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!”