At the weekend I participated in a fascinating workshop organised at Leeds University about the Arab Spring and Asia. Colleagues representing Middle East Studies, Politics, Development Studies, Asian Studies and Sociology met to discuss the recent political events in the Arab world (the 'Arab Spring') and their ripple effects across Asia. I was asked to introduce a discussion on New Social Movements, Media and Technology, and we had a lively debate. I thought it appropriate to share some of our thoughts here.
I expressed my unease with the idea that these were the Facebook or Social Media revolutions. Would the unrest have occurred anyway? After all, the European revolutions of 1848 had spread across the continent within two weeks; and the events of 1989 occurred with the help of satellite television and the fax machine. Besides, there is something determinist about claiming that these were social media uprisings, and I am very uncomfortable with that idea. Social media are simply another tool that can expedite events; they facilitate speed, mobilisation and the demonstration effect; but the uprisings were started, fed and endured by people struggling for the human condition.
Nevertheless there are three key things to note about the events of 2011.
First, a new generation of the digitally-literate is comfortable with these technologies, but also with the consequences of these technologies: networks, flat hierarchies, the convergence of platforms, and the ease with which anyone can now be the source, producer and consumer of news, information and opinion. We can see the same thing happening in Burma with the use of camera phones to capture videos of human rights abuses that are then downloaded to The Voice of Burma in Scandanavia before publication and circulation on the web.
Second, we cannot discount the role of television, and especially Al-Jazeera which is considered a credible and authoritative source of news in and about the Middle East. The difference now is that Al-Jazeera was one of the first TV stations to depend on 'citizen journalism' and social media to inform its programming.
Third, the reaction of the old political guard in the Middle East was interesting. They demonstrated that governments are beginning to realise 'if you can't beat them, join them'; and while in both Tunisia and Egypt the government did try to use old-fashioned techniques to control communication (technologies and the sources, and using censorship) they quickly recognised the possible value in trying to control the narrative itself. So the credibility of the political opposition that was tweeting and blogging and Facebooking was routinely discredited and their legitimacy questioned. It reminded me of the so-called 50 cent party in China - groups of young netizens who are paid for posting pro-govermement opinions on the web, thus trying to spin and manage the flow of information.
There was a consensus among the participants that the social media were a tool only in the 2011 uprisings, and that new media were in some senses a distraction from the reality of what was actually happening. There was a claim that by focusing on, and overestimating the importance of the social media we remove agency from the debates (especially when we lose sight of the fact that these were not 'Facebook' revolutions, but Tunisian Revolutions and Egyptian Revolutions). The uprisings (there was some discomfort with the term revolutions since only regimes and not whole social orders had been replaced) would have happened anyway. We need to look at the antecedents of these events and understan the long-term context. Struggles against oppression, corruption, and poverty have a long history in this part of the world - they did not just suddenly erupt in 2011. For this reason, the term Arab Spring is innaccurate (one participant said 'offensive') because it denies the historical specificities and processes, and suggests these uprisings appeared from nowhere. It also raises questions about news agendas and the way the Facebook Revolution and Arab Spring are simple and sexy tags for these otherwise complex events.