The Guardian has a bracing story about multimillion-dollar research projects commissioned by the Department of Defense to study civil unrest, viral activism, and models "of the dynamics of social movement mobilisation and contagions."
What counts as social "contagions"? If you're an activist, or if you're seriously interested in political and economic change (especially if you use Twitter), that means you:
The project will determine "the critical mass (tipping point)" of social contagions by studying their "digital traces" in the cases of "the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the 2011 Russian Duma elections, the 2012 Nigerian fuel subsidy crisis and the 2013 Gezi park protests in Turkey."
Twitter posts and conversations will be examined "to identify individuals mobilised in a social contagion and when they become mobilised."
Another project awarded this year to the University of Washington "seeks to uncover the conditions under which political movements aimed at large-scale political and economic change originate," along with their "characteristics and consequences." The project, managed by the US Army Research Office, focuses on "large-scale movements involving more than 1,000 participants in enduring activity," and will cover 58 countries in total.
So their definition of "social contagions" includes popular democratic movements upset at dictators, plutocrats, wealth inequality, fraud, corruption, and collusion between governments and business interests. Or, as Ahmed put it in a follow-up story: "Several key research projects highlighted the extent to which US security agencies, assisted by civilian academic institutions, view entire populations – particularly those involved in political activism – as potential terror suspects who, therefore, deserve to be carefully monitored and studied."
Targeting activists isn't limited to the US, of course. Ahmed also details research in the UK that is...
... explicitly designed to "help governments, businesses and societies to better predict, detect, prevent and mitigate threats to society" in the context of" environmental change and diminishing natural recourses, food security, demographic change, poverty, inequality and poor governance, new and old conflicts, natural disasters and pandemics, expansion of digital technologies, economic downturn and other important global developments."
I wonder how much public money is being spent on how to solve those problems vs. how much is being spent on hobbling public response to them.
Of course, any security agency staring down the barrel of ecological, economic, and political catastrophe wants to think about what will happen when those collapses occur. But it's a refreshing burst of clarity to learn that the Department of Defense does, after all, view nonviolent activists (or any "political movements aimed at large-scale political and economic change") as a form of contagion that needs to be monitored and contained.
It also confirms longstanding suspicions that incidents like the Towery case—in which the US Army hired spies to infiltrate and disrupt anti-war activists in Olympia and Tacoma—aren't isolated.
Ahmed's articles reminded me of a letter from Continental Congressman Gouverneur Morris* to John Penn about a scene he saw in 1774, as "the mobility" (that is, the common mob) began to debate what their new government should look like:
These sheep, simple as they are, cannot be gulled as heretofore. In short, there is no ruling them; and now, to leave the metaphor, the heads of the mobility grow dangerous to the gentry, and how to keep them down is the question.
Morris, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Dr. Benjamin Rush—elites squinting at popular democratic movements, and democracy itself, as a form of social disease has a long and distinguished history.
*Fun fact: Morris "died on November 6, 1816 after causing himself internal injuries while using a piece of whale bone to attempt clearing a blockage in his urinary tract."