Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Catching Saddam Hussein in His Own Social Web

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, February 22 2010

Slate's Chris Wilson lays out underreported story of the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, mapped against what Wilson calls "the same theories that underpin Facebook." The implicit lesson is that organization hierarchies aren't always the best representation of how power is constructed in a society, all the more so when the society in question is a tribal one like Iraq's. (Though the same can be true in a less tribal culture, like the U.S. Witness, to pick one example, Andrew Jackson's so-called Kitchen Cabinet, made up of old political friends, a few sympathetic reporters, and a man whom Jackson had picked up along the way and came to treat as his son, even favoring him, in both the White House's business and living quarters, over his own biological child.) In other words, even dictators -- or maybe it's especially dictators -- are part of a vast web of humanity.

Here's Wilson on the Facebook-ish map of connections that helped track down Hussein:

This chart would become a social network diagram of the bad guys in Tikrit. The lines connecting their faces delineated who belonged to which of several influential families, how those families were intertwined by marriage, and who among them connected directly to Saddam Hussein. As Desert Scorpion continued over the next several months, the diagrams ballooned into sprawling networks. They showed no explicit hierarchy since none existed. Unlike in a traditional organizational chart, The Butcher of Baghdad was not at the top of this diagram. He was at the center, a yellow dot labeled "Saddam Hussein."

Maybe it's just this old anthropology major talking, there's a great deal of plain ol' ethnography at work here. From colonial Africa to modern Iraq, military powers and conquering forces have mapped out the social entanglements of the leaders and influencers in the lands of their engagement. (That, though, has gotten the U.S. Army and participating anthropologists caught up in some controversy over whether social science is impermissibly corrupted when it's used to assert control over the targeted population. Somewhat paradoxically, those arguments seem less two-sided when social mapping can help soldiers hunt down somewhat like Saddam Hussein. But I digress.)

Wilson's series is a five-parter, with the four remaining installments to come.

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

First POST: Transparency Matters

A return to pre-Watergate days?; Jeb Bush has already, apparently, forgotten about "transparency matters"; ghostwriting for government agencies; X-Lab going independent; and much, much more. GO

tuesday >

First POST: Waking Up

Hillary Clinton's deleted emails might not be as gone as she thinks; people making decisions about encryption know nothing about encryption; Meerkat is dead (already); finding out that Facebook filters the newsfeed is, to some like waking up in the Matrix; and much, much more. GO

monday >

First POST: Clueless

Why boycotting Indiana isn't the greatest idea; but people and companies are still doing it anyway; "Flak for Slack chaps in yak app hack flap"; and much, much more. GO

friday >

First POST: Net Effects

Ballooning digital campaign teams; early registration deadlines kept millions of people from voting in 2012; love letters to Obamacare; and much, much more. GO

thursday >

First POST: Data-Driven

Get to know Clinton's digital team even better; Ted Cruz election announcement-related fundraising offers peak into the coming data-driven campaign arms race; New York City launches online community engagement pilot program called IdeaScale; and much, much more. GO

More