2 March 2011

Clay Shirky, Social Media and the Arab Spring

I can remember when the highly-respected journal Foreign Affairs, published six times a year by the US Council on Foreign Relations, came with uncut pages as did American hardbacks. It is still handsomely produced, but being the size of a large paperback and costing £8.95 a copy (or $67 annual subscription), is not easily found these days in UK newsagents. Now, thanks to Amazon Kindle, it appears in seconds by Wi-Fi at a subscription price of £2.98, the penalty being that only the last six issues remain available to the subscriber.

The content of Foreign Affairs is heavyweight but accessible to non-specialists who, after all, get two months to absorb it. The March/April 2011 edition has just arrived and is leading with “The Tea Party and American Foreign Policy” and “Will China’s Rise Lead to War?” (I sneaked a quick look at the latter – Charles Glaser’s view seems to be that “realism offers grounds for optimism in this case, so long as ...”). But this post is about an article in the January/February edition (left).

The Political Power of Social Media was written by Clay Shirky, Professor of New Media at New York University and the author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. The journal summarises his article:
Discussion of the political impact of social media has focused on the power of mass protests to topple governments. In fact, social media's real potential lies in supporting civil society and the public sphere -- which will produce change over years and decades, not weeks or months.
My attempt at a fuller summary follows. Shirky contrasts the successes of social media (texts, Facebook, Twitter) in securing regime change as in Moldova in 2009, with their failures like Belarus in 2006, Iran in 2009 and Thailand in 2010. He believes that, in reality, mass protests topple governments through the pressure of civil society, as in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. This process can be developed by internet freedom, but he regards emphasis on advocacy and enablement of the latter as “instrumental” and misplaced. He regards the key element as being the shift in the balance of power between the state and civil society: “Communications tools during the Cold War did not cause governments to collapse, but they helped the people take power from the state when it was weak.”

However, Shirky does see social media as a powerful mechanism for developing ”shared awareness” – the ability of each member of a group not only to understand a situation, but also to understand that others do as well. The new media-enabled shared awareness leads to “the conservative dilemma” – the state's having to account for the discrepancies between its view of events and the public’s. An authoritarian state can use censorship and propaganda to counter dissent, but the alternative of attempting to shut down the internet or mobile phone networks runs the risk of alienating its own supporters and harming the economy. The Chinese government has spent considerable effort on developing systems to control the new media – [“the Great Firewall of China”]. But such efforts can bring problems – the Bahrain government’s banning of Google Earth helped alert its citizens to the extent of the monarch’s land holdings.

Shirky concludes that the US State Department should reorder its Internet freedom goals towards securing freedom of personal and social communication – freedom of assembly rather than access to Google or YouTube, and accept that progress will be slow.

It can’t be very often that a thesis advanced in Foreign Affairs is put to the test so quickly. Since Shirky’s article went to press there has been turmoil across North Africa and, to a lesser extent so far, the Gulf. It will be some time before we can be certain of the outcomes of the ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in the countries concerned. But there seem to be two key issues worth examining in the context of the article – that of timescale, and also the significance of the new media.

My feeling is that in concluding that progress will be slow, Shirky did not consider the pressure of demographics in the Arab world, (along with other relevant data on Scribd - remember that the median is the halfway point, so in the UK half the population is under 40, half over, as opposed to 25 in the countries where it’s all happening). For people in their 20's, waiting years and decades for reforms which they see as urgently needed to improve their lot, wouldn’t be tolerable.

As to the new media, there seems to be some disagreement as to how significant it has actually been. Certainly the young middle-class intelligentsia seem to have made full use of Facebook, etc as enablers for sharing their discontent about the democratic shortfall, but for the mass of people on very small incomes and with limited if any internet access, the shared awareness may be of more basic concerns like the sharply rising price of food.

Shirky seems to have been right about the problems governments face if they attempt to shut down the new media which seem to be more resilient than might have been expected. Alexander Klimburg, a fellow at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, points out that achieving influence over social networks involves:
“highly complex operations that take a lot of resources to accomplish, and also have a small danger. There is a possibility of a 'reverse infection', that the security services themselves are undermined in the process and [come to] support the revolution - something we have seen as well."
In his view:
"What is being witnessed, especially in Egypt, is the perfect storm of social media revolution. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have combined together with standard media [such as TV network Al Jazeera] and cross-border crowd dynamics to create a perfect feedback loop.”
"The Arab revolutions have much in common with the 1848 European revolutions, and shared three important pillars: the importance of an educated and disaffected demographic youth bulge, the impact of new media [in 1848, newspapers, the telegraph and pamphleteering], and the cross-border dynamics," with each revolt triggering and inspiring others.
It is also interesting to note, given Shirky’s policy recommendation that the US should redirect its efforts away from securing internet access, a recent blogpost in Wired: U.S. Has Secret Tools to Force Internet on Dictators. But after examining various hardware options that could impose connectivity, it concludes “This is far less an engineering problem and far more a political one.”

The comingweeks will shed more light on all this, particularly after what may, or may not, occur in Saudi Arabia.

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