You know that there's something seriously awry when a Minneapolis murder case resonates in Lexington, Knoxville, and all points between and otherwise extending out from the Twin Cities. I won't be writing about the disgustingness of otherwise constitutionally sanctioned gatherings of public that become perverted and then devolve into theft, destruction, and looting.
I do want to explain about how technology can be a cause of, and a solution to, the protests we've seen throughout local news and national feeds. One such outlet I saw online was tagging the ugly video of violent "protest"--okay, I can't get myself over the fact that I just know that many caught on video pilfering have no concern about George Floyd--with the teaser, "Our Arab Spring." You will recall the 2010-2011 phenomenon, the Arab Spring, when in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, and most notably Egypt, protesters reached their limits of oppressive governmental regimes. They took to the streets, caused violence, endured the same, and ultimately caused civil war with mixed outcomes still being debated today.
In today's story we've not yet come to such outrageous ends partially because we don't have the same level of government oppression as did the Arab cultures. The protesters of today are not seeking revolution on the same scale that the Arab Spring implicated. The violence, thus far, is minimal in comparison as well. There are, however, a number of common factors that the indelicate headline made me realize. In the modern era, technology's influence on civil unrest will never be unraveled from it.
In 2010, technology was one of the few democratic tools of protest that those in North Africa and the Middle East were privy to. I've enjoyed students in my own classrooms who were part of the Arab Spring. They would tell you that social media, such as Twitter and Facebook then, were invaluable to the cause. Governmental surveillance of more traditional channels of communication, and similar tactics meant to disrupt organization, were anathema to an effective uprising. Thus, the generation that was at the heart of the Arab Spring was well adapted to technologies, their capabilities, and their reconfigurations. They knew about tech and they were set on leveraging that knowledge against their oppressors who, generally, could not intuitively get up to speed in time to use technology to defend against itself. In other words, the mother of invention being necessity, and the necessity to organize on the sly being part of creating a groundswell of protest, of course the Arab Spring movement looked to social media to communicate.
So, too, are today's American protesters, looters, and, more than in 2010, even police forces turning to technologies to organize. From Dayton to Atlanta, from New York City to Los Angeles, all sides of this tension are online trying to gather intelligence, garner sympathy, eventually raise their position in the debate; or, capitalize their stealing during the debate. There's graffiti a-plenty on the streets, and online the messaging is no less desperate, yet much more informative. You must understand that without the social media channels there's a chance that Kentuckians may only now be learning about George Floyd.
This tool, like any other, can be used effectively as it was meant to or it can be used maliciously and with intent never envisioned by Zuckerberg or Dorsey, leaders of some of the tools being drawn throughout this heinous American event. Used effectively, concerned citizens can memorialize instances of police brutality. They can share their evidence with the masses. They can plan for peaceful marches. They can craft speeches and opinion pieces. Used maliciously, criminals can identify the most vulnerable malls, stores, and neighborhoods. They can levy online attacks, a tactic that created the word, "hacktivist," that will disrupt services or communications. One of the poster-boys of hacktivist groups, Anonymous (think, Guy Fawkes masked hackers), was well ensconced in the Arab Spring events and caused considerable digital damage. Over the weekend, Anonymous hackers posted a video threatening to expose the many crimes of the Minneapolis P.D. Later, the MPD's website was taken offline, and not as a defensive move by the state's government.
There are too many layers to the onion that is social media as a protest tool, and atop those confounding factors right now we have a newfound feud between the Silicon Valley success stories that are Twitter, Facebook, and others and the highest office of American politics. Let's just say that when the dust settles, and with a never-to-be-clear set of complicated motivators, from censoring messages to facilitating violence, social media is bound to go through some regulatory changes.
Technology isn't only part of what's caused these protests. It also could be part of the solutions, or at least the resolution of this one, or set of them to be more accurate. Here, I'm invoking the power of facial recognition. Now, back to the Middle East, facial recognition was not quite as sophisticated or reliable as it is today. There was, then, excellent facial recognition technologies, as I worked tangentially with some myself. The governments abroad who sought to use it against the protesters used inferior versions. Crowd photos were taken, and then names were derived. Today, in America, this can help even more. But, caution must be exercised. We cannot devolve, constitutionally, to using FR to pinpoint legal protesters. We can, however, use it as law enforcement regularly does. We can take the countless video hours of looting, pillaging, thieving actors, who are not protesting shinola, and start to investigate and prosecute.
Whether you think that technology belongs in a protest narrative doesn't really matter any longer. They go hand-in-hand. The next days, weeks, even years of testing their abilities to contribute to civil unrest, not to promote the worst of it, will tell a great deal about us and our current crises.
Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.