Last Thursday I attended a taping of the Al Jazeera English show, “Empire” at the Columbia University Journalism School. The discussion featured Amy Goodman, Carl Bernstein, Emily Bell, and rivals Clay Shirky and Evgeny Morozov. While the role of technology was the launching point of the discussion; it was not limited to a narrow review of the uses of Facebook and Twitter. Here are a couple of important takeaways from the event:
1. Technology has always been a factor in social movements.
From pamphlets to fax machines, activists have always used communication technologies to share information, tactics, and build communities. The point Skirky continuously returns to is the distinctive capacity of Internet and social technologies as the reduced barrier of entry into the conversation. Asmaa Mahfouz, the courageous young Egyptian woman who posted a Youtube video calling on all fellow Egyptians to protest despite their fears is a powerful example of the type of ubiquitous access that Shirky points to. In the 2004 film “V For Vendetta,” the revolutionary hero breaks into a television station to broadcast his anti government message. Why not blast the same message on Youtube and get far more viewers?
2. Morozov’s vital point is that information technologies do not negate broader rules of political science.
Just as activists are utilizing social tools in their tactical approaches to revolutionary actions, repressive governments are also developing counter strategies on social networks. An example of this is the Sudanese government setting up fake pro-democracy facebook pages calling for demonstrations and arresting the real protestors who show up. The main takeaway is that social networking tools are not magical elixirs that automatically lead to greater political freedom. Morozov’s broader point is that endless focus on social networking tools distracts us from an understanding and engagement with the deeper historical and political dynamics in political situations. This is an important point and reminds me of Juan Cole’s great writing on the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, which are primarily, labor revolts, according to Cole. Blue and white-collar workers facing dire economic conditions are integral to the success of these movements.
3. Instead of sitting and watching on the sidelines and getting excited by the various uses of Twitter and Facebook in social movements, activists in the US should focus on the threats to a neutral Internet and the collaboration of Western companies who have sold Internet monitoring technologies to states, such as Egypt.
Amy Goodman forcefully argued that the threats to Net Neutrality, and the attempts by telecoms to enclose the Internet commons are connected to the protests in Egypt. The American company Narus sold technology to Egyptian authorities that allowed them to shut off the Internet. I felt that one of the most relevant thing I could possibly do during these events was contact my congressional representatives demanding that they open an investigation into companies who have sold spyware to the Egyptian government. Social technologies open up both great opportunity, as well as great danger. Recognizing this challenge and connecting our commitment to support global human rights with a meticulous attention to the conduct of American and European companies in supporting repressive regimes. Is focusing on keeping our companies accountable a smart way of engaging the social technology issue?