Why Facebook Hurts Democratic Movements

There are lots of things about Facebook that annoy me (mostly how it went from being a useful way to find out what your coolest friends were doing, listening to or reading to becoming an echo chamber of your most annoying friends' scores on idiotic quizzes, but that's a different blog post on a different blog) but the thing that bothers me most these days is all the groups and petitions devoted to "supporting" various democratic movements.

Moldova introduced itself to hundreds of thousand clicktivists earlier this year. Then there was Iran. (The online response to China's cracking some Uighur skull has been, at best, muted, at least in my network. I suspect it's because there aren't as many hot girls involved). The most recent example comes from Baku, where two Azeri youth activists were beaten up by sportsmenki and tossed in jail for doing little more than having dinner at a downtown Baku restaurant.

Since this happened, I have been invited to no fewer than six groups that express support for them, but have not joined one. I feel bad about this, but the only things less effective than Azeri youth activists are the Facebook groups set up to "draw international attention" to their situation. (Harsh? I know from Azeri youth activists).  Furthermore, they fail to achieve even that amorphous goal: the tepid support most of the groups receive does little but illustrate what is already screamingly obvious -- very few outside Azerbaijan care what goes on there.  And after generating all the international attention, then what?

Like Twitter, Facebook democracy support groups bug me for several reasons.

First, Facebook groups prolong the illusion held by many in opposition movements in the Former Soviet Union that democratic change can come from anywhere but inside the country.  One of the Azeri opposition's favorite strategies for achieving power was writing lots of letters to foreign leaders, taking expensive junkets to Brussels and beseeching visiting OSCE diplomats plaintively. Really, who can blame them for wanting to spend more time in Vienna than Yevlax? However, challenging despots requires hard, risky groundwork, convincing skeptical voters in your own country that you're responsible enough to be trusted with the reins of power and that it's worth the risk to join you.

Second, it prolongs the illusion that organizing is as easy as clicking a button. It's a lot more fun to organize several thousand Europeans and Americans to support your "cause" than it is to mobilize IDPs still living in train cars 14 years after the oil-rich country lost a war. It's a lot easier to broadcast a Twitter to the universe than it is to go out and talk to people in Lenkoran who don't have electricity, much less internet, face to face.

Third, it diminishes the stakes. If people in Azerbaijan truly want to boot the kleptocrats (and there is plenty of evidence to suggest most don't), they have to join civil society organizations or political parties or labor unions that oppose the government. They have to volunteer to monitor elections. As a result, jobs will be lost, university places sacrificed, nights spent in jail and heads cracked. The idea that it can be done any other way is an insult to the people who have tried and succeeded (or, tried and failed).

The situation in Azerbaijan right now is terrible. It was terrible before Facebook and will continue to be terrible long after Facebook joins Friendster and MySpace in the dust-bin of social networking history. If you're going to click, click on something like Daily Puppy or your favorite porn site. It will have about as much impact on Azerbaijan.

A FSU Civic Activists' Guide

Paul Goble, over at Window On Eurasia, found a guide to civic activism in Russia on Live Journal (Russia's main blog platform) from a blogger called Noblesse Oblige. Noblesse Oblige has come up with several principles for "Civic Activists in Russia who Don't Want to Get Beat in the Head." Paul has translated and I've copied his text, so blame him if you don't like it (unfortunately, his links to the original don't work).

These are by far the most useful guidelines for FSU civic activism that I've come across. More importantly, they are applicable to most of the countries in the FSU, not just Russia. I say that as someone who spent three years trying, without any measurable success, to encourage civic activism in Ukraine and Azerbaijan. My only quibble is that NO could have elaborated a little bit more. I'd love to read some examples of how these principles have or haven't worked in real life.

What I really like about them is that they are lessons that can only be taught by someone who understands the political environment of the FSU at a native level and who has learned from personal experience that many of the principles taught by well-meaning "experts" from western Europe or America are pretty much useless. It might be retitled "Think like an Apparatchik!"

Read more: A FSU Civic Activists' Guide

Party's Over, Georgians. Time to Go Home

There comes a time when election protesters need to sit down and shut up. In Georgia, that time has come. Let's look at the data:

  • A credible, pre-election poll shows the president at 46% among the likeliest voters, with projected support at 52%;
  • An exit poll that put the president's support at 54% [though with 28% refusing to participate, the results of this poll are highly suspect];
  • Two parallel vote tabulations (PVTs) conducted by respected NGOs that put the president's support between 50% and 53%.
  • Multiple international observation missions deem the election "broadly democratic" (although not without citing serious shortcomings).

Official results (at this point) give the president 53%. I love a good conspiracy as much as the next person and former Soviets are better than anyone at spinning them, but sane people really need to look hard at how all these disparate data points converged to tell a very clear story: Mikhail Saakashvili exceeded 50% and avoided a run-off.

Instead of wasting their supporters' energy and anger by making them stand outside in the freezing cold for no good reason, the opposition parties (such as they are) should focus their resources on organizing around Misha's shortcomings as a leader and creating a viable alternative. They need to be thinking about the next election now (or, rather, yesterday). Continued carping about this one diminishes their own credibility both with the Georgian electorate and the international community.

One of the biggest strategic errors of parties in this part of the world is they are always fighting the last election, and never thinking about how to win the next one.

Additionally, in advance of the parliamentary elections, they should talk to the Ukrainians about creating a partisan election monitoring program (starting NOW). They need to have a legal, PR and grassroots strategy in place that documents, challenges, quantifies and systematically publicizes election violations. Even the Azadaliq coalition in Azerbaijan managed to get part of a program in place in 2005 (a lot of good it did them, but like the Georgians, before they met with the Ukrainians their idea of challenging the election was running everyone out in the streets to get their heads beaten in by the authorities).

Although I think the Georgian opposition doesn't have a leg to stand on, I don't think the President's victory celebrations should obscure two very important points. First of all, this election had some serious problems, ranging from technical problems (according to IRI's report) to instances of intimidation, problems with voter lists, lack of access to the media and abuse of administrative resources (cited by the ODIHR/International Mission).

While I do not believe the fraud had a substantial impact on the final results, could there have been enough at the margins to push Saakashvili over the 50% threshold? Certainly. Could voters have felt too intimidated to make any other choice? Absolutely. The latter is not the kind of manipulation that can be detected by exit polls or PVTs or measured by observers, but it needs to be taken into consideration.

Secondly, if I were Saakashvili and his advisers, I'd drink my Saparavi today and start tomorrow with a cold-eyed analysis of why an incumbent President who enjoys substantial administrative advantages and an exceptionally weak opposition barely managed to get majority support. That's embarrassing and certainly no mandate. I was amazed at how deeply Georgians were troubled by November 7th, a traumatizing event to people who thought the country was on the road to democracy. I agree. The West also needs to keep the screws turned on Saakashvili. However, with a strategic pipeline located on Georgian soil, the latter suggestion is probably wishful thinking.

Legit Pre-Election Poll in Georgia Shows Saakashvili Up

There's been a spate of pre-election polls from Georgia lately, most of them not worth the paper they're written on. All have been released by various interests to demonstrate their electoral strength and have little to no basis in reality. The only consequence of their release has been to increase public skepticism of polls.

President Mikail Saakashvili's party (UPM) released poll a few weeks ago that was greeted with howls of derision, but for a lot of wrong reasons. Most people I talked to categorically refused to believe data publicly released by BCG National Research, the firm that polls for the president's party (a high ranking official in the government I met insisted that's different than the serving as president's pollster, which suggested a bit of disingenuousness on his part, but we'll not quibble here. Also, BCG is run by the wife of the head of the Central Election Commission, a particularly stinky connection in this part of the world). The poll showed the president with a comfortable lead. Big surprise.

Read more: Legit Pre-Election Poll in Georgia Shows Saakashvili Up

Fake Polls in Ukraine: So What?

There's a lot of handwringing in Kyiv about all the bad polls the newspapers are publishing in the weeks before the election on September 30th. The sociologists have their panties in a bunch that the science of statistics is being used to mislead voters. Bloggers like Mark MacKinnon worry that it's evidence that it's 2004 all over again.

I say: So what?

Read more: Fake Polls in Ukraine: So What?

U.S. Public Diplomacy Flying Blind

It's really quite surprising in some ways -- and not at all in most others -- that at a time when the U.S. is faced with unprecedented challenges, the U.S. Department of State doesn't use strategic research to guide its communications and public diplomacy.

Last month, the GAO released a report entitled "U.S. Public Diplomacy: Actions Needed to Improve Strategic Use and Coordination of Research." It concluded that the Secretary of State needs to take a research-based "campaign-style" approach to communications and generate "actionable" research to inform its efforts. I love this idea!

Read more: U.S. Public Diplomacy Flying Blind