The rise and rise of “National Innovation Foundations”

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Stephen Ezell is the director of Global Innovation Policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Frank Spring is a PS21 Global Fellow and an independent consultant for innovation, politics and security issues. He tweets at @frankspringKatarzyna Bitka is an economist, working on innovation policy within academic work and the assignments at DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission.

As the race for global innovation advantage accelerates, a growing number of countries are doing all they can to maximize innovation-based economic growth. In fact, at least 50 have now articulated national innovation strategies and have created special agencies or foundations to maximize the innovation output of their countries’ enterprises and organizations. This report assesses the roles these entities play and some of their successes to date. While some of the oldest innovation agencies, such as Finland’s SITRA, date back to the 1960s, most have actually been founded within the past 15 years, as an increasing number of nations have gotten serious about developing their national innovation systems and turbocharging their economies’ capacity to innovate. Today, national innovation foundations can be found in economies of all sizes and stages of development, from Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, and Uruguay to India, Indonesia, and Japan.

The organizational structure of countries’ national innovation agencies varies immensely. In some cases, these are government agencies (such as Uruguay’s National Research and Innovation Agency or the Danish Agency for Science, Technology, and Innovation), while others are autonomous or quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations (such as the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology, Tekes, or the United Kingdom’s National Endowment for Science,Technology, and the Arts, “NESTA”).

Indeed, an initial survey shows a wide spectrum of budgets and organizational mandates, suggesting that the construction and direction of a national innovation foundation may still be as much art as science. Nevertheless, the best national innovation foundations and strategies are lean and nimble, able to shift their operations and priorities at the speed at which modern innovation and technological development unfolds.

Moreover, most national innovation foundations share a common, if not ubiquitous, set of goals—policy, SME support, research, and network development and management. To provide more context to the operations of countries’ national innovation agencies, this report undertakes five case studies, examining the charter and operations of national innovation foundations in five countries—Uruguay, Taiwan, Switzerland, Finland, and Poland.

These nations were chosen for the illustrative and disparate nature of their innovation entities. The report concludes by noting that the question for governments with such organizations—and, much more sharply, for governments, such as the United States, without them—is not whether they can afford to continue to invest in supporting such innovation entities; it is whether they can afford not to do so.

This piece was originally published by The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation on 13 April 2015. Republished with permission.

The Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own

Deepnet: is the “dark web” good or evil?

A member of Anonymous attends a protest in Montreal (2012).
A member of Anonymous attends a protest in Montreal (2012).

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Mike Gillespie is Director of cyber research and strategy at The Security Institute, Managing Director of Advent IM Consultancy and a member of the CSCSS Global Select Committee on Cyber Security

The worldwide web wasn’t really designed, as such – it grew out of itself and so privacy was never really a massive consideration. In part as a result, it exists on different levels. There is the indexed and therefore searchable regular internet with which we are all familiar, there is the regular i­­­nternet accessed via an anonymising browser or sites built specifically for anonymised browsers (such as .onion sites), and then there’s the Darknet – or Deepnet – a virtual private world of connected sites that are hard to access by accident. The last two are obviously much more opaque and harder to track, monitor, measure or market to. Some people refer to the whole area of non-standard browsing as Darknet and this is the way it has been presented in mainstream media too.

Teachers, whistle blowers, activists, children, police and security personnel and journalists to name but a few of the legitimate and non-criminal or deviant groups of users who also make use of the anonymity provided by services like Tor.

Tor- also known as “The Onion Router” is one of the browsers we refer to when we talk about anonymised browsing. Originally conceived (and paid for) for the US Navy, it was designed for secure military communications and when its broader adoption happened it was a browser of choice for net users who wanted to be protected from corporate invasion of their privacy. It works as a series of servers around the globe that bounce the user around, making them much harder to track or monitor.

It does make streaming impossible as it is very slow as a result of all the relays and YouTube is pretty much a no go area at the moment. It’s worth noting though that YouTube have plans to try and introduce a Tor friendly version allegedly. If this is true it will be interesting from a commercial perspective as given the nature of the free service in exchange for targeted ads that YouTube uses, this would appear to be in direct opposition to the requirements for privacy of most Tor users… I suppose we will have to watch that space!

So basically, Tor is one of several systems or tactics that make users much, much harder to detect or monitor. Although the media has led us to believe that Tor is in fact all of the Deepnet, clearly there is much more going on. It is inarguable however, that whether it is Tor or Tor-type browsers or the specific Deepnet, it is very difficult to track users and their behaviour in this area and this creates problems for law enforcement and security agencies.

Deepnet has the reputation for being a haven for perpetrators of serious crime. Child abuse images and the procurement of contract killers or Class A drugs have all been discovered in the deep recesses of this network. Tor has been used as a means to hide servers containing illegal material and will continue to be used that way in the same way drug dealers use anonymous unregistered pay as you go phones; very hard to trace. The arrest of Silk Road mastermind Ross Ulbricht is probably one of the most high profile and media friendly stories to come out of this. Silk Road was a marketplace favoured by criminals, particularly for drug trafficking.

It places huge difficulties on investigation of serious crime like drug selling, identity theft, child abuse and money laundering – problems we face in real life too. The dawning realisation that it is the very open and exploitable nature of our familiarity of the current regular web that leads us to question the moral standing of dark or Deepnet use. It is a discussion that is sure to rage for many years. But if people are happy to trade off their privacy for free web and web tools then those who aren’t will continue to be viewed with doubt and suspicion.

If we had never had the internet and the www world, isn’t the Deepweb precisely what we would build now to allow us to shop, learn and interact privately?

Imagine a net where tailored ads do not leap out at you from websites the second you land and your browsing activity was not pored over by those seeking to profit from it in any number of ways. Really, if we were going to build something that protected its users in entirely legitimate and acceptable ways, instead of trying to layer on security afterwards, what we would build might look a lot more like Deepnet or at the very least, Tor. Given that the original conception of the net was to facilitate military communications, then its evolution could potentially have taken the more private route, but its very commerciality has taken it in a very different direction.

Perception changes everything, of course. I was recently at a security and policing event run by The Home Office and attended some interesting seminars which touched on the difficulty in investigating crime over the ‘Dark or Deep’ web. It’s perfectly clear of course that much crime is still facilitated by the ‘regular’ web and one of the other things that emerged was criminals tending to now de-tech; moving away from things like smart phones and other IP devices in order to communicate and share in non-digital ways – ways they know won’t be intercepted by digital detectives. For instance we know that some drug dealers now shun smartphones or other modern digital communication in favour of using old school phones like Nokia 8210s. Apart from their reputation for being virtually indestructible, they are not connected to anything and therefore offer privacy and security that a criminal would happily take over the convenience of having email and Twitter. So criminals are starting to perceive the web, including Deepnet, as being a place that it may not be as safe as they thought. We knew that many criminals favoured unregistered pay as you go phones that can be cheaply bought and easily disposed of and the prediction is that certain criminal groups will continue down the de-tech route. For others of course, this will not be an option. Complex and digitally-reliant groups such as paedophile rings are making significant use of the Deepnet and unfortunately this is driving public perception of what it is all about.

Technologies have been used for good and evil ever since we have had technology. Deepweb is another technology, just like mobile phones, that is being used by criminals to stay off law enforcement radars and enable them to carry out their illegal activities with less risk than on the regular web. But as mentioned earlier many people use Deepweb tools. Sometimes this is in life and death situations and under terrible conflict situations, like those in Syria. The anonymity offered by Tor enables activists and campaigners to get their messages out of totalitarian regimes that threaten their lives every day and where the fear of arrest and torture are very real. It would have been hard for the so-called Arab Spring to have gained the incredible momentum it did, without the use of Deepweb technology. For those innocent people, Deepweb is a blessing and a lifeline.

However, the challenges are clear for law enforcement and security services and they are set to grow. We can’t accurately measure Deepweb and it is very hard to pin a figure therefore on the size of the criminal activity that is going through it. As law enforcement techniques grow and evolve to meet the Deepweb challenge the additional challenge will be maintain the right to privacy of ordinary, private users.

Anonymous vs ISIS: “Post-Government Organizations” Rise

A member of Anonymous handing out fliers
A member of Anonymous handing out fliers

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Ryan Hagemann is a masters student in public policy at George Mason University and the co-author of a recent Mercatus paper, “Removing Roadblocks to Autonomous Vehicles.” His research interests include decentralized peer-to-peer networks, Transhumanism, stateless social organization, robotics and automation, and studies at the intersection of sociology, economics, and technology.

In 1648, the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, spawning the modern international system of state relations. What resulted was an order that relied on the premise that state actors would serve as the fundamental units of analysis in diplomatic affairs and global politics – that co-existing sovereign states would serve as a continual check on the balance of power between states. This system, a long stable institution of world order, has recently begun to experience an existential crisis.

The Internet and disruptive communications technologies have begun changing our world; they are leveling power disparities between individuals and institutions to such a degree that non-state actors are now gaining significant influence on the world stage.

Even as we speak, an evolution of international conflict is gaining steam, and while its origins are in the Levant, the true battle space is online. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) recently came into conflict with the anarchist hacktivism consortium Anonymous. The battlefield? Cyberspace.

Far from being a mere response to the carcinogenic spread of ISIS’ influence and power projection in the Levant, Anonymous’ cyber crusade against the would-be caliphate is among the first to occur amidst the Internet landscape. Their war is one of bits, and their battles are taking place outside the confines of traditional conflict zones; to the far corners of the digital world through the conduits of Twitter, Facebook, and the broader networks that make up the Internet. What we are witnessing is an entirely new breed of institution battling the old hierarchical, centralized power structure in a new way.

Post-Government Organizations

In his book Cypherpunks, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, makes a brief but impactful reference to what he refers to as Post-Government Organizations (PGOs): organizations that are composed of individuals pursuing common objectives by using decentralized digital networks to achieve their ends. They are loose collections of individuals who interact with one another primarily through the Internet and impact change through hacktivism or other digital activist means, including, but not limited to direct denial of service (DDoS) attacks on targeted websites, information revelation campaigns, and dissemination of contrarian messaging. WikiLeaks, Assange maintained, was the first of these PGOs, providing an anonymous platform for individuals with access to sensitive information the means to distribute it, without putting themselves at risk of exposure.

Julian Assange
Julian Assange

Specifically, Assange defines a PGO as “an organization that occupies cyberspace and is adept at moving its information around the underlying embeddings” of a digital network topography. He goes on to criticize the immense asymmetries in information between state actors and the underlying protocols of the Internet, arguing that these new institutions are bound to disrupt the old Westphalian power structures:

The governments are not sure … of the barrier between what is government or not. It’s fuzzed out now. Governments occupy space, but WikiLeaks occupies part of the space of the Internet. Internet space is embedded in real space, but the degree of complexity between the embedded object and the embedding means that it’s not easy for the embedding to tell that the embedded object is even part of it.

Anonymous, a decentralized ideological movement composed of many thousands of individuals purporting various political beliefs, philosophical outlooks, and degrees of technical skill, can just as easily be classified as a PGO. The only agreements that hold this tribe of Internet warriors together is that ideas, not directives, should drive their actions and that censorship is an unequivocal evil to be expelled from the online community. Beyond this, nothing substantive can be said of a group composed of many thousands (perhaps more) of various and disparate beliefs and motivations for joining the movement.

As Quinn Norton of Wired magazine has written, members of this legion are a “sea of voices, all experimenting with new ways of being in the world.” They are experimenting with old systems of international, and state-based, order. How their ongoing battle in the Middle East plays out will be a telling case study in the efficacy of these new institutions.

The First Digital War in Cyberspace

If the excesses of the Islamic State were not so alarmingly ruthless and inhuman, the entire affair could easily be mistaken for a classic comic book showdown: the legion of eschatological extremists hell bent on terrorizing the innocents battling the decentralized, ad-hoc affiliation of wily superheroes, each committing to the cause for incongruent reasons, bound together by nothing more than a vague sense of duty and honor to a broad ideological coalition.

But metaphors cannot do justice to the carnage unfolding in the Levant. Whatever one’s thoughts on Anonymous’ activities, few dispute that their campaign against ISIS is anything short of an ideological commitment to helping quell the tide of recruits flowing into Iraq and Syria (some estimates indicate as many as 100 volunteers per recruitment center join ISIS every day).

Anonymous first began mass targeting of extremist militants’ social media presence following the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, citing concerns over fanatical religious intolerance for free speech and the sanctity of human life. While a Twitter war is not quite the same as boots on the ground, the reality is that ISIS relies heavily on social media to spread its message and recruit volunteer fighters from around the world to join their barbaric crusade. The hacktivist attacks are an attempt to throttle the Islamic State’s recruitment efforts and curtail their online war of intimidation and the privation of human capital. The first digital war in cyberspace is unfolding before our eyes even as we speak.

In January of 2015, Anonymous released the following statement, expressing the motivations for their digital assault:

This is a press release by anonymous.

In the case of the terror attack against Charlie Hebdo, as we had previously told you, we plan on shedding light on all these events and give homage to those innocent killed.

The anonymous of all the planet have decided to declare war on you terrorists. We will track you down to the last one and will *kill (destroy) you. You allowed yourselves to kill innocent people. We will therefor [sic] avenge their deaths.

We will track all of your activities online. We will close your accounts on social networks. You will not impose your Sharia in our democracies. We will not let your stupidity kill our liberties, and our freedom of expression.

We have warned you. Expect your destruction. We will track you everywhere on the planet. Nowhere will you be safe.

We are anonymous.
We are legion.
We do not forget.
We do not forgive.
Be afraid of us, Islamic Sate [sic] and Al Quaida. You will get our vengeance.


Tours rally in support of the victims of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting
Tours rally in support of the victims of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting

Since January, Anonymous has continued with its battle plan., having taken down over 800 Twitter accounts, a dozen Facebook pages, and more than 40 email accounts, to say nothing of the various recruiting web sites and IP addresses associated with ISIS. Their most recent public threat against ISIS aptly sums up the endgame intentions of Anonymous: “You will be treated like a virus, and we are the cure. We own the Internet.”

Towards a New Westphalian Order?

While digital strikes are unlikely to destroy the tangible gains that the Islamic State has obtained, this emerging conflict could represent the beginning of the end of the old international state system. Previously, states were perceived as the international actors of merit; now, even though PGOs are unlikely to acquire a sufficient degree of coercive power to challenge standing armies anytime soon, it is clear that they are going to be playing some role in international affairs moving forward.

In the midst of this historical occurrence, it is worth pondering what the future of the international state system holds, given changes in technology, increased access to information, and calls to action that inspire groups from across cultures and continents, to respond, in real time, to emerging threats. What happens to the old Westphalian order when individuals and non-state actors suddenly become significant agents of action in international affairs?

It is far too early to tell whether, in the long term, PGOs will be a benefit or hindrance to the international order. What is clear, however, is that these organizations are slowly accumulating greater influence and are beginning to have more substantive impact in the world. For better or worse, these new associations are going to be with us so long as the Internet remains a transnational communications platform; limiting their power will be increasingly difficult as power continues to be more and more decentralized and distributed out of the hands of strong central authorities.

Sovereignty of states emerged as the legal norm after the Thirty Years’ War – what comes of the war being played out between ISIS and Anonymous remains to be seen.

Introducing PS21 WORLD

The view from PS21 HQ.
The view from PS21 HQ, February 2015

Peter Apps, PS21 executive director

Two months ago on Monday, I was still largely bedbound in my cabin on the liner Queen Mary 2 as we slogged our way through north Atlantic gales to Southampton.

PS21 might only have been a couple of weeks away from launch but to be honest it consisted of little more than some considerable ambition, several confidential Word documents, a place holding website, a little preprepared content and rather more pledges of support. Also, encouragement from global fellows and others.

As I related in late February, we’ve come a long way since the first event in London on January 26.

A few weeks later, we launched our first blog channel PS21 MIDEAST. It’s been–I feel–a great success, showcasing excellent commentary and material from both within the region and the wider world.

Our third posting, Sultan al-Qassemi’s masterful study of social media in the region from the Arab Spring to ISIS, helped push us above 1000 page views a day for the first time.

It was quite rightly showcased by Foreign Policy that day as one to read.

This week, I’m delighted to say TIME chose to publish a somewhat shorter version of Ari Ratner’s equally impressive piece looking at the limits of American Mideast power.

The other contributions have also proved spectacular in both depth and scope. I highly recommend the last two we have published on Syria, from Rasha Elass on how the war has paradoxically increased freedom for many young people and from Miriam Cook on the outpouring of theatre, art and culture that has also followed.

Today, we are launching PS21 WORLD, our new landmark blog on globalisation, conflict, geopolitics and anything else we think casts light on a rapidly changing, fascinating planet.

The first piece we are running, Philip Thicknesse’s look at the new “long war” with Russia and the risks it brings with it, first ran Tuesday on

Commodore Philip Thicknesse's article taking pride of place on
Commodore Philip Thicknesse’s article taking pride of place on, March 10, 2015

Sharing some pieces with editorial partners is central to our strategy of producing content people read as well as discussions they remember, helping drive traffic to the broader Project, and getting ideas to a much wider audience.

Next, we’ll be looking at the largely unnoticed war between hacker group Anonymous and Islamic State on the sidelines of the wider conflict. Future pieces will look at how the Internet is undermining — perhaps destroying — publishing and other business models. We’ll be looking at the dark Internet, tensions in Southeast Asia and the wider spike in recent conflict.

We are also building out regional blogs for Asia and Africa are again focusing on getting bright regional talent as well as international experts. Other topics and regions will follow.

As with PS21 MIDEAST — still being excellently curated by Carrie Cuno — we’ll be using these to help build a new generation of talent amongst our volunteer and almost invariably youthful editors. In particular, PS21 WORLD will rely on Claire Connellan in London and Anske Venter and Jinwoo Chong in Washington DC, already as close to the veterans of PS21 as anyone gets.

Which means, of course, that two of them joined us in January.

As we also push forward with an exciting series of new events, I think something of the character of the Project is becoming clear.

We are holding true to our founding principles of being non-national, non-ideological and non-partisan. Many of the discussions we’ve had to come down to the power of competing narratives and the difficulty in reconciling them, from the battles of the Middle East to the struggles of the Eurozone.

I don’t think that’s something we can particularly solve. What we are doing is providing a space whereby different narratives can be explored and discussed in a permissive and open-minded manner. As we spend our membership and operations further — soon to include Russia, China and elsewhere — I think that opens some powerful opportunities. And it might also achieve something.

This week, I discovered that Democratic Republic of Congo have become the first country in the world to start using giant solar powered robots to direct traffic. I also discovered — although I definitely should have known this — that Iran has the second-largest Jewish population in the Middle East.

Neither of those details, of course, is enough to overturn everything I think I know about either country. But nor do they entirely fit within it.

London Discussion on Mideast Social Media: Key takeaways/media

10927527_1404460253192052_5967679135493759985_oOn Tuesday, February 17, 2015 PS21 hosted a discussion with Gulf-based blogger and member of the PS21 international advisory group Sultan al-Qassemi. He discussed the changing nature of social media in the middle east over the last decade.

The discussion was attended by a selection of activists, academics, regional experts and others. It was on the record and you can hear a recording of it at this link.

A full transcript can be found here: transcript – Sultan al Qassemi

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion from PS21 executive director Peter Apps.

“Social media has evolved…… from being a tool for activists and secular forces to being used by extremists such as ISIS,” said Sultan. “The social media companies are adapting and are beginning to block some of these users so that may change. Governments have also adapted… it’s a very different environment.”

Across the region, Sultan said that the morale of activists and more liberal forces had been heavily dented in the four years since the “Arab Spring”. In countries across the region, governments had clamped down seriously on activists, many of whom are now largely withdrawn from public facing platforms like Twitter into closed Facebook groups and other more secretive platforms.

While the old Al Qaeda franchises struggled to adapt to social media, the Islamic State had been much more effective, using it as a major platform to promote its ideology and activities.

In general, the last four years in particular have seen a fracturing of the Mideast media scene. The one-time dominance of a relatively small number of satellite channels such as Al Jazeera has been somewhat undermined. There are now more voices on a wider variety of platforms. One of the fastest growing in popularity is the Arabic language Russia Today, which trades heavily on conspiracy-type stories and criticisms of Western foreign policy.

While regional governments have adapted in the sense of being able to clamp down on social media dissent, Western governments have not. The various attempts by the United States to combat the Islamic State on twitter have been little seen and gained little traction. The exception is the media outreach from arts of the Israeli government, the military in particular.

“They are criticised and mocked that they are in the conversation,” said Sultan.

Other attendees saw some similarities to what had occurred in western activism in recent years — again, primarily since the Occupy and other movements. What had once been large, popular movements have become much more inward looking, self-critical and much less confident. 

Several participants expressed concerns that the increasingly fractured nature of the debate made peace building and traditional negotiations ever harder.

The situation varied somewhat from country to country. Tunisia, Sultan said, was probably now the second most liberal country in the Middle East for media after Lebanon. Egypt, in contrast, was much less liberal as were most of the Gulf states. In Iran as elsewhere, government had moved much more into the social media space and was using it aggressively as a propaganda tool.

“Every government in the region except Lebanon has jailed online activists,” said Sultan.

It was not an exclusively negative picture, however. Some new online platforms were making progress, at least in documenting events. Elliot Higgins, the UK blogger dubbed “Brown Moses” was very successful in exposing weapons deliveries and shipments in Syria. A new online newspaper in Yemen, Sultan said, offered some hope of giving greater clarity to that conflict.

The discussion was well received by all those attending.

“The focus was the topic of the discussion as much as the speaker which makes it more interesting,” said Sultan. “I’ve been with PS21 since the beginning and it’s good to see it finally taking flight.”



Social Media in the Era of ISIS



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Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a columnist and Twitter commentator on Arab affairs. His columns on the Middle East have appeared in The Financial Times, The New York Times online, Foreign Policy and Open Democracy. Rising in prominence during the Arab Spring, Sultan’s tweets became a major news source, rivalling the major news networks at the time, until Time magazine listed him in the ‘140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011’. Sultan Al Qassemi is a 2014-2016 MIT Media Labs Director’s Fellow and member of PS21’s International Advisory Group. Follow him on Twitter @sultanalqassemi.

Even before the Arab Spring, activists took to social media to disseminate information in an atmosphere where the narrative was tightly controlled by the state.

In November 2007 YouTube shut down the account of Egyptian activist Wael Abbas after he posted a video showing police brutality for containing “inappropriate material.” The video was later re-instated following an outcry from human rights advocates and was then used to convict the two police officers of brutality.

During the 2006 Israeli air campaign on Lebanon, activist artist Zena El Khalil turned her blog “Beirut Update” into a source for news about the war and was featured in international media including CNN, BBC and The Guardian. In the summer of 2010 an anonymously administered Facebook page titled ‘We are all Khaled Saeed” after a young Egyptian who was beaten to death by police officers became a focal point for anti-regime protests leading up to the January 2011 uprising.

For the next few months social media was prominently used almost exclusively by activists across the Middle East and North Africa from the Maghreb to the Arabian Peninsula. By 2012 Arab governments had woken up to the “threat” of social media and started imposing harsh penalties on activists further pushing them underground. There was also a significant splintering amongst activists who in some cases following the ouster of the head of the regime turned against each other. The online honeymoon was over.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi talking about social media, London, February 2015

No longer was social media an open space for the region’s activists to express themselves freely and without inhibitions. Online police whose job it was to monitor “obscene content” turned their attention to political activists on Twitter and Facebook. Online hackers affiliated to or supportive of governments across the region, such as the Syrian Electronic Army, launched denial of service attacks on certain accounts while pro-government thugs intimidated activists using the very “liberation technology” social media platforms that activists had previously employed.

The once liberal and secular activist-dominated social media landscape has made way for conservative clerics or extremist groups. For instance, the Twitter account of Egyptian pro-democracy activist Wael Ghonim (1.4 million followers) has fallen silent and has chosen to stay away “as Egypt no longer welcomes those who are like me” while the account of conservative Saudi Arabian cleric Mohamed Al Arefe flourishes with over 10 million followers. Popular Saudi clerics such as Salman Al Odah and Ayedh Al Qarnee have reached astronomical figures and outreach that liberal activists and even governments can only dream of. On the other hand, secular activists with a strong social media presence such as Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Douma who have chosen to stay in Egypt have been locked up in jail.

Meanwhile, the drivers that produced the Arab Spring have arguably gotten worse. According to the ILO, unemployment in the region stood at almost 25 percent before the Arab Spring. Today these figures would be higher due to the drying up of the tourism industry in countries such as Egypt, the disruption of oil sales in Libya and the millions of refugees created by the Syrian Civil War and other conflicts.

Five Arab states rank amongst the top ten most corrupt states in the world and a Transparency International poll found that the “endemic” corruption actually worsened in the Arab world since the uprisings of 2011. Such a dire landscape no doubt facilitated the recruitment that was to take place online by extremists of some of the region’s young unemployed youth.

The proliferation of pro-government social media accounts bent on silencing dissent as well as the introduction of harsh penalties including jail terms for breaking loosely defined social media regulations across the region resulted in many liberal activists to either restrict their once public Facebook profiles to “Friends only” or resort to closed Facebook groups with limited members that are heavily and continuously filtered. While liberal and secular activists retreated, extremist accounts multiplied with both public and private profiles and accounts.

Although Al Qaeda has used social media to a limited degree over the past few years beyond posting their videos on YouTube, their breakaway group ISIS has taken its use another level. For starters, ISIS videos have been of a much higher production quality than Al Qaeda, using Hollywood-like special effects. In one of the videos posted online, the ISIS killer draws his knife to behead a hostage as the film cuts to slow motion to increase the dramatic effect. In a subsequent ISIS video of the beheading of 18 Syrian regime soldiers, the sound of beating heartbeats is added to the soundtrack. ISIS’ most gruesome upload to date featured the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot in a 21 minute video“that imitates the production values of documentaries aired on outlets like the History Channel”. The film ends by showing alleged homes of other Jordanian pilots identified through aerial mapping technology.

Since July 2014 ISIS has also been publishing an online magazine called Dabiq, now in its fifth issue, available to download in PDF and published in English. The propagandist publication, which without the gruesome content would look like a lifestyle magazine, features interviews with fighters and stories about recent conquests by the terrorist organization. The group has also used popular hashtags such as #WorldCup2014 to disseminate their videos and flood Twitter with their messages.

Pro-ISIS preachers haven’t only used the popular social media tools to propagate their messages. Lesser-known platforms such as PalTalk hosted lectures and debates by radical Islamists preachers who praised ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi as “the leader of all Muslims”. Invitations to listen to the PalTalk chat were posted on Twitter and advertised according to London and New York City times leaving no doubt as to who was the intended audience.

In 2014 ISIS developed an Android app called Fajer Al Bashayer (Dawn of the Good Omens) that when downloaded not only sends users automatic updates about the group but also hijacks their Twitter accounts and posts pro-ISIS tweets and updates on its behalf. Last June as ISIS forces entered the Iraqi city of Mosul the app sent 40,000 tweets in a 24-hour period. This and the increasingly gruesome videos prompted social media firms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to crack down on terror posts. This policing was most evident following the posting of the beheading video of freelance American journalist James Foley in August 2014.

The social media giants asked users not to share the video and shut down accounts of those who did as soon as they were flagged by users. The White House also intervened asking these platforms not to allow the video to be shared. Additionally, a successful campaign launched by Twitter user @LibyaLiberty with the hashtag #ISISMediaBlackout called on social media users not to share the ISIS terror videos. In its first 24 hours the hashtag was shared over 11,000 times.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi and Peter Apps, London, February 2015
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi and Peter Apps, London, February 2015

Social media can be a two edged sword for ISIS. When the first video of the so-called caliph Al Baghdadi delivering a sermon in a mosque was released by ISIS, Muslim netizens took to social media to ridicule what appeared to be a swanky Swiss-made watch he was wearing with tweets such as “Omega: Baghdadi’s Choice”.

Policy changes by social media firms, which are generally reluctant to police online content, were evident over the past two years. In 2012 the US government attempted to shut down the Twitter account of Somali terror group Al Shabab and said that it was exploring legal channels to do so. Twitter finally shut down Al Shabab’s account after the group used to it to boast of attacks and the social media platform announced a series of new policies aimed at combating graphic images and violence.

ISIS understands the potential reach of social media and uses it for recruitment, spreading fear and propagating their extremist ideology. These platforms are also used to raise money and search for sympathizers who can propagate on their behalf and others who can potentially turn into lone wolf attackers. One of these Twitter accounts was called ShamiWitness and prior to being shut down by its administrator in December 2014 had over 17,000 followers. The user who was a marketing executive based in Bangalore, India told Britain’s Channel Four whose investigation ended his career as a propagator of terror that “he would have gone to join Islamic State himself, but his family were financially dependent on him”. Shamiwitness joined Twitter in 2009 under a different handle and started propagating for ISIS soon after they appeared. Incidents such as this may compel firms and governments to introduce further restrictions on social media thereby once again transforming the previously free and open cyber-sphere beyond recognition.

What initially was a space for liberal minded technology geeks and activists is now a darker, gloomier world in which threats are made and videos of brutal beheadings and government flogging of liberal activists are shared and cheered. Today the social media landscape in the Middle East resembles the squares and streets of the Arab Spring cities of yore: it is a new battleground for hearts and minds between regimes, Islamists and activists; between young and old; between freedom and constraint.

There are signs of hope, though. In the midst of the all the doom and gloom, comedy from the likes of Bassem Youssef, Karl Sharro and Fahad Albutairi has become a tool to counter the growing online restrictions. Satire, “the weapon of the powerless against the powerful” has angered brainwashed ISIS followers and countered racist and Islamophobic coverage in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacres. One thing is clear: the liberal minded activists of the Arab Spring may be down, but they are certainly not out.

The Arab Spring@4: Introducing PS21 MIDEAST


Peter Apps, Executive Director PS21

“In twenty years’ time, I’m pretty sure universities will still be teaching courses on the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union. Will they be teaching courses called ‘The Arab Spring’? That I don’t know.”

The speaker was a senior Western diplomat. The discussion was on the future of the Middle East. In the room were some of the leading experts from governments, universities and think tanks. It was January 2012, roughly a year after revolutions upended the region. And almost all the experts had one thing in common:

If you had asked them fourteen months earlier about the Mideast’s immediate future, they would have been entirely wrong.

The Arab Spring, like many historical events, feels like one of those things everyone, with hindsight, saw coming but almost no one predicted. The strains that produced it were well-known—a growing demographic bubble of frustrated youth, sclerotic dictatorships held in place by foreign cash and force of arms, the rising tide of technology giving new capabilities and connections to the masses. But that wasn’t enough.

Talk to those who had insight at the top of governments, both regional and foreign, in the months before the revolutions and you begin to realize just how little they saw it coming. Flying to Tunisia in late 2010, a British Foreign Office minister was briefed it was probably the most stable country in the region. Senior foreign officials who met with their Egyptian counterparts at the same time say those in charge in Cairo had little inkling either.

Even once the revolts began, experts on the nearby states—as well as their rulers—almost unanimously proclaimed that they were different and would ride out the storm unaffected.

Almost all were at least slightly wrong.

Four years on, however, there’s another awkward question: how much of it really mattered?

Asking Tough Questions

These are just the kind of questions the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) was set up to tackle. Today, we are delighted to launch the first of PS21’s blogs, PS21 MIDEAST. It will look at a wide range of issues across the region, bringing together both some of the best new voices from the region and the best outside experts.

We have former US State Department political appointee Ari Ratner on what went wrong over the last four years and what, if anything, the US could do to make things better. Tomorrow, we have legendary Gulf blogger Sultan al-Qassemi on the changing face of social media. We look at the fate of lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgendered people in Egypt, the way in which war in Syria has paradoxically given new freedoms to many young people and a historic lock at just why the Islamic State is so difficult to defeat.

On Thursday, February 26 in Washington DC, we’ll be hosting what promises to be an excellent discussion on just those issues.

It is, of course, just the start of the journey for us. In March, we will be launching PS21 WORLD, our blog looking at globalisation, geopolitics, conflict and risk. An Africa channel will follow with other regions and themes coming behind.

It’s a messy, fascinating world. 

DC Revolutions Event: Key Takeaways / Video


On Monday, February 9, 2015 PS21 hosted a discussion on Leaderless Revolutions and their Challengers.

Location: Thomson Reuters, Washington DC


Srdja Popovic: Serb activist and politician, founder CANVAS, author of Blueprint for Revolution. PS21 global fellow.

Jack Goldstone (chair): professor of public policy, George Mason University currently on attachment to the Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars. Author, Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction. Member of the international advisory group, PS21.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion. For the full transcript click here.

“If you look through the history of these uprisings it’s always the outsiders,” Popovic said. “The power of outsiders in modern political life, whether we agree with them or disagree with them, is growing.”

Technology, particularly social media, has made organising protests and resistance in many ways easier. Popovic’s book and organisation — the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) aims to share them around the world.

“Fifteen years ago if you wanted to organise a rally, you need it posters, leaflets, radio commercials, knocking on doors and a large organisation,” said Popovic, one of the leaders of the largely peaceful revolution that toppled Serb president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. “Now I can make a Facebook group and everyone will know.”

“(There is) the phenomenon you call citizen journalism. Even in the most off-line places like Yemen, you can see people demonstrating and they are videotaping it on their cameras. So you can make sure that any type of state/police brutality can be seen by the world.”

“The last and most important events is that new media brings the power of horizontal learning… there was a girl who made a viral video called “what’s wrong with Venezuelan in a nutshell”… now somebody sees it in Ukraine. The way we can learn from this… is something we are really exploring now.”

But, he said, such technologies also bring with risk. Campaigns — such as the Kony 2012 effort to encourage US and its allies to track down the leader of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army — can bloom quickly but also lose traction.

“Every coin has two sides. I’m thrilled about making things fast and cheap but I would say “clicktivism” is a real problem… The fact that you are “lighting” the page to save the polar bears does not necessarily mean that you have saved the polar bears.”

Social media can also be used as a tool for regimes to trace and control dissidents.

“The first thing any government will do is track your Facebook password so now it can be used to know your friends into a trap.”

Up to 2010, nonviolent revolution had a higher success rate in changing regimes and leading to democracy than violent movements. The 2011 revolts over the “Arab Spring” appeared to illustrate something similar. But in recent years there has been considerable push back. The Green Movement in Iran failed in 2007. In Hong Kong in 2014, protesters failed to retain momentum.

“In Bahrain, you probably have a larger proportion of the population than anywhere else in history,” said Goldstone. “Over 10% of the population seems to have been involved on the eighth day of the movements and yet that was suppressed… does the format have to be revamped?”

Autocratic regimes, Popovic said, were adapting fast. He cited Philip Dobson’s DATE book, “The Dictator’s Learning Curve”.

“The first thing they learn is to put a velvet glove on the iron fist. There are more NGOs shut down in oppressive places of the world for not following fire regulations are supposed to be anti-government.”

“Secondly, it’s a propaganda war,” he said, pointing to increased efforts to discredit activist organisations by alleging they are tied to western intelligence agencies, etc.

Maintaining discipline and organisation, Popovic said, was key.

“We think it can start small. And small means small, tangible victories. Things like graffiti, recruiting 10 people, street theatre… They show your commitment, they showed presence. And they teach your people how to do stuff.”

“One single Molotov cocktail will completely destroy the reputation of them. Plus it will give fuel to your enemy to respond very actively and nastily.”

Humour was also a powerful weapon, he said. He cited the example of a 2012 protest in a Siberian town against election fraud that saw protesters put out hundreds of small Lego characters waving signs saying things like “106% for Putin”. The authorities ordered it banned.

“It was effective because someone is putting the opponent in a losing situation,” he said. “If they let the toys protest, everyone will see (it) but if you ban it, you are afraid of toys… humour breaks fear.”

From the Arab Spring to Occupy, in 2011 in particular took to the streets and governments quailed. By 2014, however, many of those movements have faltered. “A good year for bad people,” Goldstone said, pointing to events in Ukraine, the Middle East and elsewhere. Popovic called it “the year of bad hangovers”

“There are many different reasons why movements fail,” said Popovic.

“If you play video games, you understand that they are made of levels. When Mubarak is down you don’t claim “game over”. You know that more nasty people are coming in a nastier spaceship that they will throw more bombs at you.”

“The second thing is losing unity too early… Part of the reason Syria failed is that the Sunnis could bring the Christians onto their site to oppose Assad. Look at Ukraine. Great victory in the Orange Revolution and then (opposition leaders) Tymoshenko and Yushenko stop fighting from the moment they start sharing office and it all falls apart.”

Popovic cited the example of Occupy as a movement but failed to capitalise on its potential. It became committee said, far too broad, too keen to be all things to all people and never really worked out what it wanted.

“The enthusiasm is great, the topic of social inequality is the most important topic of the 21st century,” he said. “What’s problematic with Occupy is they… adopted this “we need to build a consensus around everything every time”. That’s death for an organisation.”

One of the most important things when Popovic said, was to ensure there was a roughly shared view of the future a movement wanted.

The discussion was fast moving, light-hearted and well received.

“Very hard to make Serbs serious,” said Popovic.”You tried bombing our country and it didn’t work.”

“One can learn a lot from scholars and academics about nonviolent resistance but there is absolutely no substitute for the wisdom and inspiration of those who have done it,” said Goldstone.

“This was a talk that I wish had gone out to a thousand or ten thousand people, Thanks to the Project for Study of the 21st Century for organizing this and keep your eye out for more such events, it’s gonna be a fun ride.”

View a transcript of the discussion here: Leaderless Revolutions transcript.

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PS21 Global Fellow battles Ebola in Sierra Leone

A Freetown street
A Freetown street

Felicity Fitzgerald, a British paediatrician working with the charity Save the Children, has recently returned to Sierra Leone for the fight against the Ebola virus outbreak.

In this piece for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, she finds herself splitting her time between research and patient care.
I’m going to be splitting my time between paediatric clinical work and some desperately needed research. At the peak of the epidemic, all I could think about was changing sheets, cleaning floors, moving patients in and out of the isolation unit and trying to give pain relief and dioralytes to our patients. Data gathering came a long way down the priority list.

This is an upsetting reality of outbreak work. When facilities are filled to the brim with needy patients, making detailed notes about what is actually happening to those patients is a rare luxury.

However if we don’t gather data we will remain in the same evidence vacuum that confronted us with this epidemic…

Epidemiologists and clinicians alike are slightly slack-jawed at the drop-off.

The most logical explanation is that sufficient community mobilization (no touching, safe burials, take sick people to hospital and DON’T look after them at home) occurred at a point when we finally achieved sufficient bed and laboratory capacity. That meant we could rapidly move patients out of the community and into Ebola Treatment Centres.

But it didn’t really feel like that. It felt like one week we were full every day with queues of people needing to be admitted, and the next we had empty beds.

You can donate to support Save the Children’s work in Sierra Leone here.

EBook: Before Ebola: Dispatches from a Deadly Outbreak

Published in October 2014, “Before Ebola” was the first of what should be be a series of 10-30,000 word Kindles Singles to be published with Some will be — like this — powerful personal narratives on major issues and trends. Others will be reportage and analysis. All well, my first, aim to tell some of the greatest and most important stories of the 21st century in readable and accessible ways.

Content people read. Discussions they remember…

The haunting firsthand account of the deadliest Marburg outbreak in history. The year is 2005. A highly infectious, unidentified Ebola-like virus is sweeping through the slums and villages of northern Angola. Within months, more than 200 people have died, medical services have collapsed and aid workers are on the brink of exhaustion. At 23, Peter Apps was just starting out as a foreign correspondent when Reuters sent him into the heart of the outbreak to get the story. In “Before Ebola: Dispatches from a Deadly Outbreak” Apps recalls in vivid, unflinching detail the horrors of life in a hot zone, the compassion of those trying to contain it, and how a terrified young journalist came of age in a time of almost unbearable crisis.

Peter Apps is a global defense correspondent for Reuters news, currently dividing his time between London and Washington, D.C. In September 2006, Apps broke his neck in a minibus crash while covering the Sri Lankan civil war, leaving him largely paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Cover design by Kristen Radtke.