The Science and Technology Hub at Google’s New York outpost was the site of Monday afternoon’s The Internet and Uprisings in the Arab World: Are We Already in a Post-Social-Media World?, hosted by Wired and moderated by its New York bureau chief, John C. Abell.
Ease of use and access was a point that came up often, as Abell said, “With electricity and an Internet connection, you can whisper in Times Square and be heard anywhere else in the world,” and panelist Susannah Vila, director of content and outreach for Movements.org, added, “The fact that it’s free and easy and cool sort of underlines the need for people to see what’s happening in Egypt and get people together for an advocacy campaign.” Panelist Micah Sifry, co-founder and executive editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, pointed to how quickly people in parts of the Middle East are getting mobile phones, adding, “In the past few years, the number of people with mobile phones in Egypt has soared, something like 60 percent — same thing in Tunisia.” Adam Penenberg, assistant director of the business and economic reporting program at New York University, added, “During the civil-rights movement, if they had cell phones, they would have used them. Now we can reach many more people There’s nothing really new here: These are just tools that are amplifying the message we can connect and spread People are more connected: It helps in bringing people together.”
Sifry cautioned against generalizing and jumping to conclusions, saying, “I don’t think we know almost diddly about what’s actually going on. I think we have to be extremely careful before making judgments about the role of social media in Tunisia, Egypt, the rest of the Mideast, or anywhere else. We use the word ‘movement’ too easily. The language of revolution and movements is instead what we hear rather than the reality.”
The panelists seemed to agree that social media acted as an accelerant for the protests in Egypt, but it was not the cause of the actions, with Vila saying, “A lot of things have changed in two years. There are so many more people on Facebook. It’s been a lot easier to get a critical mass of people simply because there’s been an increase in people on the Internet, on Facebook, and on Twitter. Once people were already on the street, social media as an accelerant was less important. It became a word-of-mouth thing.” Penenberg added, “I began following the debate on Twitter. I started looking at the issue when someone Tweeted, ‘Social media’s impact on Egypt and Tunisia is way overblown,’ and someone else Tweeted, ‘Social media is the most important factor.’ ”
The role and responsibility of social networks was debated by the panelists, with Sifry saying, “I’m terrified that we’re relying on these corporate entities to enable this kind of activity. It’s very dangerous. There’s really no reason they have to be socially responsible at all. Their responsibility is to the bottom line. Twitter did not have to inform its users that the Justice Department was seeking all of their IP information in this WikiLeaks situation. They’re under no obligation to tell you. How do we get out of conducting vital public discourse, organizing, on a corporate foundation? Facebook hasn’t even joined the Global Networking initiative, claiming that they can’t afford the $250,000 annual fee. At least Google is part of that, as is Yahoo! and Microsoft. Twitter hasn’t joined.” Vila added, “It’s up to people who care about these issues to push Facebook in a way that’s going to take care of activists. They don’t even encourage anonymity on Facebook. You can get your account deactivated for being anonymous.”
Finally, on goals and concerns for the near future, Vila said, “We should be paying attention to what’s working and what’s not working so we can identify how people are using these tools in an effective way,” while Penenberg cautioned, “Facebook is a wonderful tool for helping organize, but it can also be used to settle scores down the road.”