Cybertools offer new channels for free speech, but grassroots organizing still critical

What if activists from the Free Speech Movement 50 years ago had been able to use Twitter? One could imagine the real-time alerts drawing an even bigger crowd faster as student Jack Weinberg was being arrested on Oct. 1, 1964, for setting up a table at Sproul Plaza despite the ban on on-campus political activities. And people near and far would have surely seen the videos — recorded by smartphones, uploaded to YouTube and spread via Facebook — of Mario Savio standing on top of a police car, calling on students to stand up for their First Amendment rights.

Kweku Opoku-Agyemang, a Development Impact Lab Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies, explains how the use of mobile technology that automates survey-taking can help expand the political power of the general public in Ghana. (UC Berkeley video produced by Roxanne Makasdjian and Phil Ebiner)

The communication tools of today have changed social movements since the Free Speech Movement. Whether it is an online petition via or survey software that makes it easier for users to register their opinions for elected officials, more options are available for expressing views than ever before.

Reported efforts by Chinese officials to censor news of the current pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong by disrupting access to Instagram and removing references to the demonstrations illustrate the degree to which social media is seen as a threat.

How technology aids social change

“Social media, purely as a logistical organizing mechanism, has transformed the ability of people to congregate and protest because of the speed and ease with which information is shared,” said Camille Crittenden, director of the Data and Democracy Initiative at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS). “Compared with the 1960s, you’re going to be able to organize more quickly, and you’re going to be able to document the event more comprehensively.”

Clay Shirky, professor of new media at New York University and author of “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations,” wrote a 2011 policy paper in the magazine Foreign Affairs about the political power of social media. Shirky used as an example the 2001 impeachment trial of Philippine President Joseph Estrada for corruption. Less than two hours after news was announced that Estrada might escape punishment, text messages summoned thousands of Filipinos to gather in Manila.

Over the next several days, the crowd swelled to more than a million people. “The public’s ability to coordinate such a massive and rapid response — close to 7 million text messages were sent that week — so alarmed the country’s legislators that they reversed course” and allowed damning evidence against Estrada to be presented, Shirky wrote. Within days, Estrada was ousted.

“The event marked the first time that social media had helped force out a national leader,” wrote Shirky.

While these communication channels are important, Crittenden noted that “democracy and social progress often still require physical presence and commitment.” That is the motivation behind a CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative project called the California Report Card, a platform created in partnership with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom to allow Californians to provide feedback to their elected leaders on key issues. CITRIS recently helped launch a Spanish-language version of the California Report Card to improve outreach to the state’s residents.

Such platforms enable “cyberphysical democracy” by using the Internet to bring constituents’ opinions before the politicians who represent them, said Crittenden.

Similarly, Kweku Opoku-Agyemang, a Development Impact Lab Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies, is researching the impact of new, interactive mobile surveys as a way for people to influence policy and public services in Ghana.

Not a replacement for grassroots organizing

Still, cautionary flags are raised about the limits of the Internet and online tools by many who know the behind-the-scenes work needed for a movement to be successful.

Bettina Aptheker, a prominent leader of the Free Speech Movement, noted that today’s online communication channels are not a replacement for grassroots organizing.

“There is something to be said for person-to-person, eye-to-eye, grassroots communication,” said Aptheker, now a professor of feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz. “You don’t get that in the same way on the Internet.”

Aptheker said that once the Free Speech Movement got started, she and the other organizers printed leaflets nearly every day. “Our leaflets weren’t just calling people to a rally,” she said. “The leaflets were detailed, single-spaced essays on the principles of Freedom of Speech, and they included updates on our discussions with the administration.”

Cairo, Egypt - February 9, 2011: On Day 16 of the 18 days of protest that would lead to the resignation of Egyptian President Mubarak, men gather with their cell phones to photograph the bloodied clothes (not pictured) of demonstrators killed in previous days. Mobile technology has played an important role in what is frequently called the Arab Spring. (Joel Carillet photo)

Men gather in Cairo, Egypt, in February 2011 with their cell phones to photograph the bloodied clothes (not pictured) of demonstrators killed in previous days. Mobile technology has played an important role in what is frequently called the Arab Spring. The protests in Egypt eventually led to the resignation of President Mubarak. (iStockphoto by Joel Carillet)

Evgeny Morozov, a prominent critic of the “cyberutopian” view that social networks drive revolutions, provides a similar perspective.

In a 2011 commentary, published in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings that forced out leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other Middle East nations, Morozov argued that “digital tools are simply, well, tools, and social change continues to involve many painstaking, longer-term efforts to engage with political institutions and reform movements.”

These are views Morozov expressed in his books To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism and The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.

The contributing role of new technology in social movements has a precedent, Morozov noted. He pointed to the telegraph, the tape recorder and the fax-machine revolutions of the past century.

“Will history consign Twitter and Facebook to much the same fate 20 years down the road? In all likelihood, yes,” wrote Morozov.

Dictators use networks, too

Another downside to over-reliance on these new technologies is the very real danger of persecution by oppressive regimes.

“Governments are becoming more sophisticated users of the Internet,” said Deirdre Mulligan, co-director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, assistant professor at the School of Information and the School of Law and an expert in data privacy. “Using the Internet is a technically mediated activity, so every action leaves a trace, opening up the potential for surveillance.”

Morozov also pointed out this danger during the Arab Spring demonstrations, noting that while the role of social media was celebrated in Tunisian and Egyptian protests, two activists in Iran were executed for distributing video footage online from the country’s 2009 “Twitter Revolution.”

More recently, cybersecurity experts have identified malware called Xsser that infects the operating systems of Apple mobile devices. The virus, with code written in Chinese, is capable of stealing text messages, call logs, photos and passwords. Experts believe Xsser is targeting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

The importance of protecting anonymity

Those types of concerns are the impetus for new technology being developed by researchers at UC Berkeley and the non-profit De Novo Group. The Rangzen Project, funded by the U.S. State Department as part of its Internet Freedom Initiative, seeks to help citizens of oppressive regimes circumvent government-imposed communication blackouts.

Leading the Rangzen Project is Yahel Ben-David, a UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering and computer sciences and president and co-founder of the De Novo Group.

Ben-David, whose path toward a career in cybersecurity began as a teenage computer hacker in Israel, said the key to establishing communication networks in the midst of a government shutdown is the ability to preserve anonymity.

“Without anonymity, the users are vulnerable to being tracked and persecuted,” said Ben-David. “The technology is still in development, but our goal is to provide a way for citizens in repressive regimes to communicate freely outside of government or corporate-controlled infrastructure without having to fear for their lives.”

Even if social media and new technologies are viewed as tools rather than the engine for change, there is no doubt that they are allowing ever more outlets for expression, said Crittenden.

“Because of these tools, we can hear from a more diverse political spectrum,” she said. “The issues raised may feel more diffuse, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. More issues are coming to the surface, and more voices are heard.”


Read more about the Free Speech Movement and the anniversary

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