Foreign Affairs Live: Experts Debate The Role of Social Media In Political Protests

Are the popular protests in the Middle East evidence of the political power of social media?Last evening, as part of its Foreign Affairs Live series, the Council on Foreign Affairs explored this crucial question with new media guru Clay Shirky and Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department.

Popular protests in countries from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain and Libya have shaken the Middle East’s established order to its roots. Are they evidence of the political power of social media? Have the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and other innovations ushered in a revolutionary new era in global politics?

Last evening, as part of its Foreign Affairs Live series, the Council on Foreign Relations explored these crucial questions with new media guru Clay Shirky and Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department. The discussion was moderated by Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose. The packed audience at the historical Harold Pratt House on New York’s Upper East Side came from academia, international relations, media and a spectrum of private industries.

Slaughter was dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University from 2002 to 2009. She recently returned to Princeton after serving for two years as U.S. State Department Director of Policy Planning under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Shirky is Professor of New Media at New York University. His writings include the book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age and article The Political Power of Social Media in the January/February 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs.

Bifurcated revolutionary influences and execution

The conversation started with Shirky, referring to his Foreign Affairs article, citing three effects the Internet has on the media: Granting access to a tremendous amount of information, enabling the rise of citizen journalism and enabling groups of people to synchronize their actions.

He suggested that when we examine Internet tools — including web-enabled mobile phones — we may have overemphasized access to information as a source of political power and underemphasized the power of the tools to give groups of people access to each other. Internet tools have allowed disparate publics that were previously unconnected to broadcast and share information, as well as coordinate physical activities. Though, as suggested by Malcolm Gladwell and others, social media creates weak ties, social media can be used to create strong ties with those who want them or bolster existing ties.

Shirky feels that the U.S. State Department may be focusing too much on breaking down the firewalls surrounding countries and not enough on policies to grant people within countries access to each other. Though he does not believe we can weaponize social media, he said that it can serve the short term benefit of coordination to be harnessed for regime change.

In the countries being examined, we have the unique 21st century problem of revolutions with no idea of who is going to take over once the existing government exits. There may be different leaders on either side of the revolutions. Social media may be more useful to knock things down than to build them up, Shirky noted.

The fundamental right to connect

In a speech two years ago, Hillary Clinton affirmed the U.S. position that people have the right to connect. Because the Internet is where people are living in the 21st century, people worldwide should be free to connect everywhere and with whomever they want. The Internet is a place where people come together; they connect politically and they have a right to do so.

Slaughter, who helped draft the speech, commented that it did not intend to suggest those connections are limited to links to U.S. media and content to download our template for democracy. While she granted that Shirky had a point about the importance of the Internet enabling group communication, he may be underestimating the importance and influence of outside contact and information.

Social revolution without social media?

Social media was given a vast amount of credit for what is happening in the Middle East and it may be some time before all the forces surrounding these multiple revolutions are fully understood. Shirky sees Twitter, Facebook and other platforms as tools people used to help them achieve deep, existing goals. They were used to overcome government efforts to prevent people from synchronizing their actions.