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When governments know less than their citizens

“Obama said to fault spy agencies’ Mid-East forecasting” was the wonderfully passive-voiced headline from the New York Times on the weekend.  The President, and members of Congress, had wanted to know why the United States’s $80b-plus intelligence agencies had failed to anticipate the fall of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali or how fast demonstrations would spread to Egypt.

A bit harsh, perhaps – after all, it’s not like they failed to anticipate the collapse of communism or anything.

Perhaps the State Department might like to try Twitter and Facebook. Well, OK, it uses them already, but mainly for the purposes of issuing press releases. Paying attention to what people were saying on hashtags like #sidibouzid, or the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, might have alerted them that something was going on.

Instead the Administration is busily backgrounding its court reporters, the NYT and Washington Post, about how active it is being – dropping that it was trying to get Mubarak to resign on the NYT last week; subtly suggesting to the Post it had saved lives by demanding an end to the violence initiated by Mubarak and his thugs on Wednesday night.

As the Post article suggests, though, the sense that the Americans can’t keep up is palpable. If Hillary Clinton was actually permitted to believe by her department that everything was fine in Egypt on Friday, then she’s been badly let down by Foggy Bottom.

But Washington wasn’t the only capital where questions are being asked. The Israeli Parliament has called an inquiry into the failure to anticipate events in Egypt. There are stories in the European commentariat about why the British, French and German governments failed to anticipate the speed with which demands for greater freedom and economic opportunity would snowball into a threat to some of the West’s most well-regarded dictatorships.

The French Government of course is still getting over its disastrous handling of the Tunisia revolution, having backed Ben Ali virtually to the moment his plane arrived in Paris in a futile quest for sanctuary.

The Western media have been a little ahead of their governments, but not by much. Forget Tunisia – that was almost entirely ignored. But Egypt elicited much more interest, particularly from US media. And as the Mubarak regime ramped its attacks on journalists, that became the focus of much Western media coverage. The much-maligned Al Jazeera – which, lest we forget, the Bush Administration treated as a military target – was the only serious source of broadcast coverage. The only real way to follow events on the ground was to watch Al Jazeera and follow the hashtags, even if you might end up clicking on THAT photo.

Online was also the only way to actually assist protesters if you weren’t in Egypt. Western governments have hemmed and hawed, called for “restraint” and rushed to get their own citizens out. The Obama Administration wouldn’t copy the French and German governments and stop military assistance in order to increase pressure. Indeed, American policy now seems to be to install the torturer and murderer Omar Suleiman as a replacement for Mubarak — as Israel wants — doubtless in the hope that he’ll provide the sort of pro-Israeli, anti-fundamentalist bulwark that Mubarak has been.

In the face of recalcitrance on the part of Western governments, you could provide some small assistance, running a Tor bridge, or faxing documents to numbers distributed online, or distributing links for anonymisation tools, or info on dial-up internet connections to circumvent Mubarak’s internet shutdown.

The asymmetry of political information seems, if only temporarily, to have broken down. Much has been made of how little of what has been revealed by the WikiLeaks cables is genuinely new. It’s a furphy because there is a long list of significant revelations from the material, but it also reflects how information loses its value when it stops being scarce.

The information was initially important enough to be classified, in many cases, Confidential or Secret. Suddenly, openly available, it loses its luster. It looks like the speculations of public servants eager to give the impression they’re well-connected, or reproducing what could be gleaned from the local press. Meantime governments are unable to keep up with events on the ground that are moving at the speed of a hashtag blur.

The media, too, so used to being the gatekeepers of information, find themselves afloat in a social media sea. No correspondent, even one free to move around, could provide the range of information and views available on Twitter. When Al Jazeera – which periodically stopped to read tweets – was more or less forced to shut down its coverage following harassment and attacks by pro-Mubarak thugs, it resorted to a sort of broadcast version of Twitter, phone interviewing protesters in Tahrir Square, including the now – rightly — famous interview with Mona Seif that provided one of the most individually compelling moments of the revolution.

At that point the information gap between governments, mainstream media and citizens had essentially vanished. Indeed, it seems it was possible to be better informed outside government than within.

Meantime the steady drip of WikiLeaks cables continues, albeit no longer via The Guardian and NYT, where attacking Julian Assange now seems more important than informing readers. Governments are scrambling to re-establish the information asymmetry between them and their citizens, but the internet has broken something in Western governments in the last few months, and it is unlikely to ever be fully repaired.

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