Genetically Modified Grassroots Organizations

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= refers to organizations that both have a real mass appeal and grassroots participation but were also assisted by public diplomacy funds and organisations


Jack Z. Bratich:

"Elsewhere I have called this Alliance an example of a “Genetically Modified Grassroots Organization” (GMGO). Neither wholly emerging from below (grassroots) nor purely invented by external forces (the astroturfing done by public relations groups), emergent groups are seeded (and their genetic code altered) to control the vector of the movement. These are hybrids, mutations without clear identities or immediately obvious affinities. They are rather movements whose potentialities are shaped by their conditions of emergence. How are we to make sense of these mutants?

We can begin with an agential cut that distributes these actors. In residual Cold-War logic, the sovereign adversaries like Iran and Egypt are said to have State-run mass media (which needs to be fought via social media). On the other hand, Twitter-usage in Iran as well as Facebook (and Google) in Egypt follow a certain model set out by AYM in terms of tactics and, most importantly, objectives. We can say that the US has State-friended social media. In the case of Egypt, we know that at least one of the April 6 Movement leaders attended the 2008 summit. Moreover, according to WikiLeaked State Department documents, another activist (name redacted) affiliated with the Egyptian revolt also participated in the conference. Regardless of whether this “secret agent” eventually reveals him/herself and the direct links to Egypt’s RYM, we can note the importance of AYM and its tactics (as well as its co-founder).

AYM here acts as a programmer of social media movements. It simulates grassroots by working with elements of it, replicating and disseminating tactics. In the case of Egypt, the Revolutionary Youth Movement demonstrated that (to revise the Arquilla and Ronfeldt mantra) it takes a network to fake a network. A small group embedded among the crowds, hidden at times until representation required revelation, sought to cloak itself in the martyrdom of one and the will of many. The network of emergent leadership needed to take enough credit for its organizing and mobilizing in order to claim legitimacy as representatives while simultaneously negating its actions in “the people.” Ghonim and others manage their publicity and secrecy, strategically donning online disguises while revealing themselves as the faces behind the facebook group. In their final act they transform themselves from technocratic tricksters into “youth.”

Emergent leadership is a logical outcome of a statecraft that for over a decade devoted itself to netwar. Rand Corporation studies of leaderless resistance focused on both state and non-state actors.The Egyptian hybrid is of non-state actor and future state actor, of the not-yet state actors. Yet not too far away are state (department) actors as well as the state-friended media actors comprising the milieu out of which a specific network individuates itself.

The preface to another Rand collection edited by Arquilla and Ronfeldt gives us a way of conceptualizing this individuation. Alvin & Heidi Toffler (1997) introduce the notion of a “deep coalition” comprised of a variety of state and nonstate actors in a multidimensional and nonequilibrial alliance. Tiziana Terranova understands this deep coalition as a dispositif within information warfare, “a model whereby some parts of the media system no longer function as passive outlets for government propaganda but become instead active and equal members of a network of alliance (or deep coalition) that connects heterogeneous partners bound by a temporary commitment to a specific project of warfare” (Terranova 2007 132).

In the recent cases of “social media revolution,” this dispositif encompasses the AYM, but would also include such Federal agencies as the Defense Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors that have been funding technology firms (e.g. the Tor Project—which promotes anonymizing—and Ultrasurf) that provide institutional-technical fixes to users who need to work around State-run blockages and surveillance. The State Department, perhaps following up on the success of AYM, is gearing up to spend approximately $30 million on technology companies and human rights groups to help and train people to avoid online detection and break through firewalls.


In other words, Egypt’s revolt was not leaderless, but contained a hidden emergent leadership whose milieu (unstable and temporary though it was) warrants scrutiny. It means examining initial conditions: the code that unleashes and controls the directions of probable emergences (and even their subsequent selection). Leadership here did not naturally arise from grassroots spontaneous popular will. An individuated network helped set the initial conditions, disappeared within them temporarily, and then made itself known when the time was right. In other words, we witnessed an occult leadership arise based on the skillful use of anonymity and revelation.

The GMGO is a genetic principle that immerses without becoming immanent, a mix of unpredictable elements and shaping factors that seek to set the parameters and selections for composition and state transition. Success is not guaranteed, but the range of virtuals and their likely actualization is guided by an embedded but relatively occulted agency (or in the case of Ghonim, a spectacular secret agency).[vii] Ultimately then we can call Egypt a ‘cyber-revolution’ if we keep in mind the etymological origins in the Greek kyber, meaning to steer or govern.

The Egyptian kybernitiki (or steerers) are an example of what Galloway and Thacker note as the convergence of sovereign and network powers. Is the GMGO a case of total programming? Network sovereignty expresses new modes of control, but doesn’t exhaust the topology of power. The mutant network sovereigns also set the conditions for new forms of antagonism.

GMGO network sovereignty is predicated on asymmetries. For one thing, we have to ask, “who is able to set initial conditions?” Who has the resources and capacities to form such deep coalitions? The hybrids of state and nonstate actors convened by the State Department at the AYM, along with the decentralized flows of tech and financial support produce an accumulation of mechanisms. At the same time, an accumulation of this sort does not exist in isolation—it delineates an antagonism. Network sovereignty, it turns out, individuates itself via the classic distinction between friend and enemy. State-friended media can thrive only upon the repression and dissuasion of other individuations of social media usage. The determination of friendliness immediately encounters a peer hybrid, a “State-enemied” media usage.

Take, for instance, the well-worn story about despotic attempts at blocking or criminalizing net usage. Part of Mubarak’s sovereign abuse (or “stupidity” as Ghonim called it) was to try and stop social media access. Meanwhile, Barack Obama and Congress have been working on a controversial bill that would allow US government takeover of privately owned computer systems under a declared "national cyberemergency" (one not to be reviewed by courts).

How would these takeovers be determined? Maybe we should ask Eliot Madison, part of the Tin Can Comms Collective during the 2009 G20 protests in Pittsburgh, PA. His use of Twitter during the demos (which was tame in comparison with AYM’s own How-To videos) resulted in his being charged with “criminal use of a communication facility, hindering apprehension or prosecution, and possession of instruments of crime.” Or ask members of Anonymous, who were arrested on warrants issued at the same time our collective gaze was on Tahrir Square crowds and Ghonim’s noopolitics." (