July 30, 2011
Social Media in the Middle East and North Africa: Why Now? What’s Next?
Last month I went back to the Kennedy School to speak at the Plenary panel of the HKS reunion weekend. The panel was called “Revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa: Why Now? What’s Next?” The panel was moderated by Xenia Dormandy, Senior Fellow at Chatham House (MPP 2000), and featured Tarek Masoud, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and Razzaq al-Saiedi, Senior Researcher, Physicians for Human Rights (MPA 2009))
I was invited to provide some perspective on the role that social media has / is playing. I was happy that the panel was so diverse; the focus was not on social media, but rather on the socio-economic and political factors at play, which was quite refreshing to someone embedded in online media.
The panel video is now available in case you want to watch it.
The “why now” question was interesting, and I think that it has more to do with the social / political issues on the ground than social media played. Social Media is a way to connect people to each other, but the offline organizing has to be there in order for there to be meaningful change. Tweets can only do so much to save you from the barrel of a gun.
The “what’s next” question is more interesting to me, especially given the events unfolding with #amina over the course of the last few weeks. I followed the #amina story from the beginning, secretly rooting A Gay Girl in Damascus who turned out to be a White Man in Georgia. Lots of smart people have written about this topic (see Micah Sifry, Andy Carvin, Jillian York, the Guardian’s Dan Gillmore, and Ethan Zuckerman).
I think this incident highlights one of the points I tried to make in my talk.
Online organizing is no longer seen as a fringe activity. Books about social media and revolution are being published in the mainstream (see Tweets from Tahrir and Revolution 2.0), and the public expects information that is shared through social media to be real (i.e. amina).
It has clearly providing a way for disenfranchised people to connect with the rest of the world and with each other without the need or formal institutions. However, as reliance on the medium has grown, so too have our expectations of it. In a way, social media is becoming an authoritative institution, and bringing with it all of the expectations that we have of them.
However, in becoming that institution, social media loses its grassroots nature, and the relative anonimity that is unfortunately necessary to organize and connect, specifically in MENA. Organizers who use social media without adequate protections risk be watched and persecuted by the regime for speaking out, and we are increasingly seeing that the west is obsessed with verifying the legitimacy of the information shared through social channels. This parallel need to hide in plain site and be honest and open create a dangerous environment online organizers and activists.
The implications are that policitcal activists will need to find new ways to organize, perhaps going back to simpler and more anonymous methods of connecting with each other.