“Information Wars” on Al Jazeera English

An all-star panel discusses social media and political revolution

On Friday morning, the television in the CJR office was tuned to CNN—and our laptops were tuned to Al Jazeera English—and we watched the jubilant crowds in Cairo following President Mubarak’s announcement that he would step down. President Obama gave a statement comparing the day’s events to the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, Gandhi’s nonviolent protests for Indian independence, and the Indonesian revolution. He said that, in the past few weeks in Egypt, “the wheel of history turned at a blinding pace.”

That same afternoon, one flight up in Columbia’s Journalism building, an all-star panel convened to address how changes in the flow of information helped bring it all about. The panel—entitled “Information Wars”—featured Emily Bell, director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism; Carl Bernstein, of Woodward and Bernstein fame; Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman; Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom; and Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Al Jazeera English host Marwan Bishara moderated the program, which will appear on AJE’s show Empire this week.* (CJR also prodigiously tweeted the event’s most quotable moments.)

It was a lively discussion, with a standing-room-only crowd in the packed lecture hall, as cameras swooped over the audience members’ heads. The first segment focused on WikiLeaks and its impact on governments, on the public, and on the press. But the group seemed eager to talk about the revolution in Egypt, which they turned to in the second half of the program.

Bishara posed several questions to the panel concerning the role of social media in political revolution, a topic that has sparked particularly contentious online debate in recent months. (To see where the Web’s prominent writers on this topic stand in relation to each other’s arguments, these charts by University of Washington graduate student Deen Freelon are a good place to start [via].)

To start, Bishara asked Morozov—whose writings have argued that the internet can just as easily be used to suppress as it can to liberate—whether he still remained a “cyber skeptic” about the power of social media after watching the revolutions unfold in Tunisia and Egypt. Morozov said he still thought that the role of social media in the latest revolutions has been overblown, and that revolutionaries will always use whatever technology is available to them at the time—so this is nothing new.

For instance, Morozov said, “The Bolsheviks made great use of the postal service and the telegraph. The revolution in Iran made great use of tape recorders to smuggle in the sermons by the Ayatollah from Paris.” He later noted that 1848 saw an impressive series of revolutions in Europe, which was, of course, before television and Twitter. He also pointed out that history—and mainstream media—tends to remember the successes rather than the failures. There was a major campaign on Facebook among Egyptians to organize against the Mubarak regime back in 2008, but it didn’t take hold like the protests we saw in the past few weeks. The social media tools were the same, but the political and cultural environment was different this time around, the situation on the ground was different, and the allegiance and actions of the army were different.

“Ultimately, it is people who make these revolutions and rebellions, using any tool that they can,” agreed Goodman. One of the most influential bloggers in Egypt, for instance, wrote on his blog about finding inspiration in the brave Germans who wrote and distributed pamphlets to try to alert the world to Nazi atrocities during World War II, a crime for which they were ultimately executed. Each moment in history has had its own tools and methods of communication that helped to facilitate it.

But Goodman spoke, too, about the particularly powerful media of Twitter and Facebook, which keep communication accessible, immediate, and highly visual. The audience broke out into applause when she declared, “If Twitter.com ends up selling for millions and millions and millions of dollars, they better put most of that into a people’s fund in Egypt, because that’s how their stock went up, and maybe they can abolish poverty in Egypt.”

Bishara offered the theory that “technology has leveled the playing field,” and, apropos of the event’s title, “Information Wars,” posited that the increased accessibility of information around the world, and the speed with which people can get it, has fundamentally shifted the balance of power. “Information is no longer a privileged thing,” Bishara said. “Everyone now has access all the time.” Bernstein emphasized the empowerment that people now have in being able to easily broadcast their viewpoints, with no intermediary . “The basic equations of power are changing as a result of the fact that there is a tool that everybody pretty much starts with the same ability to marshal,” said Bernstein, “except for those who can’t get online.”

Shirky agreed that access to information is important, but even more so, “The biggest change here is access to each other,” he said. Which is why, for instance, the Mubarak regime shut down access to the Internet in a futile attempt to impede the organization and communication between protesters—but it’s also why the Libyan government under Muammar el-Qaddafi banned soccer games in a move to prevent organization of any kind.

The use of technology by governments to repress or control its people was another recurring theme in the panel, with Morozov expressing his viewpoint that, for all the activism that social media has helped facilitate, “it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Internet overall, as a force, favors the oppressed rather than the oppressors.” Oppressive governments, after all, are learning about the potential of social media to organize and monitor movements just as quickly as the rest of us. He mentioned the security forces in Sudan, which have been known to create fake Facebook pages for “protests” against the government, in order to attract would-be activists to a certain place, where security forces then arrest them en masse.

Goodman took this point and turned the focus to the Obama administration, which she said is not doing all it has promised to ensure an open, accessible and net-neutral Internet in the U.S.—even as the President has spoken out about the empowering nature of the Web for people in the Middle East. Shirky noted that we seem to want two different rhetorics when it comes to Internet rights: one for this country, and one for the rest of the world. “And it is damaging not just our standing in the world,” he said, “it’s also potentially damaging us at home, by leading to a condition in which we won’t enjoy the freedoms that we’re actually asking of the rest of the world.”

“Yes, I think that the Internet, when open and free, is grassroots’ globalization’s answer to corporate globalization,” said Goodman. “But governments and corporations can stop that from happening, which is why it’s critical who owns the Internet, who owns the press, and that goes back hundreds of years.”

Even if it would be an oversimplification to say that social media tools caused revolution in the Middle East, all of the speakers agreed that they facilitated it, and sped it up considerably. Bell remarked on the incredibly compressed timeframe of the revolutions of the past few weeks: six weeks, as opposed to, say, six months in East Germany in 1989. But, Bishara asked, does that speed itself bring about a qualitative difference in the end result of these protests? Or would these protests have led to revolution anyway, but social media simply made that process faster?

Morozov seemed reluctant to “extrapolate the causality” there. “Political revolutions have always been contagious,” he said. “We can’t just focus on what we know about the Internet and then discount everything we know about political science.” Shirky conceded Morozov’s earlier point about the significance of the conditions on the ground and the actions of government forces in determining the trajectory of a protest movement, but again emphasized the massive cultural impact of communication networks, an impact which can only be measured over a very long timeline. “The densifying of the public sphere in the advance of the revolution matters just as much to whether an uprising turns into a revolution or not as the events on the ground,” Shirky said.

At the end of the hour-and-a-half-long taping, the group had circled around a host of complex questions, teasing out subtleties and tangents that led to more questions than conclusions. Bishara, hoping to come to some kind of consensus, asked the panel, “So we can all agree that the marriage of what’s happened to the social movement for justice, with social networks, has reinvented Egypt as we see it today?”

Bernstein balked, “Why do we need a definitive answer to all of these questions?”

The answer to that question, at least, was easy, and Shirky and Bishara gave it in unison: “It’s television!”

*Update, Thursday: “Information Wars” is now available for viewing online here, and will begin airing on Al Jazeera English channels tonight.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner Tags: , , , ,