Saturday, April 2, 2011

More reflections on "social media revolutions"

Since I have nothing better to do on a Friday night, I thought I'll try to catch up on some writing. If I can gather my thoughts, that is (i.e. a disclaimer for yet another chaotic post).

With the MENA region in greater turmoil, it seems like the talk of social media revolutions is no where near its end. Just two days ago CNN had a piece on Syria and "internet freedom" (sic.). Here's an excerpt:

"In the wake of Egypt's "Facebook revolution," which was fueled in part by online social networks, much has been made about the role of technology in encouraging or even creating democracy.
"If you want to liberate a society, just give them the internet," said Wael Ghonim, one of Egypt's tech-savvy revolutionaries.Syria, the latest country in the region to announce reforms in the wake of protests, is a curious test of that theory."

It then goes on to discuss the "apoliticalness" of the new tools and information technologies that are rapidly spreading in the country, leaving it as an "open question" as to where this technology will ultimately lead. In short, you get the picture. A frustrating read, at the very least.

This Thursday, there was another event of interest on the subject: a "Foreign Affairs LIVE" discussion with Clay Shirky and Anne-Marie Slaughter on "Digital Power" and political change. Nothing new. Just interesting to see the two together, discussing the same topic.

Several highlights of note:

- Shirky, reiterating yet again, the importance of looking at the longer-term effects of social media and their significance in developing a viable public sphere. I love how he rejects the phrases "Facebook" and "Twitter revolution." And as much as I disagree with the purely cyber-utopian view, I think it is worth pointing out his emphasis on the fact that these new technologies were merely tools for "synchronizing grievances" and "coordinating actions," and not the reason behind it. 

- Slaughter, continuing on a similar note, expressed appreciation for all those individuals and leaders in the past who had managed to bring about revolutions and "enormous social change" without having access to any technology and media of this sort. (By the way, she included the Founding Fathers and Lenin in her list.) Later, she said that the fundamental idea behind the recent events in North Africa and the Middle East was the basic "pursuit of happiness": an ideology that goes back to the "18th century." (Apparently, if revolutions cannot be appropriated, one can at least make the attempt to appropriate the ideas and aspirations behind them...)

- A good quote from Slaughter: "Technology of oppression has increased dramatically. The technology of liberation has to keep pace. [There is a] need [for] counter-technology." And although she wasn't advocating for the export of new/social media to serve America's foreign interests, she did highlight the importance of Internet freedom and access to information.

- Nonetheless, she also said the following: pretty interesting, given the above claim:
"Diplomacy in the 21st century is not just government-to-government. it’s about government-to-society, government-to-people. And what we did for the past two years was to work on all the different ways we could do that. Without Internet freedom that can’t happen."

So is "Internet Freedom" an American public diplomacy tool - essentially a means through which the American government can communicate with other people? Or, it is a "universal right", in line with the right to freedom of information and expression? Seems she's a little confused, and quite understandably so: it's both (well, add the American people to the equation, too). And yet, talking about it in terms of American foreign policy interests will only add fuel into the burning fire of oppression, defeating the purpose of the democratization efforts.

Image courtesy of Activist News.

- And lastly, I wanted to point out Shirky's discussion of the "dictator's dilemma": the inevitable dilemma facing any dictator who realizes the importance of technological innovation (especially in the technology-driven era), while doesn't want to give up authoritarianism. Slaughter, in turn, pointed out the power of social media and new technologies in demonstrating the "gap between the word and the deed" of any given authoritarian ruler. According to her, people can use these tools to demonstrate this gap to their own compatriots, as well as to the wider international public.

Hence, "modern dictators" seem to be experiencing tremendous challenges to their authority, if they want to maintain viable economies and development, that is. Researching certain aspects of the information and communication policies of the "pre-uprising" Egypt for a class project these weeks, it is indeed interesting to track this very phenomenon there: the Mubarak regime did want technological development and innovation; they did want to attract foreign investment; they even created an entire "Media Production City" and a "Free Media Zone" in Cairo - a media cluster of some sorts - hosting news, media and production companies from all over the region and beyond.

However, that, by itself, wouldn't have brought about a "revolution" (OK, to get the semantics right, let's use "uprising" for now). This technology was effectively - to say yet again - just one of the many components and one of the enabling factors, but not "the one".

Cartoon courtesy of The Fosbury Flop.

Implications for public diplomacy? Spread technology, educate on its use, and help people communicate and connect. Yet, any talk of "foreign policy interests" or mention of direct communication between the American government and foreign publics will only undermine the effort and backfire, giving the local authorities the perfect excuse to clamp down. Most importantly, social media is not a panacea, and most certainly, does not guarantee outcomes that are necessarily favorable to U.S. foreign policy interests - in the short term, at least.

UPDATE [4/2/2011. 7:35 AM]: I was reading one of Dr. Robin Brown's most recent papers on public diplomacy and social networks, and here's a great quote directly relevant to this whole discussion of social media being "the ultimate solution" to all PD-related problems:
"A theory of public diplomacy needs to be comprehensive.   In this type of analysis it is important that the discussion does not become one dimensional, for instance focusing on technology or culture as the key element of the problem without contextualizing them. Public diplomacy is a practical activity that is undertaken by specific organizations in specific circumstances [...]." (pp. 4-5)

Indeed. This, coupled with the need not to ignore the political and historical context, cannot be stressed enough.


On a related note: the OpenNet Initiative recently published an interesting report on the use of Western technologies for censorship in the Middle East in 2010-2011. Obviously, it's not just "freedom" that the West exports to MENA: yet another great illustration of that. Do recommend taking a look!

1 comment:

  1. hi yelena
    this is very interesting

    hasan from iran