How Web 2.0 drives political change in the Arab world and beyond

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Photo credit: 
Courtesy of Margarita Quihuis

On February 24, the Program on Liberation Technology at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) hosted a conference entitled Blogs and Bullets: Social Media and the Struggle for Social Change, in partnership with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and George Washington University's Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication (GW). This event was a high-impact gathering of scholars, academics, and representatives from the Silicon Valley tech community, to examine a very timely subject--how social media is being used to advance political change in developing democracies.

Participants from Google, Facebook, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, eBay, and YouTube, among others, commented on how recent events in the Arab world have affected their work and the role Web 2.0 tools and mobile phones played to facilitate these citizen-based movements. The Blogs and Bullets research project was launched in 2010 to examine new media through an analytic framework to better understand its impact on contentious politics-whether positive or negative. This event was a rare opportunity to bring both the public and private sectors together to discuss this topic during a daylong closed door session, providing the ideal forum for cross sector collaborations to emerge.

While there was a broad consensus around the effectiveness of social media tools to advance political change, participants were encouraged to look beyond the anecdotal evidence available to employ a more rigorous and methodical approach to impact evaluation. They discussed the challenges involved in studying the affects of social media on contentious politics-from the research design to the scarcity of available data. Many participants used social media throughout the course of the meeting to communicate key findings and discussion points on Twitter and Facebook, opening up the discourse beyond the conference room.

The workshop culminated in a public session that drew over 150 participants eager to learn more from those working on the "frontlines of social media." Panelists included; Marc Lynch from GW, Clay Shirky of New York University (NYU), Olivia Ma of YouTube, Larry Diamond from Stanford University, and was moderated by Sheldon Himelfarb of USIP.

Marc Lynch, Director of Middle East Studies at GW and also know by his pseudonym, Abu Aardvark, for his popular blog on Foreign Policy's website, opened the panel by reflecting on the broader pattern of Arab politics in the 2000s and how surprised the academic community was by the uprising in Egypt, "They (young activists) succeeded at a time when all experts believed we were in a period of authoritarian retrenchment."

Lynch credited previous failed social movements for laying the groundwork for the January 25 revolution, which was catalyzed by the events in neighboring Tunisia. The use of social media had an enormous impact on Arab societies where mainstream media is so heavily censored.  Lynch described the cascading effect of these web 2.0 platforms, which sent video, audio, personal testimonies, and on the ground sources, directly to an international audience. However, Lynch cautioned against crediting just social media, "It is a huge mistake to think this is just about social media, al-Jazeera was absolutely critical."     

Himefarb introduced Olivia Ma, News Manager at YouTube, a Google owned video sharing site, by mentioning a study conducted by the Berkman Center of Harvard University, which found YouTube the most frequented website in the Arabic language blogosphere. YouTube has been an important platform for protestors who are documenting events on the ground across the Arab world and posting video content on YouTube to reach an international audience and raise awareness. This phenomenon is described by Ma as, "The democratization of media because the barrier to broadcasting has dropped allowing everyone the ability to document and bear witness to events".

Ma described a typical day for the news team at YouTube, which involves culling through all the recent video content covering events in any corner of the world to identify the trends, buzzing topics, and "hot videos." Popular videos are often identified by searching through Facebook and Twitter to identify those that are most often shared or 'liked' by users, something Ma identified as the "complex eco-system between all the social networks." While, many of the protest videos are quite graphic in nature, YouTube has classified these videos for educational and documentary purposes, allowing them to keep as much content on the site as possible.

Clay Shirky, Professor of New Media at NYU, provided an historic account of how IT has been used by both insurgents and autocrats in each revolution since the fall of communism. Shirky explained that, "New media tools have been powerful for insurgent movements but they must be built on a need for larger change in the public sphere. (Clay Shirky)New media tools have been powerful for insurgent movements but they must be built on a need for larger change in the public sphere."

Shirky believes the Egyptian revolution was successful because it was built on the foundation and learning from prior movements in Egypt, beginning with Kefaya in 2005, to the April 6 movement in 2008, and most recently with Iran's Green Movement.

Failed uprising have occurred in places, such as Sudan, because there were no established networks of trust and shallow social capital. Shirky described the power of social media to shift mindsets by drawing on a domestic example-in 2006 the American public would not have believed it was possible to elect an African American president until an Obama speech was broadcast on YouTube, outside of the mainstream media, changing the public's perception.

CDDRL Director Larry Diamond who oversees the Program on Liberation Technology, reflected on the first time he met young Egyptian bloggers and leaders of the youth movement, "The energy and freshness of the perspectives along with the agenda and content discussed amongst these young people was striking to the point of disarming." Diamond described the Egyptian youth movement and events in Tahrir Square as possessing a "Jeffersonian quality of the value of the individual and suspicion of authority."

Diamond emphasized the importance of the window onto the world that the Internet provides, which propels the individual from a passive observer to an active contributor. While, Diamond recognized the importance of ICT he also cited its limitations, "It (ICT) will bring down an authoritarian regime but not everyone can build political parties." Diamond continued by suggesting that ICT's are useful tools for emerging political parties to widen the arena for constitutional deliberation, set new rules of the game, and create a "freer and fairer deliberation space."

Surveying cyberspace that evening, it was exciting to follow all the discussion and dialogue across the various social media platforms describing the impact and value of this event in advancing ideas and partnerships. While, Blogs and Bullets was pivotal in moving the research agenda forward, it was clear that the story does not end here. More work needs to be done to collectively examine the impact of this emerging field beyond what we read in our daily Twitter feed.

To learn more about the USIP Blogs and Bullets initiation, please click here

To learn more about the CDDRL Program on Liberation Technology, please click here