The Power Law of the Digital Pen: Adding Fuel to the Fire of Social Change

By: Andrea Little Limbago

Over five years ago, the Arab Spring demonstrated the power of the digital domain in facilitating political and social change. The role of social media — still relatively nascent globally at that point — dominated the headlines and analyses as the core vehicle for shaping political debates and serving as an organizational mechanism. However, it wasn’t social media itself, but arguably the WikiLeaks revelations that provided the initial trigger. The WikiLeaks release of 1.7 GB of data was among the first manifestations of how a data leak can fuel the fire of social change (for better or worse). Last week’s Panama Papers provided yet another reminder of how the digital domain can foment social and political change. At 260 GB of data, the Panama Papers not only are the world’s largest data leak, but they also reflect the growing intersection of data breaches and social change. Data breaches and leaks have directly and indirectly resulted in the resignation of a world leader (e.g. Iceland Prime Minister Sigmundur Davio Gunnlaugsson), toppled CEOs (e.g., Target), and may potentially contribute to the demise of sports royalty (e.g, Lionel Messi, FIFA President Gianni Infantino). With no clear end in sight to the data revelations, world leaders’ responses are largely differentiated based on regime-type, with the domestic situation driving damage control. With 140 political leaders and over fifty companies referenced in the Panama Papers, this certainly is just the beginning. These initial responses are likely a harbinger of what to expect over the next year as both corporate executives and political leaders prepare their incident response to the leaks.

The Panama Papers are indicative of the growing ease with which vast amounts of digital data can be exfiltrated. In fact, it is plausible that the size of data breaches can be grouped with other social events that follow a power law distribution, such as the magnitude of interstate conflict or terrorist events, as well as the distribution of income or connectivity on the Internet. In each case, the impact of this socio-technical interplay is strongly influenced by the regime type, ranging from authoritarian on one side to solidified democracy on the other, with a wide spectrum in between. The ongoing data breaches and leaks similarly do not exist in a vacuum, which is why we are already witnessing wide scale and differentiated responses to the Panama Papers. For instance, the Chinese government has turned to its go-to and proven approach of Internet censorship to block any reference to the numerous family members of elite officials who are referenced in the Panama Papers. Conversely, Russia’s Vladimir Putin — whose inner circle is implicated in the Panama Papers — predictably calls the revelations nothing more than Western propaganda, and fits into his narrative that “Russia is in a state of information warfare with the West.”

Many former Eastern bloc states are also implicated, but there likely will be vast differences in how well they fare in light of the data leaks. Countries with weak opposition and/or embedded propaganda machines, such as Azerbaijan, will navigate the data revelation storm better than countries already in the midst of a corruption scandal, like Kazakhstan. Ukraine fits into this latter category, as the country’s Prime Minister just resigned amid an extant corruption crisis, which includes the President who is under tighter scrutiny thanks to the Panama Papers. Brazil similarly was already in the middle of a political corruption scandal when the Panama Papers implicated a broad spectrum of Brazil’s political elite. Interestingly, Dilma Rousseff may actually benefit from the leaks, as her main opponent faces much harsher allegations stemming from the Panama Papers than does Rousseff herself. United Kingdom’s David Cameron — already dealing with a chaotic climate instigated by a potential exit from the European Union — is now on the offensive to counter allegations of corruption associated with his father within the Panama Papers. He released his tax returns less than a week after the Panama Papers were revealed, and since then other members of the British political elite have likewise released their tax records.

So what does all of this mean? It’s well past time to consider and prepare for the diverse means that the digital domain can now greatly influence anything from nation-state stability to executive leadership of corporations. Social media is certainly one aspect, but with the growing data breaches and leaks, there will be increasingly reputational impact that can have profound repercussions across the globe. In some cases, this could actually lead to greater transparency and calls for reforms. Conversely, this could prove to be a major challenge for capitalism, especially in democracies that are already experiencing populist movements. Regardless, as long as data growth continues to exceed Moore’s Law, the size of data leaks and breaches is likely to continue to grow, with social, political and economic repercussions across the globe.

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