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.

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