Aug 17, 2011

Connecting the dots

Use of social media acted as a catalyst and an effective tool of communication in countries where formal media faced restrictions

By Ahmad Nazir Warraich

On 17th December, a young man doused himself with fuel in front of a police office in Tunis and set himself on fire. This self immolation was triggered by police high-handedness. This single act of ultimate defiance and protest set ablaze a revolution that ended in the removal of the Tunisian government. But it proved only to be a first step, the fire leaped across the region to Egypt, and Libya, and beyond, on to Bahrain, Syria, Jordan and many other Arab states, with varying degrees of intensity and results.

In recent history, the Arab World is not known for its progress in the field of human rights, democracy, and freedom of press and independence of judiciary. In many cases their last acts for achievement of civil rights were getting rid of the yolk of the coloniser. Across the region, people had no voice as there was no forum for open discussion. Arab states suffered from repressive, non-representative regimes, lack of a free media and independent judiciary. Resultantly, the Arab political scene had become stagnant, which perhaps explains why the region has been set alight like a tinderbox.

The communication revolution of the last century has converted the world into a global village where ideas, cults, and political philosophies have global reach. So the common Arab knows that there are vast parts of the world, with fully functional democracies, free press and independent judiciary. As a proud people, with a glorious history, they yearned for the same.

The reality on the ground was, of course, different. For example, an indication of the state of press freedom in these countries can be gauged from the press freedom index of Reporters Without Frontiers, 2010, which ranks Egypt, 127th, Libya, 160th, Tunisia 164th and Syria at 173rd in the world. It is because of this state of the press freedom that some of the rebels turned to social media, as a tool to organise themselves because the print and electronic media were under heavy governmental control and censorship.

Protests in these countries have borrowed from the classical twentieth century armour of civil disobedience, by using protests, strikes, demonstrations, marches and rallies, however, the new tactic used here for perhaps the first time in the Arab world, is the use of social media. This was effectively used for organising, awareness creation, and communication, thus bypassing the established communication networks and censorship.

The use of social media acted as a catalyst and an effective tool of communication in countries where the formal media faced restrictions. It also kept the outside world informed about what is happening within and giving an alternative view to that postulated by incumbent governments.

Social media has the advantage of being able to bring together otherwise remote and disparate groups. Second, by bypassing the state controls they can tell their own people and the outside world of what is going on. The various digital tools used by the revolutionaries have included videos, blogs, face book, mobile messaging etc.

A video provides immediacy and involves the viewer. It is also low-cost and easy. Blogs are very effective, and at the same time easy to develop. They also help create an environment of trust. E-mails are very easy to share with the increasing reach of internet and computer and mobile facilities.

Social media has, thus, advantages that have made them useful in these revolts of the people. They are cheap, easily accessible, and allow even private individuals to share information. It has the advantages of reach; which is potentially global, accessibility; people can start them with little expense, anybody can use them with the minimum of skill and training. It has the advantage of immediacy; there is no time lag, the moment you send, it is received, if it is a blog, the moment you post something, anybody who connects, can read it, if it is a video on YouTube, all you have to do is record on any device, post on YouTube, and the intended recipient can access it.

In the words of one Egyptian activist, “We use Face book to schedule protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” In the world of Omid Memarian, an Iranian journalist and blogger, “I think it is becoming more and more difficult for the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East to dominate their narrative of events. They cannot be any more the only source of news and legitimacy.” In Tunisia, the social media was used to keep the outside world updated about events in the country. In Syria, where foreign media is tightly controlled both with regard to entry and movement it is videos posted on YouTube and other such social media, which is keeping the outside world informed about events.

However, no one is of the opinion that social media in itself caused the revolution. It is a tool, no matter how important. The people of these countries were fed up for a variety of reasons, but the use of social media provided the ability to revolutionaries to circumvent the classical governmental strategy of keeping people separate and isolated, and therein lies the usefulness of the social media to this Arab Rising.

It’s a lot easier to get together a critical mass of people because there’s been an increase in the number of people on Facebook and Twitter and mobile phones. The role of social media is accepted by most people, including by Barack Obama in his recent Middle East Policy speech. However, there is some debate as to the exact role of the social media in these ongoing revolts, whether the revolts would have still happened or would they have happened later in time, is another question, and can never be authoritatively answered.

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