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.

It’s not the case, Shirky said, that otherwise happy Tunisians were moved to rebel because of Twitter and Facebook. Social media was not the cause or the catalyst of these movements and, if technology was not there, these events still would have happened. Slaughter cited our own revolution and others over the centuries that, despite few group communication channels, were powerful and successful.

As the technology of oppression increases, said Slaughter, the technology of liberation needs to keep pace. She agreed that it was not technology, not Twitter that caused these uprisings; it was discontent and courage. Social revolution in the 21st century is possible without social media.

On the other hand, people whose voices have been amplified by social media make them harder to ignore. In the past, Slaughter observed, oppression, such as the Soviet gulags, were hidden and there remain countries on the other side of the digital divide with crimes against humanity about which we don’t fully know.

Today, social media makes it more difficult for governments to tell false stories about themselves. Though states continue to try. Slaughter mentioned the increase in the systematic arrest of bloggers and shutting of Internet cafes in China since the start of the turmoil in the MIddle East. It is, however, impractical economically to completely block access; Shirky noted that modern industrial countries must have workers with cell phones in their pockets to be competitive.

Network risks

There are no guarantees that any communications pipe will never be cut, observed Shirky. When an Internet pipe is intentionally blocked, people turn to other data channels, such as radio repeaters and satellite downloads. He does not see the issue as one of defending the glass and copper connections in autocratic regimes; rather, we need to provision large numbers of pipes across a variety of paths.

He continued by positing that the real threat is at the application layer. Shirky asked rhetorically how Facebook will react to photos on its platform with pictures of revolutionaries holding signs expressing appreciation for its help when it’s trying to gain entry into China.

In his final question, Rose asked whether the pace of change has speeded up so much, we won’t recognize the world some decades from now. Slaughter responded that we are moving from a world where international relations is relations between states to one focused on both governments and societies — we are working towards connecting our society to their’s with greater understanding of conditions of people’s lives.

We may be experiencing the revolution predicted by technology optimists — disruption could be the new stasis in media. Still unknown is our tolerance for change — today, much less in the future.

Neil Glassman is principal marketing strategist at WhizBangPowWow. He’s a long time student and analyst of electronic, digital and social media. Join his conversation on Twitter or email Neil to talk about marketing or swap recipes.