Monday, February 28, 2011

Social Media and Political Change

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, preceded by a botched uprising in Iran, has ignited a new debate on the power of social media as a tool of political change. The fall of communist regimes in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is being counted among the success stories of the Voice of America (VOA). The fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 and the most recent successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have generated kind of euphoria: authoritarian societies can be impregnated with democratic ideals by exposing their masses to broadcast media messages.
However, Clay Shirky in an interview with Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and his recent article in the Foreign Policy magazine has given an alternative opinion about the role of social media in democratic struggles. He is of the opinion that social media have a helping and coordinating role in public uprising against autocratic or authoritarian regimes.
Social or political change occurs when a vibrant civil society makes use of social media like Twitter, Facebook and blogging to coordinate with each other. This coordination, which takes place at horizontal level, and not broadcasting to a wider public--which is vertical communication--weakens the resolve of the state to use force. That is the reason that "governments are afraid of synchronized groups than informed individuals," Shirky says.
It means that if there is no public sphere with politically "engaged citizens" within the country, mass media with contents produced in a foreign land cannot bring a political change. This brings us to the other point of Shirky that tools of horizontal communication like cell (mobile) phones are more important than broadcast media for a revolution to succeed.
Social media, as against broadcast media, allow larger coordination across a wide area which makes them more powerful than the mass media. Uprisings in the Arab world have been augmented, not caused, by the social media. People have grievances--political, economic and social etc--against authoritarian governments. The government is afraid more of coordination among these disenchanted sections of society than a foreign propaganda tool. However, if a broadcast media becomes interactive by engaging the target audience in a dialog with and within a cross section of society, it becomes more effective in helping a movement against the regime.
To channelize pent-up rage of such sections of society, what it all needs is to bond them in a network of other people like them. And here Twitter, Facebook and blogging come in handy and effective. Christopher Dufour, who spoke in our class last week, summed it up succinctly: "There is no Twitter revolution; there is a revolution that uses Twitter." He was equally forthright when he said that if you wanted to influence someone, grow bigger ears to listen to them, which, in my view, is a case against relying only on broadcast media as a tool of public diplomacy.
For a social or political change, the local people are needed to be given a platform to produce their own programs and communicate them with their own people. The so-called Twitter revolution in Iran failed because the contents of communication had been produced outside--in the West--and then sent into Iran. People in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded in overthrowing autocrats because they used the social media for coordination and networking. Al-Jazeera also worked as a networking tool then merely broadcasting anti-Mubarak rhetoric.

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