Blogs and Bullets II: New Media and Conflict after the Arab Spring

On Page 5 of USIP’s new report, Blogs and Bullets II: New Media and Conflict after the Arab Spring, it is noted that,

In February 2011, a workshop at Stanford Uni- versity cosponsored by USIP, George Washington University’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication, and Stanford’s Liberation Technology Program discussed the state of the art in empirical research and theory development relevant to the emerging Arab struggles. The scholars, activists, and representatives from technology companies particularly focused on the new data that might be used to address these urgent theoretical questions.

I was one of those at that meeting. It was an illustrious group of some of the best known academics and thinkers around social and new media, but in an email I penned to the organisers after the meeting, I felt that at the time, there was more interest in attempting to explain events on the ground in the Middle East (an American predilection) through data than there was in contextualising the use of technology in socio-political upheaval. This was frustrating, because the animating assumption was that if you had enough data (from the web and Internet) you could actually understand the dramatic political change that was, at the time, happening apace in Tunisia and Egypt. I understood the point about data driven arguments being substantively more robust than those make on whim, assumption and unsubstantiated fact, but it was simplistic to assume that a bunch of data analysts from afar could explain through the lens of what they saw on the web (and in English), the complex processes that were occurring on the ground.

Though colleagues from USIP and I communicated over email, I refrained from publicly blogging about this, and I’m glad I did. I was told at the time that the meeting at Stanford would lead to the report that’s now come out, and reading it, it’s evident that the heady optimism of more data leading to better understanding is supplanted with more sober reflection about how difficult it is to draw direct causality between what is shared online (and through mobiles in the form of SMS) and political change, especially over the long-term.

The report, at around 23 pages, is short but comprehensive, nuanced and well written. It is aware of its limitations, and does not try to more widely generalise or instruct from observed phenomena based on limited input. This is a rarity – reports on this issue generally tend to be prescriptive, no matter how weak the basis of their research and analysis. The timbre of the USIP report is evident from the outset, when it expressly (and refreshingly) notes that

New media—at least that which uses linkages—did not appear to play a significant role in either in-country collective action or regional diffusion during this period.

and that,

The trends also suggest very sharp peaks of attention pegged to dramatic events, such as the departure of Ben Ali in Tunisia, the Pearl Roundabout raid in Bahrain, and several key days during the protest in Egypt—especially the “Friday of departure,” when Mubarak resigned.

Of course the report goes on to flesh out, in considerable detail, these two points. What is doesn’t do is call for a process based analysis of new media, noting clearly that what is studied today is the more episodic, event based, and by definition, short-lived impact and production of web and mobile content. This is a point I’ve made at length on this blog and in other fora, based on the belief that a process such as a revolution is greater than the sum of specific events leading up and during it. And as the report itself notes, the media produced and shared leading up to, supporting and amplifying a revolution is not the same media that is of value post-revolution, when the emphasis is less on regime change, more on (the harder, longer-term, complex) systemic change.

The report, though it doesn’t expressly set out to do so, compliments the role and reach of Al Jazeera in the region, pegging to the network’s broadcasts (which were quickly informed by and entwined with social media) the hundreds of thousands who went to the streets in Egypt (Page 4). It reminds the reader of the sound framework of social media analysis proposed in the 2010 version of Blogs and Bullets; effects on individual attitudes and competencies, effects on social networks and intergroup relations, effects on the organization of protests, and effects on international attention. The latest report goes on to flesh out what happened with social media, through an analysis of links, via these five lenses.

It suggests the value of traditional media, face to face meetings and traditional forms of communication where there is social interaction (cafes, street corners). It suggests that some of the voices that were key during the revolution are those, even though the use of media remained unchanged, that are now marginal to Egypt’s mainstream politics, clearly suggesting that the adoption of new media itself is no guarantee of any wider, lasting traction with a population beyond the already converted.

The emphasis on data, though not covered in the report, suggests greater challenges in the future for political scientists, historians and even intelligence operations – how does one capture, to study and respond to, the tsunami of information sources that now jostle for minutes and seconds of attention and influence during radical social and political change? Associated with this conundrum is the study of longer-term political change – the social and political change that uses new media, but isn’t the focus of Al Jazeera et al (to amplify via broadcast), academics in the US (to study, and enhance by extension the profile of key actors and events), governments (to follow, interact with and influence) and UN (to intervene, and engage).

If as the report’s authors suggest, without traditional media, Twitter impact is severely limited (Page 8) how then can we understand and meaningfully engage with the world’s enduring conflicts, repressive regimes and indeed, with post-revolutionary MENA countries?

The report does not go into the challenges over data retention and more broadly, the ethics of using this kind of information for research and study, given the possible impact it may still have on essentially fragile socio-political processes on the ground. It can be argued that this is out of scope for this paper, but my problem is that it is out of scope for so many papers on this issue, that it remains perennially marginal. Data retention is a challenge because all the primary data sources used in the report, mirroring a larger reality around crisis information production and management, is now locked in corporate and commercial platforms. There’s a whole range of questions that concern security, ethics, use, access, retention and sharing of this information, including with governments that are increasingly aware of where to go to for the richest datasets around how their populations are using new media.

Going forward, Page 18 is for me the richest set of arguments in this report, looking at why “even when sufficient mass mobilisation occurs to oust a regime, there is no guarantee that this wiwll create any enduring mass movement“. The report goes on to explore this in greater detail around post-Mubarak Egypt, but the observations are more widely applicable and demand greater emphasis and study – perhaps also beyond the cynosure du jour on the MENA region.

Page 20 deals with something I’ve for years referred to as the ability for new media, in ways before its advent, weren’t possible, to bear witness to violence. The mere presence or introduction of technology doesn’t translate into any greater bearing of witness, but the ubiquity of mobiles, their growing feature set, and the diffusion of examples on how videos captured are videos broadcast encourage ever greater numbers to produce content over atrocities and events that would have otherwise gone unrecorded. With all the caveats, including repressive regimes using new media for disinformation and misinformation, the report acknowledges that the “new information environment, and particularly user-generated videos, already seem to have fundamentally changed the game”. I agree.

At the very end, on page 22, the report ends with a note of caution. Flagging initiatives by DARPA, the CIA and DHS in the US to somehow predict the future by tapping into social media streams in real time, the authors don’t mince their words, noting that “there are strong reasons to believe that this is a hopeless quest”. The question though is whether anyone in the US administration listens to USIP’s voice.

My review of USIP’s first Blogs and Bullets report, from 2010, ended on a note that I believe is still resonant (and far better acknowledged in the latest report),

… a repressive regime can more easily control online content produced by citizens in the country by just killing and abducting a few, leading to a context of anxiety and fear and a rise in self-censorship. New media, by virtue of its technological underpinnings alone does not stand above traditional ways a govt censors media. It offers a set of alternatives, but taking them is not without risk – and at the end of the day, the success or failure of new media is really anchored to the courage of a few individuals.

Peace is a human construct.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s