Cutting off communications in Egypt

by on January 28, 2011 at 10:43 am in Economics, Political Science | Permalink

Jeff writes:

The government in Egypt is cutting off communications networks, including mobile phones and the Internet.

The decision to get out and protest is a strategic one.  It’s privately costly and it pays off only if there is a critical mass of others who make the same commitment.  It can be very costly if that critical mass doesn’t materialize.

Communications networks affect coordination.  Before committing yourself you can talk to others, check Facebook and Twitter, and try to gauge the momentum of the protest.  These media aggregate private information about the rewards to a protest but its important to remember that this cuts two ways.

If it looks underwhelming you stay home.  And therefore so does everybody who gets similar information as you.  All of you benefit from avoiding protesting when the protest is likely to be unsuccessful.  What’s more, in these cases even the regime benefits enabling from private communication, because the protest loses steam.

Now consider the strategic situation when you lines of communication are cut and you are acting in ignorance of the will of others.  The first observation is that in these cases when the protest would have fizzled, without advance knowledge of this many people will go out and protest.  Many are worse off, including the regime.

The second observation is that even in those cases when protest coordination would have been amplified by private communication, shutting down communication may nevertheless have the same effect, perhaps even a stronger one.  There are two reasons for this. First, the regime’s decision to shut down communications networks is an informed one.  They wouldn’t bother taking such a costly and face-losing move if they didn’t think that a protest was a real threat.  The inference therefore, when you are in your home and you can’t call your friends and the internet is shut down is that the protest has a real chance of being effective.  The signal you get from this act by the regime substitutes for the positive signal you would have gotten had they not acted.

The other reason is that this signal is public.  Everyone knows that everyone knows … that the internet has shut down.  Instead of relying on the noisy private signal that you get from talking to your friends, now you know that everybody is seeing exactly the same thing and are emboldened in exactly the same way.  This removes a lot of the coordination uncertainty and strengthens your resolve to protest.

I would add that today's autocracies hire consultants who advise them on how to best stifle political dissent.  Clumsy errors are less common than in times past.  That increases the likelihood that the Egyptian government sees these protests as very serious indeed.

Ken Rhodes January 28, 2011 at 7:31 am

"The second observation is that even in those cases when protest coordination would have been amplified by private communication, shutting down communication may nevertheless have the same effect, perhaps even a stronger one. … The signal you get from this act by the regime substitutes for the positive signal you would have gotten had they not acted."

In your dreams.

ITRW, you live in a land with a repressive regime, with repressive police, and with a repressive military, you don't make an educated guess at interpreting a "signal." You stay home unless you KNOW you're in a mass movement.

Dan Weber January 28, 2011 at 7:49 am

The problem with meta-thinking is that you can always go one more meta-level.

Surely the government knows that people would think that a communication cut-off would signal problems. However, we all know that the government knows this, and the regime would not act against its own interest, so there must be positive reasons for the government cutting off communications, like knowing that cutting off communications will disrupt the protests.

T January 28, 2011 at 8:04 am

"I would add that today's autocracies hire consultants who advise them on how to best stifle political dissent. Clumsy errors are less common than in times past. That increases the likelihood that the Egyptian government sees these protests as very serious indeed."

Can you please give an example of a consultant or a firm who does that? Thank you.

Jim January 28, 2011 at 8:28 am

I guess we can all feel warm and fuzzy about the fact that Obama has an off-switch for the internet in the USA.

You know, just in case people try to follow Piven's advice.

moron January 28, 2011 at 8:43 am

The rage (and frustration) created from not having internet porn would destroy the government.

Ed January 28, 2011 at 8:51 am

I also was intrigued by the notion that someone could "turn off" the internet. Is there a big switch in a room in Washington that someone can switch, and no more online shopping? It seems important to know how this works.

I also second T's request.

Mass movements can be very effective, but the trick is that it is always a bad idea to joint unless you know its a mass movement. I think that dynamic goes a long way to explaining why a bad government can last a long time, then suddenly its overthrown without having gotten noticeably worse, or a repressive, corrupt, and incompentent regime can get into difficulties in one country while an even more repressive, corrupt, and incompetent regime in a neighboring country survives unscathed.

Rahul January 28, 2011 at 9:26 am

> Can you please give an example of a consultant or a firm who does that? Thank
> you.
>>And does anyone know if they're hiring?

Do they hire on the basis of a Resume? I'd love to read the Resume of a coup-consultant.

moron January 28, 2011 at 9:39 am

The act of cutting off communications in Egypt to stop organised protest, paradoxically acts as a signal to protect though, to the extent it may even act as a better signal than if communications were left alone.

Josh January 28, 2011 at 9:45 am

I'm curious about the negative externalities. This isn't exactly going to make the existing regime any more popular with the millions of Egyptians who use communication networks for things other than organizing protests.

Bill January 28, 2011 at 9:56 am

This is a stupid move.

Communications networks support banks, businesses, food delivery, transport, etc.

Sort of like the government laying seige to itself so that it will later have to surrender to the protesters and open communication lines as the economy grinds to a halt and breadlines form.

Not too bright.

dearieme January 28, 2011 at 10:19 am

They'll just take to floating baskets down the Nile.

alucardi January 28, 2011 at 10:50 am

Of course, cutting off the internet could signal that they will soon begin shooting, but maybe that's precisely the point. If internet and cell phones work, the cost of shooting is higher, because news about innocent protesters killed by the police can fuel public outrage, and this could motivate more people to protest. If the internet is cut off, you know the government is more willing to kill, and therefore remain at home.

But I have a different question. Suppose the cutoff is successful and people do not protest. The economic costs of the cutoff will be huge, so the government will have to restore communications at some point. What will happen when they restore communications? What if people coordinates to protest at the precise moment in which communications are restored? Perhaps the government is betting that public anger will eventually recede. But this will not happen when communications are cutoff, because the economic costs will be huge -thus possibly alienating supporters who prefer order because they see it as more conducive to economic growth. Also, remaining at home without internet will make life more boring and thus might increase the frustration of apolitical citizens.

dirk January 28, 2011 at 11:22 am

idiots on CNBC just suggested that increases in food prices in Egypt are due to QE2

Brian D. January 28, 2011 at 11:57 am

Markets in everything: Regime-change suppression consultants.

Any evidence of this other than the usual state to state (i.e. USSR/Cuba) "best practices of crushing/neutralizing dissent" method?

Andrew January 28, 2011 at 12:07 pm

And now people have to go out to the street to ask their neighbors what is going on.

Andrew January 28, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Better set a meetup now.

Andrew January 28, 2011 at 12:59 pm

"Our network connection is Hosnied."

Allan beatty January 28, 2011 at 3:04 pm

One of the foundational works in the field of regime-change suppression is <a href="http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Coup-dEtat/Edward-N-Luttwak/e/9780674175471/?itm=16&USRI=edward+luttwak"&gt;Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook by Edward Luttwak.

bob January 28, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Imagine what would happen if the internet/cell phones in the USA were shut off. Think of how many teenagers would have so much time on their hands, they would have to find jobs.

Barkley Rosser January 29, 2011 at 11:08 am

Bill,

So, yet again we see reality trumping "economic rationality." Duh.

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