Arab autocrats ignore social media at their peril

If there is one event or series of events or region that has fuelled the debate about the impact on pol­i­cy and pol­i­cy­mak­ing as well as on social move­ments and protest of tech­nol­o­gy in gen­er­al and social media in par­tic­u­lar, it is the Arab revolt that has been sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa since Decem­ber.

Many have dubbed the pop­u­lar revolts in Egypt and Tunisia the Face­book rev­o­lu­tion. Indeed, in Syr­ia social media and mobile tele­pho­ny play a key role in cir­cum­vent­ing news black­outs and cen­sor­ship to get news of the bru­tal crack­down by the gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Bashar al Assad to the out­side world.

Yet, despite the per­cep­tion of many, it is not tech­nol­o­gy that is spark­ing the revolts. No doubt tech­nol­o­gy helps, facil­i­tates and accel­er­ates the speed and breadth of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. New tech­nol­o­gy and social media impact pol­i­tics, social move­ments, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and flow of news. But the ques­tion one has to ask one­self is whether the Arab revolt would have erupt­ed with­out Face­book and I would think that the answer to that ques­tion is a resound­ing yes. To dub the Arab revolt a Face­book rev­o­lu­tion would require revis­it­ing our expla­na­tions and under­stand­ing of past revolts start­ing just over the last cen­tu­ry Rus­sia and mov­ing on to Iran, the Philip­pines and for exam­ple Indone­sia.

To be sure, tech­nol­o­gy plays a role and indeed a very impor­tant role in protest and revolt. In Iran in 1979, it was the cas­sette that helped Aya­tol­lah Khome­i­ni to gain and wield pow­er and inspire mil­lions to over­throw the Shah, at the time one of the most pow­er­ful sym­bols of US influ­ence in the region In the very ini­tial phase of Tunisia in Decem­ber it was the mobile phone video of a young many whose humil­i­a­tion by the regime of Pres­i­dent Zine el Abe­dine Ben Ali per­suad­ed him to set him­self on fire that sparked the protests that led to the president’s down­fall.

Cas­settes and mobile tele­pho­ny are tech­nolo­gies that auto­crats under­stand by and large. Social media, how­ev­er, is in many ways a game chang­er, pri­mar­i­ly because it involves a degree of engage­ment and con­nect­ing with one anoth­er that works in the favour of activists. Activists employ the medi­um at a time that auto­crats have ignored it and failed to under­stand its pow­er.

Social media con­sti­tut­ed and con­sti­tutes a win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty for activists. But even when auto­crats attempt to engage, they are up against peo­ple who under­stand social media and its oppor­tu­ni­ties in ways auto­crats have yet to grasp and struc­tural­ly will find dif­fi­cult if not impos­si­ble to grasp. Social media changes in ways ear­li­er tech­nolo­gies did not the way one has to man­age com­mu­ni­ca­tions and pub­lic affairs, par­tic­u­lar­ly in a cri­sis. That requires a degree of sophis­ti­ca­tion that many but par­tic­u­lar­ly inflex­i­ble, ossi­fied auto­crat­ic gov­ern­ments often find dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble, to mar­shal. In fact, mar­shal­ing that degree of sophis­ti­ca­tion would mean a far more far-reach­ing revi­sion of the way most auto­crats do busi­ness, a skill Arab auto­crats cer­tain­ly have yet to put on dis­play.

Per­haps most frus­trat­ing and most fun­da­men­tal to auto­crats is the fact that the com­bi­na­tion of mobile tele­pho­ny, the Inter­net and social media has ren­dered cen­sor­ship futile. It fun­da­men­tal­ly changes the ground rules of com­mu­ni­ca­tions poli­cies. It turns the shap­ing of the nar­ra­tive into some­thing much more com­plex, in which gov­ern­ments and insti­tu­tions, auto­crat­ic or not have to engage in ways they did not have to in the past. For one com­mu­ni­ca­tion has tru­ly become a two-way street. Shap­ing the nar­ra­tive no longer means con­trol, instead it means engage­ment. And that is an approach that in the best of cir­cum­stances is a dif­fi­cult one. That is cer­tain­ly true for auto­crats, par­tic­u­lar­ly embat­tled ones. It requires a mind shift few auto­crats, cer­tain­ly those that are on the defen­sive, can eas­i­ly make.

Just how dif­fi­cult that process is evi­dent in the prob­lems the West­ern media have had in adjust­ing to tech­no­log­i­cal change. It took the media years to under­stand that for­mat shapes con­tent, that when sev­er­al years ago broad­sheets moved to tabloid for­mats, the nature of the sto­ry changed. Sim­i­lar­ly, sim­ply mov­ing the print edi­tion of news­pa­pers lock, stock and bar­rel on to the Inter­net was not a work­able for­mu­la. It failed to recog­nise changes in terms of inter­ac­tiv­i­ty and the way news is con­sumed and the chang­ing expec­ta­tions the pub­lic empow­ered by new tech­nol­o­gy has of what news organ­i­sa­tions offer.

As a result, gov­ern­ments and insti­tu­tions irre­spec­tive of the polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment they oper­ate in have to rethink the way they approach com­mu­ni­ca­tions. They have to pay greater atten­tion to the way they project them­selves, their poli­cies and the way that they relate to the pub­lic in a new and increas­ing­ly com­plex com­mu­ni­ca­tions land­scape. It also means that, ulti­mate­ly, gov­ern­ments and insti­tu­tions will have to become more atten­tive to pub­lic opin­ion, because whether or not that opin­ion is blocked from being expressed, it is still there.

The world looked to the Arab street in the wake of 9/11 for change that would erad­i­cate the feed­ing ground on which extrem­ism feeds. When the Arab street did not come through, gov­ern­ment offi­cials, ana­lysts and jour­nal­ists wrote the Arab street off. Fact of the mat­ter is, wide­spread dis­con­tent con­tin­ued to sim­mer at the sur­face. One only need­ed to put one’s ear to the ground. If the cur­rent Mid­dle East­ern revolt or series of revolts and its embrace­ment of tech­nol­o­gy teach­es us any­thing, it is that where dis­con­tent exists but can­not be expressed open­ly, it will be expressed else­where in what con­sti­tutes a truer reflec­tion of real­i­ty. It is a real­i­ty enhanced but not sparked by tech­nol­o­gy that one ignores at one’s per­il. Thank you.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

More news and arti­cles can be found on Face­book and Twit­ter.

Fol­low GlobalDefence.net on Face­book and/or on Twit­ter

Team GlobDef

Team GlobDef

Seit 2001 ist GlobalDefence.net im Internet unterwegs, um mit eigenen Analysen, interessanten Kooperationen und umfassenden Informationen für einen spannenden Überblick der Weltlage zu sorgen. GlobalDefenc.net war dabei die erste deutschsprachige Internetseite, die mit dem Schwerpunkt Sicherheitspolitik außerhalb von Hochschulen oder Instituten aufgetreten ist.

Alle Beiträge ansehen von Team GlobDef →