LectureHop: The Arab Spring-a-Leak

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The other kind of spring

Yesterday, the International Affairs building played host to a lecture entitled The Arab Spring and Beyond: Social Networking and Political Change in the Middle East, Russia, and China. Bwog’s own Social Media Maven Clava Brodsky reports.

The Storming of the Winter Palace, the Fall of Saddam Hussein and now the Arab spring: the seasons and their climatological vicissitudes have long been implicated in the world’s political upheavals. Bwog made its way to the appropriately named Weatherhead Institute for its second installment of “Social Networking and Political Participation in East Asia.” The lecture du jour was entitled “Arab Spring and Beyond: Social Networking and Political Change in the Middle East, Russia and China.”

The speakers quoted various tweets and Facebook posts as if the conference were an oral newsfeed, replete with “shares” and “likes.” The panel of three speakers –– Thanassis Cambanis, Timothy Frye and Xiabo Lü –– were largely in agreement on the benefits of social media. Tweets and posts have transformed apathetic masses into agitating protesters. Or, as they say in political science jargon, it’s a great “coordinating mechanism.”

Cambanis, who focused his talk on the role of social media in Egypt, claimed that the likes of Facebook and Twitter have given the people a “platform for getting out information.” Professor Frye’s analysis of social media in Russia agreed. Frye gave social media and several political agitators like Alexei Navalny much credit for organizing the three mass demonstrations that occurred across Russia in December and February. Xiabo Lü looked at the rise of “microblogging” in China and spoke about the “potency of the Internet.” Chinese microblogging has done its part, Lü argued, to expose some government corruption and to “give the grassroots a voice.”

Though the panel of experts seemed to come to a single conclusion –– social media is good at mobilization –– they didn’t go any further than that. None of the speakers touched on the long-term consequences; no one dropped the fretful “d” word (democracy). In fact, Cambanis ended on a sobering (even perhaps pessimistic) note. Organizing people is one thing, developing support for things like the Bill of Rights and ending military rule is quite another. Cambanis pointed out that Egyptian women have been pushed “even further” out of the political process. Women’s participation in social media has remained static since last April, whereas men’s has doubled. Facebook and its social media ilk have made dissent easier, but articulation of democratic values isn’t something you can just “like.” Democracy takes more than a click.

Convenience and efficiency have become two virtues of the 21st century. Facebook and Twitter, in this respect, are the poster children for our generation. Making a friend involves the click of a button, creating an event takes a few characters and expressing your approval is just a “like” away. Over the past year, the agitators of the world have put this convenient self-expression to political use and have mobilized thousands of people to protest against their governments. Yet the panelists’ silence about Facebook’s post-protest role may point to the limits of social media. Building nations and articulating values remains a slow, arduous process. How un-21st century!

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