While we are on the topic of social media and political/developmental discourse, I just read this NYT op-ed by Rami G. Khouri. Khouri makes a case for a valid point: the rift between U.S. policy on democratization in the Middle East when it comes to policies aimed at empowering young activist groups – especially and specifically with social media and technology – on one hand, and implicit or explicit American support for the the totalitarian/oligarchical/repressive regimes in question (for “strategic” reasons) on the other hand. Khouri argues that…
One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.
Khouri talks of the unfortunate reality of the double standards in U.S. foreign policy aimed at “democratization” , but here is my problem with the rest of Khouri’s argument. He goes on to say that…
Blogging, reading politically racy Web sites, or passing around provocative text messages by cellphone is equally satisfying for many youth. Such activities, though, essentially shift the individual from the realm of participant to the realm of spectator, and transform what would otherwise be an act of political activism — mobilizing, demonstrating or voting — into an act of passive, harmless personal entertainment.
We must face the fact that all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.
What Khouri is saying is that all of this social media hustle and bustle is nothing but a collective stress purge, a form of digital catharsis if you will, that has – according to him – zero impact on the the possibilities and trajectories of potential change of the societies where such new form of social discourse takes place.
I find this claim to be largely flawed. While it is true that social media does provide a purgative outlet for the oppressed, the net effects of the availability and use of such outlet is not devoid of “real” activism that could potentially bring about, or at least be part of, tangible change.
Do we have evidence of this counter-argument? Here is some.
The “April 6 Youth Movement” in Egypt and the Green Revolution of the 2009-2010 Iranian election protests are two prime examples of political activism movements that heavily relied on social media to mobilize, publicize and organize almost all aspects of their activities. Did “tangible change” come about as a result of these social media-fueled movements? Depends on how you define “tangible change”, but my answer would be yes. Khouri’s definition of change seems to be about the immediate form of it, that of traditional coups and revolutions, and in assuming this to be his definition, it is not difficult to see why he is disappointed.
Technology-driven activism is not necessarily about short-term, abrupt change (which, histrionically, has been seen to do more harm than good), but rather about the incremental form of change. It is about the dissemination of ideas and the stirring active and inclusive societal dialogue about the requisite form of change and the means by which it should be brought about. Khouri completely misses this point when he writes:
Such activities, though, essentially shift the individual from the realm of participant to the realm of spectator, and transform what would otherwise be an act of political activism — mobilizing, demonstrating or voting — into an act of passive, harmless personal entertainment.
Which is funny, because Khouri likens the advent and usage of social media to that of one the most passive forms of media: T.V.
My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by Al Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s — they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change.
Comparing ubiquitous weblogging, Facebook, Twitter, citizen journalism, cell phones and other forms of social media to what was once considered a dissenting Arabic T.V. news channel is misleading, to say the least. Where is the “social” on T.V.? To objectively judge the net effect of social media on societal and political change, it is important to understand that social media is not a tool for direct political confrontation or dissidence as it is one for putting coherence into the collective social consciousness, community building and self-expression. Could we really discount this utility as having “zero effect” on social change?