Freedom Bytes

The TakeAway: President Obama and Mideast protesters relied on digital technologies to change regimes, but beyond campaigns, how can they be used to build sustainable prosperity and justice?

On Wednesday the contrast was stark, as democracy’s rituals – revolution and public reporting – played out at the same time, not just with formal rhetoric, but with Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.  President Barack Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) address and Egypt’s violent protests capped a day where, aided by social media, the Old Order gave way to the New, blurring distinctions between politics and economics, and ideologies.  Drawing on familiar themes, Obama’s big picture speech cited this generation’s “Sputnik moment”—a level of research and development to restore America’s position in a global economy, enabling us to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world”.  “We are a nation of Google and Facebook,” he said, pledging to “connect every part of America to the digital age”.  Meanwhile, young Arabs took to the street, demanding connection to the modern age.

Social media, some say, has come of age.  That’s certainly true for young revolutionaries sick of longstanding political and economic disenfranchisement.  In the byways of Cairo’s concrete jungle, seething rage over joblessness and December’s rigged elections billowed over into massive political protests, confronting the 30-year corrupt authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak.  Police tear gassed and arrested hundreds, many of them Internet-savvy rebels (even turning on the media: a reporter from the Guardian, and CNN reports their news crews are targeted) who used social media as propellants, just as Tunisians did two weeks ago in the “Jasmine Revolution”.   By Wednesday’s end, Egypt blocked social media websites—although dissidents were able to work around the cyber blockade.  Last night, the government cracked down again, this time blocking all Internet access.

But the Internet wasn’t the only player: al-Jazeera has come of age, too, galvanizing Arab frustration and beaming insurgent emotion from one capital to the next, today’s New York Times reports.  Yesterday, new tumult rocked Yemen, with more than 10,000 people taking to the streets in its capital city Sanaa.  Each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way, writes Steve Coll in this week’s The New Yorker. But they all – Egypt Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – share political and demographic ingredients: youthful populations, high unemployment, grotesque inequality, abusive police, reviled leaders, and authoritarian systems that stifle free expression.  Meanwhile, just last week, Lebanon endured two days of protests against Hezbollah’s rise to power.  And al-Jazeera and the Guardian released the “Palestine Papers” – 1,600 internal documents from a decade of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – which challenge core assumptions about this political relationship.

A sea-change is happening in the Arab world, with profound ramifications for how we approach Islamic finance, sustainability, and human rights in a region most of us overlook.  To help you get up to speed, read GlobalPost’s excellent country-by-country overview of current unrest.  As Roger Cohen writes in today’s New York Times: “Organization, networking, exposure to suppressed ideas and information, the habits of debate and self-empowerment in a culture of humiliation and conspiracy: These are some of the gifts social media is bestowing on overwhelmingly young populations across the Arab world.  Above all, the Internet’s impact has been to expose the great delusion that has led Western governments to buttress Arab autocrats: that the only alternative to them was Islamic jihadists.”

As for public protest back home—well, except for the Rally to Restore Sanity, we Yanks have yet to take to the streets, unlike the Vietnam and Civil Rights eras, or the labor protests of an earlier time.  But we’ve certainly ample cause for collective action: rising unemployment, lagging educational achievement, state and local spending cuts in essential public services (causing panic in the municipal bond market), the looming battle over health care, soaring corporate profits and the no-surprise finding, published yesterday, that “reckless” Wall Street banks and “weak” government regulators, along with corporate mismanagement caused the financial crisis.  As if that’s not enough, there’s always climate change, exiled from the SOTU speech—along with gun control, foreign policy, and financial reform.  Where’s the populist outrage? Even electronic media has failed to galvanize dissidents.  Lots of us are online—we’re just not on the frontlines of constructive change.

The Obama administration – which applied a blitzkrieg approach to SOTUS and an aggressive online political strategy to get elected – has fallen behind on the digital front, according to National Public Radio (NPR) and Fast Company.  Even is a shadow of its former self (although its working to undo Citizens United).  And the Republicans have caught up, according to a new report on social networking and the 2010 elections, released yesterday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.  That’s why the White House has launched a new campaign, borrowing from their 2008 playbook, to lean on social media to push Obama’s agenda through a politically divided Congress and gear up for next year’s election.

Yesterday at Davos Bill Clinton said that democracy’s Mideast wave is a “manifestation of yearning for change and shared progress throughout the world”.  We think the same can be said of Americans—but we’re more able, if we’ve the will, to transform yearnings into productive practice.  As for social media, our challenge – and in time, that of the Mideast – is to go beyond ‘friending’, YouTubing, and Tweeting and deploy cyber tools to longer term, constructive purposes—beyond revolutionary or corporate campaigns and self-serving press releases.


Correction: MurnPost‘s tech strategy advisor Josha Gay reminds us that there were a number of major US protests in Washington, D.C. throughout the 2000s on a range of human rights issues, although their media coverage was limited and impact on public dialogue and policy remains murky.

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