What is the role of social media, and the Internet generally, in the
current Arab revolutions? Barrels of ink have been spilled over this
question (more than I have read, admittedly) but one could get the
real low-down from a forum I attended
last night at Lesley University.
Two of the presenters–Ethan Zuckerman and Jillian York–are connected
to the Berkman Center at Harvard, just a few blocks down the street,
while the third Suren Moodliar, works with two political advocacy
groups, Massachusetts Global Action and the Majority Agenda Project.
The forum was put together by Open Media Boston.
I came away convinced that Internet sites–Facebook in
particular–were crucial to the spread of the revolutions. In the long
run, a larger role was played by the traditional media (if one can
call Al Jazeera traditional, in the sense that they’re a professional
broadcast organization), but they would never have gotten their hands
on the story of the Tunisian protests had not a cousin of the renowned
Mohamed Bouazizi released videos of protests on Facebook. According to
Zuckerman, this is what set Bouazizi’s horrendous suicide apart from
similar acts of protest that had dotted Tunisia before.
Many worthy questions were raised and debated–and sometimes even
answered–during the two hours we occupied the hall, but one of the
most interesting concerned the most essential political question
facing the Internet: does it favor the grass-roots or the centers of
social control in government and business?
Many take the position extensively written on by Evgeny Morozov, that
the governments and other central powers will use the Internet for
surveillance and control. York underscored the dangers here by
reporting that Syrian officials have arrested protestors and forced
them to give up their passwords on popular social networks. In this
way the government can find out all their contacts and what they’re
saying to them–even use their accounts to post pro-government
propaganda. One can extrapolate from this activity to a possible
future of an Internet panopticon where everything you want to say to
anyone must use the Internet.
York also reported the ironic backfiring (corroborated by an audience
member) of Egypt’s famed Internet shutdown. By the time of the
shutdown, huge numbers of Egyptians were following the protestors in
Tahrir Square, comfortable with learning what was going on from their
photos and postings, perhaps even writing blogs from the comfort of
their homes or cafes. When the Internet went down (mostly–one out of
Egypt’s eight Internet providers refused the order to shut down, and
it was a small local company, not one of the international biggies),
many of the people who wanted to follow events remotely decided to go
to Tahrir Square, just to keep their connection with the historic
events of the day. No wonder Zuckerman spoke of a “dictator’s dilemma”
in deciding how much to censor the Internet.
Other issues included the double-edged sword of U.S. government
support for alternative media, the participation of women in the
revolutions both online and off, the relationship between Internet
penetration and the potential for mass mobilization, and the relative
importance of Internet users–mostly middle-class and educated–among
the much larger and sometimes militant population.
Certainly, non-violent revolutions have occurred prior to widespread
Internet access. Comparisons are often made between the current Arab
events and the fall of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the
Soviet Union–political events heavily intertwined with media
activity, but not much of the Internet kind–and I thought also of the
massive shift in a mostly Internet-free Latin America over the past
thirty years toward democracy, indigenous people’s power, and civil
liberties. Revolutions are messy, and observers can argue about
causes and contributing factors for centuries. When you’re in the
middle of one, you use any tools you can get your hands on.