Friday, July 16, 2010

Cyber Skeptic or Cyber Utopia? The Use of New Media in World Politics

Last week, the United States Institute of Peace hosted a live panel and webcast discussing the role of the new social media tools of cyberspace in contemporary political movements. Blogs and Bullets: Evaluating the Impact of New Media on Conflict focused mainly on last year’s Green Revolution response to the Iranian elections, but also discussed social media influence in Madagascar, Iraq, and the Southern Caucasus region. The panelists included American professionals and scholars of modern sociology and Middle Eastern studies, as well as bloggers from around the world. In a time where politically-minded Westerners praise modern internet-based social media techniques for spreading anti-authoritarian political dissent, the panelists highlighted its benefits while also calling attention to the disadvantages and negative uses of social media that often have been overlooked.

Alec Ross, the Senior Advisor for Innovation at the office of the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, introduced the topic of last year’s attempted “Green Revolution” in Iran and how it came to be dubbed a “Twitter Revolution” by many Americans. Ross articulated a divide, however, between optimists and pessimists regarding exactly how strong a role Twitter actually had taken during this Revolution. There were examples of a high volume of Tweets from Iran and of high turnout in protests on the streets that did not necessarily match up. One may make the case that Twitter had a higher impact on American perception of Iranians than on the Iranian protest movement itself. Mark Lynch, the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, supported this point by emphasizing the need to “look beyond coincidence. . . it is not a matter of Twitter on Tuesday, and overthrowing the government on Wednesday.” Although power and access to information have shown a strong relationship throughout history, Lynch argues that it is crucial to avoid allowing the Internet to replace actual, physical protesting. A modern protester cannot simply post a Tweet or a blog advocating a regime change and feel that the work is done. Additionally, this social media can be used for ill use, as Lynch sited Hezbollah’s use of email and anti-Israel video games. Panelist Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, stated that the Twitter use from Iran needed to be broken down and analyzed beyond simply the fact that it took place during the election protests. How many twitter uses were actually from Iran- dozens, or hundreds? Who were they? What were they actually saying? In fact, many of the Twitter users were actually posting in favor of Ahmadinejad. Lastly, who was talking to whom, and what were the relations between these people?

The international bloggers spoke from their own perspectives, revealing similar opinions. Analysis of social media often provides a skewed opinion and set of information when one is limited only to like-minded bloggers who speak English. Additionally, problems arise when one considers pro-regime blogging, monopolization of positions, and dissolution of the border between cyber war and real war. Golnaz Esfandiari, a blogger from Iran, agreed that the influence of Twitter was exaggerated, and a better way to access the actual thoughts of the Iranian youth was through Facebook. Panelist Onnik Krikorian of Armenia warned that “ . . .people get too excited about tools, they add everyone [too facebook], which is dangerous. Krikorian highlighted cyber “flame wars” between internet users of Armenia and Azerbaijan, in response to an audience contribution regarding similar internet hostility in the South Caucasus, between Georgia and Abkhazia. Jordanian panelist Naseem Tarawnah cited examples of social media’s negative use (extremist group Muslim Brotherhood using mobile devices to rapidly increase its followers) and its positive use (that this media, for what it’s worth, reveals what is already going on at the ground level). Mialy Andriamananjar of Madagascar mentioned that following the protests and unrest in her country, as the political situation underwent large-scale collapse, blog posts by individuals served to give warnings to civilians of local “danger zones” meant to be avoided.

Overall, the benefits of social media were not forgotten or discredited. The panelists warned, however, against disproportionately looking to Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere as the be-all, end-all path to freedom, and allowing internet communication replacing direct community involvement.

Written by Safadi USA intern Helen Burns

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