Saturday, February 19, 2011

Empire: Social Networks Revolution?

The talk about new media/social networking revolutions has been going on for years now, even before Facebook "opened up" or Twitter itself actually came about. Up until the end of 2010 the "skeptics" seemed to be the ones on the winning side of the argument; yet, the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, many argue, finally proved them wrong. But did they?

Here's another episode of Empire, where on February 11 - the day Mubarak stepped down - prominent names from the media world, gathered at Columbia University to discuss the potential and the actual impact of the new/social media on politics and international affairs. The program features Carl Bernstein, Clay Shirky, Amy Goodman, Evgeny Morozov and Emily Bell, and although short, provides for some good discussion.

I think there are many good points made by all the participants in the program. However, I do tend to favor the argument that the current events in North Africa and the Middle East cannot be really called "Social Media Revolutions" (whether they can, at all, be called "successful revolutions" is a matter of contention, itself...). Yes, they were somehow coordinated through and inspired by the network-based structure of the new media; however, just as Morozov points out, many other factors obviously played a much more important role in bringing about the sheer "people power momentum" and actual change.

Certainly, we cannot disregard the invaluable reporting done by some Egyptians on the events on the ground, providing the outside world with moving images, "quotable" tweets, and shocking footage. However, the role of Facebook and Twitter is overrated, and cannot account - for instance - all the other failed "revolutions" that never happened no matter how much the aspiring revolutionaries blogged, tweeted, of facebooked. 

And then, let's not forget the American/W. Europe slant in this angle: provides for a good story, with the "relatable" point of reference for most of the public. Also, just as Goodman pointed out (and I had mentioned a couple of days ago), it seems that the stock values of these "new/social media" companies are the ones gaining from all this hype - the "next big thing"... 

It is important to keep in mind that these new technologies - although quite impressive - cannot provide the panacea for all social ills and foreign policy headaches. And in terms of public diplomacy itself, although such tools can provide an additional and very important component to complement the overall efforts, they cannot - on their own - replace genuine face-to-face efforts to converse, cooperate, and trust...

Yes, these seem to be cheaper, and at a time of "draconian budget cuts" (to quote P.J. Crowley) such measures can seemingly provide impressive alternatives to genuine engagement. However, without an actual change in the circumstances on the ground, political change - especially if it is to be in line with U.S. foreign policy objectives - can in no way be guaranteed, no matter the wishful thinking on this side of the Atlantic.


  1. What I've found interesting is that the best use of new and social media tools in whatever capacity has been only because of the ideas and strategies in adopted by those using them. What often frustrates this is when international donors then come in, including to countries such as Armenia, and effectively monetize and narrow the focus among donor-selected groups.

    They are then no longer tools which may or may not be used by activists, journalists or citizens when appropriate and/or in combination with other traditional methods, but instead get viewed as some kind of miracle solution which will sort out everything, forgetting that they can also be used badly -- and generally are.

    I also think that the donor focused attitude towards these tools, itself a result of the cyber-utopian approach, also creates another problem, especially when the target group is largely made up of NGOs, most of whom could of used these tools if they could ever have come up with any ideas of at all on their own and weren't just guided by receiving $$$ in funding.

    Morozov has also made this point too from his own experience with US assistance programs in the CIS. That is, rather than serve as tools for the promotion of democratization, donor strategy can actually achieve the opposite, or certainly not result in anything much at all. I think we're seeing this in Armenia with the donor-focus on new media, btw, and I'm reminded of one tweet that went out earlier today:

    "If net revolutions already happen w/o US govt support, why do future ones need $25m from State dept?"

    Basically, whatever the tools are, if you're not using them properly and when appropriate depending on the situation, donor assistance in this area isn't going to help anyone. In fact, at its worst, it could also create more problems for activists. Sorry to turn this into a donor issue, but ultimately, when it comes to these movements and social media tools, that's pretty much what the U.S. State Department is doing.

  2. Oh, and btw: I hate this perpetual war of words between the cyber utopians and cyber sceptics. Time for the cyber realists to step forward, methinks... :)

  3. :) I "like" your comments! :)

    Just re-read Shirky's most recent article for class, and I think he puts it all in more or less reasonable form: all these new media just provide the *tools*, but the organization drive - i.e. a "ripe" civil society and a functioning public sphere - should be there for anything to really happen. Otherwise, it's no different from VOA or, even worse, Al Hurra.

  4. Thanks, will check it out. Meanwhile, interesting data re. Facebook penetration rates. In Tunisia it was Tunisia 20.48% and Egypt 6.77%. Therefore, I think it can be concluded that there doesn't seem to be any 'magic figure' or similarity between use and action because the figure for Egypt is very low in comparison.

    Nevertheless, when used correctly along with other methods, tools and strategies it *can* be of use. i.e. did Facebook create the social unrest or did it merely reflect it for those who were connected (and to share information between like-minded people). I think the latter is most likely. Not to belittle the use of such tools as I love 'em, but just sayin...