GG3

Kotaku In Action describes itself as “the main hub for GamerGate discussion on Reddit” and “The almost-official GamerGate subreddit!” At the time of writing it has 80,092 subscribers. The post above was upvoted 2,320 times.

The post claims that Gamergate has been “smeared and wrongly vilified in the media”. Is this true? Well, Google “Gamergate” and the first opinion piece you’ll get is Gawker’s What Is Gamergate, and Why? An Explainer for Non-Geeks, which is unashamedly anti-Gamergate.

After this is RationalWiki’s entry: “Gamergate is a distillation of the worst of the worst of the Internet, taking the form of a 2014 4chan raid that went on for far too long; showing everyone how reactionary, virulently misogynistic, and frankly stupid the cellarian underbelly of the video gaming community can be. Nintendo has officially referred to GamerGate as an “online hate campaign”.” RationalWiki purports to be a “a community working together to explore and provide information about a range of topics centered around science, skepticism, and critical thinking”, but nothing about their definition will strike the reader as balanced.

Also on the front page of Gamergate results is a Guardian article entitled “What Gamergate should have taught us about the ‘alt-right’“. Observe the opening lines:

GG4

Gamergate “thrived on hate”. Women and minorities were “living in fear”. Gamergate was just angry dudes masquerading as victims. He goes on:

Gamergate was an online movement that effectively began because a man wanted to punish his ex girlfriend. Its most notable achievement was harassing a large number of progressive figures – mostly women – to the point where they felt unsafe or considered leaving the industry. Game developer Zoe Quinn was the original target. Anita Sarkeesian’s videos applying basic feminist theory to video games had already made her a target (because so many people have a difficulty differentiating cultural criticism from censorship) but this hate was powerfully amplified by Gamergate – leading to death threats, rape threats, and the public leaking of personal information.

For decades, gamers and programmers were stereotyped as geeks, nerds, losers. And they were almost always white men. From NBC:

The perception of video game players as inactive, maladjusted nerds has persisted for years…

The ’80s image of a gamer, which was influenced by the fact that early gaming consoles like the Amiga and Atari were in fact early personal computers aimed at, well, nerds. Add to this the people associated with “Dungeons & Dragons” and, later, the marketing of video games as children’s toys, and the popular picture of gamers is easy to understand.

This is probably what a lot of people think of when they imagine gamers.

GG5

This is what the industry wants us to believe modern gamers look like.

GG6

Like a United Colors of Benetton commercial: men and women, attractive and colourblind. Also not very realistic.

This essay does not come with a value judgement. But it isn’t hard to understand where Gamergate came from. The liberal media wants us to view Gamergate as a group of straight white men (i.e. a group with a lot of power in society) playing the victim. Note the words in the Guardian article: dudes masquerading as victims.

But gamers typically haven’t been jocks, handsome lacrosse players who hoovered up all the attractive girls at frathouse parties. Gamers have been stereotyped as dweebs, basement-dwellers, virgins with micropenises.

So is it any surprise that when intersectionality and social justice and critical theory arrived in video game journalism and started telling these geeks that they sit atop the pyramid of privileged groups that they lashed out? The world of gaming – as with Dungeons and Dragons before it – was one traditionally occupied by guys with little or no social power. The world they built for themselves – and let’s not pretend the vast, vast majority of the gaming industry in America was made up of anything except socially challenged white men for the longest time – was broken into. And yes, lots of these nerds turned misogynist in their tweets very quickly. But the battle between left and right has always been bloody, and this one is no different.

The Future of Plagiarism

I must admit to walking away from Carrie James’ chapter Property feeling dissatisfied. Throughout, the reader is treated ad nauseam to the rather pedestrian idea that different people have different ideas about things. When it comes to citations for academic work, for example, some students feel an ethical obligation to “do the right thing”, while others simply worry about being caught.

What are we supposed to take from this? This is, after all, the kind of commonplace thinking humans engage in all the time about a whole host of endeavours. Some people refuse to rob banks because it’s unethical. Others would do it but don’t fancy twenty years behind bars. A small number do carry out the deed – just like the plagiarist – either because they don’t care if it’s unethical or that they think the potential reward is worth the risk.

anti

The essay states that “conversations about attribution in schoolwork should shift from an emphasis on punishment to a discussion of the ethical dimensions of citation”. As someone who works in academia this makes sense. Most of my students are very aware that plagiarism is unethical and I seldom have any issues with it, but beyond even that, in 2017 we can run essays and other academic work through programmes to detect anything untoward. Students today are more tech savvy than ever before. They know plagiarism detectors exist. Therefore we can presume many cases of plagiarism today are either a) a technical inability to correctly cite material or b) a simple misunderstanding of the ethical issues surrounding intellectual copyright.

The heavy punishments for plagiarism in days gone by were probably necessary as deterrence. Before the existence of online and electronic databases it would have been very easy to plagiarise a few paragraphs from an obscure book found in the dusty corner of a vast library and get away with it. The punishment had to be scary enough to deter people from doing that. Now we live in a different age and different “punishments” are necessary, if they’re necessary at all. I would argue that students who receive low or failing grades for plagiarism early in life (now easily detectable as already mentioned) don’t need lessons in ethics, lessons rendered pointless due to the fact that the technology currently exists to catch the vast majority of cheaters. Much of the responsibility now lies with educators to ensure wrongdoers are caught.

Bibliography

James, Carrie. Disconnected: Youth, New Media, And The Ethics Gap. 1st ed. MIT Press, 2014. Print.

Anonymous and the Social Contract

When, in February 2017, a hacker associated with the internet activist group Anonymous launched a cyber attack on the “dark web”, few people complained. After all, the dark web is dark for a reason – it’s the murky, largely untraceable area of the internet that supplies everything from fake passports to child pornography.

anonymous-new-year-important-message-2017

Not all of Anonymous’s “victims” are so universally loathed. Here are just a few of their many targets:

  • government agencies of the U.S., Israel, Tunisia, Uganda, and others;
  • the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant;
  • copyright protection agencies;
  • the Westboro Baptist Church;
  • and corporations such as PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, and Sony.

They have also publicly supported WikiLeaks and the Occupy movement.

Granted, Anonymous has no centralised command and is more like a brand than an organised group with a coherent ideology, but the above list is still so diverse as to be baffling if you’re seeking to determine the group’s raison d’etre.

The American government, for all its faults, is some way off that of Uganda where, aided by the stateanti-gay sentiment is growing rather than receding. The Westboro Baptist Church has been targeted by Anonymous presumably for its vulgar, highly public campaigns against homosexuality, yet Anonymous’s activists also target Israel – the only place in the Middle East where it is truly safe to be gay.

The group’s cyber attacks on ISIS are less divisive from a western point of view, and while most will agree the Islamic State is barbarous in many respects there is something deeply illiberal about Anonymous attacking a burgeoning state simply because they have philosophical disagreements with it. As for the attacks on financial corporations, well, they are predictable, but the point of the attacks is still rather opaque. Destroy the credit card corporations and humanity will just have to start again and build new ones.

Anonymous’s support of Wikileaks suggests anarchist leanings – the anarchism of the right rather than that of the left. Their support for Occupy really tells us nothing, except that they sided with the little guy over the banking industry, but most Occupy members would probably favour expansion of the state apparatus given the choice.

When Anonymous makes decisions to attack organisations, governments, religious groups and corporations it is breaking the law. That is bad enough. But even more nefarious is that it does so without any ideological consistency.

hobbes-leviathanThomas Hobbes famously believed that the natural way of things for humanity is a “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” life. He said that in the absence of political order and law, everyone would have unlimited natural freedoms – including the freedom to plunder, rape, and murder, etc. To avoid this, he wrote, “free men contract with each other to establish political community through a social contract in which they all gain security in return for subjecting themselves to an absolute Sovereign, one man or an assembly of men”.

It is easy to cheerlead for Anonymous when they target groups we ourselves find reprehensible. However, we should be careful not to exchange law and order for populist vigilantism. Hobbes’s philosophy was clearly shaped by his experiences of the Thirty Years War, the horrors of which we can’t even begin to imagine. But the long period of peace we now enjoy in Europe is due in no small part to the Social Contract. We should not need to be reminded of its importance.

 

The Hacker as Artist

hacker

In her essay Hackers as Tricksters of the Digital Age: Creativity in Hacker Culture, Svetlana Nikitina refers to a general confusion as to how we should be viewing the social impact of hacking. Should we be cultivating the creative potential of people who are clearly very talented? Should we treat it as an annoying (but not threatening) calamity of the digital age? Or is it something far more insidious than both of those things, the tip of an ever-growing iceberg of computer crime?

Anyone aware of the mayhem caused by the Ukraine power cut in December 2016 will understand the very real damage that can be caused by hackers. Lose your heating in a Ukrainian winter and death suddenly becomes a very real possibility.

The Ukraine attack was clearly political, but many hackers have no discernible motives. Nikitina mentions the oft-heard hacker’s defence that they are simply highlighting systemic security issues, but Spafford’s analogy states that we would never accept burglars breaking into our homes in order to expose vulnerabilities. There can be little doubt that most people would agree with that.

It is a curious thing that such apparently obvious trespassing should be so ambiguously viewed, especially at a time when so much is at stake (international security, global finance, etc.). But this may be because we are in a confusing, transitional period between the present, material world and the virtual, transhumanist future.

To understand what I mean, consider the following: for ancient humans, fats were seldom found in the wild. Whenever our ancestors acquired them, they gorged on them, not knowing when the chance to do so would next come along. Now of course we live in an industrial age of plenty, and cheeseburgers cost pocket change, but the evolutionary programming of our bodies hasn’t yet caught up with what our brain knows. Our bodies are hard-wired for the past.

Modern humans can see the damage caused by hacking. The hacker hacks, the lights go out, the hacker goes to prison. But his actions seem epiphenomenal. The hacker didn’t cut the city’s power supply with a giant wire cutter. He didn’t spill Mountain Dew over a control panel in the local power station. He did it in a dark bedroom. By typing. Typing. Such an abstract crime! For many of us, there is still the feeling that his actions aren’t in the real world. Our technology is in the future, a William Gibson novel, but our minds lag behind, still out in the savannas hunting antelope.

Nikitina writes that “for the most part, the thefts and hacks of tricksters and computer wizards are not deliberately destructive”. This is an important point. Our planet has pretty much been completely explored (with a handful of exceptions). We do not yet have the capability to visit other worlds. So what else is there to do except explore cyberspace? When the great mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he replied “Because it’s there”. That most hacking is non-destructive (in intent if not in outcome) hints at the idea that hackers are 21st century techno-conquistadors, experts living on the fringes, taking great risks to explore the unknown.

All that said, we shouldn’t overstate the romantic artistry of the hacker. That does a great disservice to the engineers and programmers and coders – the architects – who’ve built and continue to build the beautiful world hackers perform their tricks in.

Bibliography

Nikitina, Svetlana. “Hackers as tricksters of the digital age: creativity in hacker culture.” The Journal of Popular Culture 45.1 (2012): 133-152.

Culture, Social Media and the Arab Spring

The established narrative among many political observers is that the Arab Spring initially represented a Maghrebi desire for democracy and freedom. Summing up the mood of the western liberal intelligentsia Brian Whitaker, writing in The Guardian in early 2011, declaimed boldly that “Arabs now have a shared, unstoppable drive for freedom”. Prima facie nothing appears off about such a statement. We hear the word “freedom” all the time. Yet in this context it demands analysis.

220px-mohamed_bouazizi

Mohamed Bouazizi: the Arab Spring’s Franz Ferdinand

The Project on Information Technology & Political Islam (pITPI) published a paper in 2011 entitled Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring? and the same baseless assumptions about North Africans’ desire for liberty and democracy were made. According to the report, Egyptians and Tunisians used digital technologies “to spread ideas about liberty” and to have conversations about democracy and revolution. But what do these words mean, really? The American linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir theorised that “no two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality”. So when a Tunisian demands “liberty” does he want the same thing as, say, a Californian?

Revolution itself is easy enough to define, and the Merriam-Webster definition is provided below. If you kill the king and announce the establishment of a republic you can be quite certain you had a revolution. The Arab Spring ultimately failed in its ambitions (which were vague to begin with), but that’s not to say the movement wasn’t revolutionary.

file_000-1

If the immense crowds of protestors weren’t enough to convince you that the movement was indeed revolutionary, then its ubiquitous motto surely does the trick: Ash-sha`b yurid isqat an-nizam (“the people want to bring down the regime”).

regimedown

A call to revolution: “The people want to bring down the regime”

But what about “democracy” and “freedom”? Are their meanings as easy to agree on? Unfortunately not. Democracy is famously hard to define. Generally speaking there is “no consensus on how to measure democracy, definitions of democracy are contested and there is an ongoing lively debate on the subject”. From the same article (in The Economist) we read that “although the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are often used interchangeably, the two are not synonymous”. Yet both concepts appear together, conflated, throughout the pITPI report.

For consistency’s sake let’s look at Merriam-Webster’s definition of democracy. file_000-2When we talk about the kind of democracy desired by those who protested in the Arab Spring (and there are multiple democracies) what was it they wanted? Rule of the majority? Representative government? The removal of corrupt, tyrannical elites? Most likely they wanted all of these things.

Yet the western understanding of democracy is somewhat different, and crucially absent from Merriam-Webster’s list of definitions is the idea that the protection of minority rights is now an essential element of democracy. John Stuart Mill, one of the most important liberal thinkers of all time, warned against ochlocracy (or mob rule), stating that “the tyranny of the majority is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard”. Certain information in pITPI’s report hints at this kind of liberalism’s absence in the region.

The report mentions the role Tunisian and Egyptian women played on social media during the protests. It informs us that 41 per cent of Tunisian Facebook users are female while in Egypt the corresponding figure is 36 per cent. This is in stark contrast to the Facebook gender gap that exists in the United States, where women have an eight point lead over men in their use of the social network. So what gives? Well, there is a proven gender gap in social media participation in the Arab world.

women-cyberactivism-arab-springRacha Mourtada, a research associate at the Dubai School of Government, says that “female users in the Arab World constitute one third of Facebook users, whereas on a global level, they represent 50% of Facebook users”.

Fadi Salem, a director at the same school, says that a regional survey found that “the cultural and societal limitations and barriers that exist for women in the region, for participation in general — political, economic, and civic — these cause the number of women users to be less than men. So access, education, the sense of empowerment, all of these are factors”. In other words, many women are treated as second-class citizens. Women are not technically a minority, but if we view democracy as being essentially liberal in the Millist sense, then these findings are disheartening and suggest a fundamental misunderstanding in the region of what modern democracy actually constitutes. If women can’t participate equally in something as innocuous and accessible as social media, on what basis can anyone believe they would see equality in a successful, Arab Spring 2.0?

Certainly Iraqi voters “have tended to follow the decisions of clerics, tribal leaders and political leaders since 2003”, and “cling to their collective identities, leading to chauvinistic, sectarian and tribal divisions”. Many of Iraq’s problems have their roots in European colonial ignorance, but the consequences may have drained Middle Easterners of their tolerance for pluralism and the sanguinary aftermath of democratic, post-Saddam Iraq indicates that the average Iraqi’s understanding of democracy may not go beyond the superficialities of inked fingers, ballots dropped in boxes and voting for one’s tribe. Similarly, it is hard to believe that when Egyptian and Tunisian men protest for “democracy” that it is in any way related to the kind of democracy found in Ireland or the United States or Sweden.

800px-mpk1-426_sykes_picot_agreement_map_signed_8_may_1916

So if these protests for democracy weren’t about democracy as the west understands it, what then? As in Petrograd or the Bastille, anger at prevailing economic conditions was surely a factor: Tunisia’s GDP per capita was a mere $4,200 when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010. For a nation just a stone’s throw away from a Europe perceived as having streets paved with gold, the result can be what Victor Davis Hanson calls an “unhealthy stew of envy, anger, and desire for the west”. It is easy to understand why some would look to France or Spain and assume that it is the simple machinery of democracy that makes a nation prosperous.

The Austrian socio-political theorist Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn has written about this assumed causal relationship between democracy and prosperity. “The only monument to democracy I have ever seen I found in Bangkok. This is lip-service in stone to the ideological American export drive to the ‘imperialism’ inherent in American political thinking. The force of this drive lies in the expectation that the material living standards of the United States might be the natural reward for accepting American political ideals. This superstition is quite common”.

erik_von_kuehnelt-leddihn

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

It seems altogether likely that the superstition still exists in much of the world today, and causes people to ignore the kind of environmental reasons for prosperity put forward by Jared Diamond, the civilisational “killer apps” posited by Niall Ferguson, and other highly developed theses that explain the “European miracle”.

In a previous post I pointed to the high level of support for harsh punishments that exists in Egypt. Four out of five Egyptians favour death for those choosing to leave the Islamic faith. This indicates an overwhelming absence of liberalism in Egyptian society, and when words like “liberty” and “freedom” are used by protestors we must be confident that their understanding of liberty matches up with that found in the west, and that both civilisations aren’t experiencing different social realities.

Freedom means many things to many people. The neoreactionary philosopher Mencius Moldbug had this to say about freedom:

moldbug

To a young westerner, freedom might mean the ability to marry someone of the same sex or smoke marijuana or drink alcohol on public transport. Social media may be opening the eyes of many young Egyptians and Tunisians to attractive (yet ill-defined) concepts like equality, liberty, democracy, etc., but freedom as understood in Egypt may simply represent a desire for political change and not a de facto acceptance of the fundamental social changes that go hand in hand with modern European liberal democracy.

Bibliography

Howard, Philip N. et al. “Opening Closed Regimes: What Was The Role Of Social Media During The Arab Spring?”. SSRN Electronic Journal n. pag. Web.

Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Erik von. Leftism Revisited. 1st ed. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990. Print.