Bwog’s intrepid lecturehopper Peter Sterne presents to you the second installment from Friday’s event organized by the Committee to Protect Journalists, in which he considers the role of the internet and social media in revolutions around the world…
The second panel, moderated by Slate editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg, considered the nuanced role of the internet, both positive and negative, in the recent revolutions in the Middle East. Rebecca MacKinnon, the co-founder of Global Voices Online, argued that the debate over whether the internet is more useful for the “good guys” or “bad guys” misses the point; the internet’s effectiveness varies across countries and across time. Danny O’Brien, the coordinator of CPJ’s Internet Advocacy Center, agreed, explaining that journalists in Tunisia, where the government stole reporters’ and protesters’ Facebook passwords, need very different forms of support than those working in Egypt or Libya, where governments have tried to shut down all internet access. Shutting down the internet, though, does not mean shutting down the revolution. Nazila Fathi, a Nieman Fellow at Harvard who has covered Iran for the New York Times, recalled that a month after the Iranian government shut down texting services in an attempt to stop protesters from organizing demonstrations against the regime, they decided to turn it back on because they were losing so much money and thousands of protesters were still taking to the streets every day.
This does not mean that social media is useless. Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, producer of the show “The Stream” on Al-Jazeera English, noted how social media allowed those in the West, both Egyptian expatriates and those who had no connection with Egypt, to support the protesters by disseminating their messages and videos from protests. Social networks, he added, are where the revolutions begin; he and Al-Jazeera beat the Western media to coverage of the protests because they paid attention to all of the Tunisian and Egyptian tweets mentioning plans to protest and discontent with the government back in December. Those expressions of discontent on Twitter and Facebook are important, argued Sheila Coronel, director of Columbia’s Stabile Center of Investigative Journalism. As people make fun of their unpopular rulers online, those rulers become delegitimized and inspire less fear, which encourages protesters to take to the streets. Social media also provides a way for protesters to quickly and effectively get their message to the other side, especially soldiers, who can be convinced not to shoot at their countrymen once they see how hated their leaders are online. And once the revolution is over, social media can help protesters organize a new government. When the Egyptian military wanted to hear suggestions on running the government from the Egyptian people, Shihab-Eldin reported, they set up a Facebook page.
Social media is also changing the nature of journalism. Shihab-Eldin mentioned that his show “The Stream” will not only feature first-hand reports from bystanders on the scenes of important events, but will actually provide aggregation and curation tools so that amateur journalists will be able to construct articles with multiple sources that can then be featured on the show. “There is still a role for professional journalists to verify information,” Coronel concluded, “but professional journalists no longer have a monopoly on the information space.” In the future, it seems, everyone could be a journalist for 15 minutes.