The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Social Media

As events in Egypt turn ugly (a predictable outcome that was obvious to all but the most naïve onlookers), commentatators within the American main stream media seem shocked that the young, urban, mostly liberal Egyptians who used Facebook and Twitter to organize their protests would be drawn into violent confrontations on the street. In fact, the MSM seems more interested in vacuous discussion of the “impact” of social media than they are with the underlying issues and the real players who are vying for power in a now chaotic Egypt.

Marko Papic and Sean Noonan of STRATFOR provide an excellent analysis of the benefits and limitations of social media in a revolutionary environment. Unlike the wide-eyed blather that comes out of NBC or CNN, Papic and Noonan’s detailed analysis provides insight. They write:
The role of social media in protests and revolutions has garnered considerable media attention in recent years. Current conventional wisdom has it that social networks have made regime change easier to organize and execute. An underlying assumption is that social media is making it more difficult to sustain an authoritarian regime — even for hardened autocracies like Iran and Myanmar — which could usher in a new wave of democratization around the globe. In a Jan. 27 YouTube interview, U.S. President Barack Obama went as far as to compare social networking to universal liberties such as freedom of speech.

Social media alone, however, do not instigate revolutions. They are no more responsible for the recent unrest in Tunisia and Egypt than cassette-tape recordings of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini speeches were responsible for the 1979 revolution in Iran. Social media are tools that allow revolutionary groups to lower the costs of participation, organization, recruitment and training. But like any tool, social media have inherent weaknesses and strengths, and their effectiveness depends on how effectively leaders use them and how accessible they are to people who know how to use them.

Most Middle eastern countries access to the Internet is limited to a small percentage of the population—mostly young, educated, urban and relatively well-off. In Egypt, for example, less than 16 percent of the population has Internet access. The authors comment:
Eventually, a successful revolutionary movement has to appeal to the middle class, the working class, retirees and rural segments of the population, groups that are unlikely to have Internet access in most developing countries. Otherwise, a movement could quickly find itself unable to control the revolutionary forces it unleashed or being accused by the regime of being an unrepresentative fringe movement. This may have been the same problem that Iranian protestors experienced in 2009.

The conditions that lead to street protests have little to do with social media. In fact, Papic and Noonan write:
Shutting down the Internet did not reduce the numbers of Egyptian protesters in the streets. In fact, the protests only grew bigger as websites were shut down and the Internet was turned off. If the right conditions exist a revolution can occur, and social media do not seem to change that. Just because an Internet-based group exists does not make it popular or a threat. There are Facebook groups, YouTube videos and Twitter posts about everything, but that does not make them popular. A neo-Nazi skinhead posting from his mother’s basement in Illinois is not going to start a revolution in the United States, no matter how many Internet posts he makes or what he says. The climate must be ripe for revolution, due to problems like inflation, deflation, food shortages, corruption and oppression, and the population must be motivated to mobilize. Representing a new medium with dangers as well as benefits, social media do not create protest movements; they only allow members of such movements to communicate more easily.

So why are Western MSM outlets so focused on social media within the context of the Egyption revolution? To be frank, it allows them to be lazy, to observe the evolution of events in real time without having boots on the ground. The problem is that using social media as a window into the landscape of a revolution is like understanding the breadth and depth of the Grand Canyon by looking at it through a cardboard toilet paper roll. Papic and Noonan comment:
The popularity of social media, one of many outgrowths of the Internet, may actually be isolated to international media observation from afar. We can now watch protest developments in real time, instead of after all the reports have been filed and printed in the next day’s newspaper or broadcast on the nightly news. Western perceptions are often easily swayed by English-speaking, media-savvy protestors who may be only a small fraction of a country’s population. This is further magnified in authoritarian countries where Western media have no choice but to turn to Twitter and YouTube to report on the crisis, thus increasing the perceived importance of social media.

The MSM does us all a disservice by avoiding the underlying issues associated with the chaos unfolding on the streets of Egypt. But that’s nothing new. If the underlying events don’t fit the MSM’s narrative, they are discarded or muted and replaced with something that does.