It is so 2011 to talk about social networks' role in fomenting unrest. Perhaps that is why few people noticed an April 2013 blog post by British academic Richard Heeks, who is director of the University of Manchester's Center for Development Informatics. In that post, Heeks predicted the Ukrainian revolution.
A e-government expert, Heeks devised his "Revolution 2.0" index as a toy or a learning tool. The index combines three elements: Freedom House's Freedom on the Net scores, the International Telecommunication Union's information and communication technology development index, and the Economist's Democracy Index (reversed into an "Outrage Index" so that higher scores mean more autocracy). The first component measures the degree of Internet freedom in a country, the second shows how widely Internet technology is used, and the third supplies the level of oppression.
"There are significant national differences in both the drivers to mass political protest and the ability of such protest movements to freely organize themselves online," Heeks wrote. "Both of these combine to give us some sense of how likely 'mass protest movements of the internet age' are to form in any given country."
Simply put, that means countries with little real-world democracy and a lot of online freedom stand the biggest chance of a Revolution 2.0. In April 2013, Ukraine topped Heeks's list, closely followed by Argentina and Georgia. The Philippines, Brazil, Russia, Kenya, Nigeria, Azerbaijan and Jordan filled out the top 10.
The index's forecasting record is far from perfect. Thailand, which erupted at the same time as Ukraine, is low on the list. Still, I would ascribe much of the imprecision to the data, not to the concept. The component indexes Heeks used were all from 2011 and 2012. That would explain Georgia's place in the top three: In 2012, that country underwent a major transition tantamount to a peaceful revolution, with billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili stripping radical reformist Mikhail Saakashvili of power.
The academic world moves slowly, and only Freedom House has since changed its estimates of Internet freedom. Today's index would look similar to the original one, only with Georgia at the top. Argentina, with its desperate economic situation and high degree of Internet freedom, is still a country to watch. Kenya, Nigeria and the Philippines are less likely candidates, but then Ukraine did not look like one a year ago.
Journalists reporting on the Ukrainian protests, focused on real-world action: rallies and marches, barricade-building, street fighting, volunteer activity in the protesters' camp in Kiev's central square. Unlike during the Arab uprisings of three years ago, they paid too little attention to the role social networks played in organizing movements and supplies. At times, the #Euromaidan Twitter hashtag provided better information about what was going on than any professional media. Every time the protesters ran out of something or needed something new -- a particular staple or piece of equipment -- a call went out on Facebook, and the required items magically appeared. The system still works. Investigative reporter Oleksandr Akymenko told me that, after ousted president Viktor Yanukovych fled his residence near Kiev, having dumped some paperwork in the river next to his palace, journalists who fished out the documents had only to ask -- industrial scanners and special heat cannons used to dry water-damaged books were immediately delivered by volunteers.
Indeed, the Internet might have been a more important driver of the Ukrainian revolution than the country's relative poverty. Heeks's method effectively discounts economic motivations for revolt. If people are fed up with what they perceive as a lack of regard for their opinions and are able to organize online, that is enough to produce a revolution. This means that oppressive regimes in relatively wealthy countries like Russia, whose per capita gross domestic product is three times that of Ukraine, should not be complacent. Indeed, Russia's eighth place on Heeks's list of 39 countries suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin should worry that he could repeat the fate of Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych, even if his position seems secure now.
The cynical conclusion is that a dictator must clamp down on the Internet to hold on to power. Putin is doing that: His obedient parliament is gradually taking away bits of freedom, requiring Internet providers to hand over increasing amounts of information about users and to block sites the government finds objectionable. In 2013, Russia's Freedom House ranking dropped 10 notches, and this year it will probably decline further. Turkey, too, has recently moved to allow telecoms to block sites without court orders, sparking protests which police have so far managed to put down with tear gas and water cannons. For Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, control of the Web is of paramount importance as he faces challenges from inside the nation's ruling elite.
As milder authoritarian rulers such as Putin and Erdogan realize that Cuban, Iranian, Chinese and central Asian regimes were right all along in tightly controlling the Internet for their own safety, the only way for activists to keep organizing online is to perfect technology that circumvents government curbs.The Tor anonymity network, for example, allows Russians to view blocked sites. The quest for Internet freedom will turn into an arms race in which the authorities do not necessarily have the upper hand.
(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @Bershidsky.)
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