“People have a view that technology will make us free. No, people will make us free” – Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State
As Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, finds itself again in full-blown political tumult, I find myself recalling words I’ve written and re-written several times over the last year. Technology’s role in the revolutions taking place across the Middle East has been a compelling subject for me since the Arab Spring first became news. The correlation between freedom and the tools we use to secure it has only grown more fascinating, dangerous and confusing with each subsequent episode of protest and violent conflict that has peppered the area since. As the world waits to see how the people of the Middle East respond to the latest conflict, I share these words in the hope that we never forget the true origins of the revolution:
An economic slump gripped the region, food prices were rising drastically and liberal reformers were locked in battle against radical politicians. The working class was out of work and the people were increasingly disgusted with the oppressive monarchies that ruled their nations. Then a major technological change swept the nation, lending the people the ability to connect, organize and ultimately revolt. Major unrest ensued and monarchies across the region were toppled. People celebrated in the streets, convinced that this time would be different, this time their voices were heard and change would be close behind.
It wasn’t different though. The revolution was successful in the short-term, but it had been poorly coordinated, with little thought given to long-term command and stability. Fighting amid the revolutionaries ensued, fracturing the power they had recently established. In some areas, the old regimes were reconstituted; other nations saw the rise of militant groups less suited to govern than their predecessors. Though the circumstances were strikingly similar, this was no Arab Spring and the setting was not the Middle East. It was Europe in 1848, a revolution dubbed “the springtime of the people”.
The European people had organized in support of a common cause, perpetuated by common afflictions and augmented by inflexible autocrats. What was this modernizing development that had united the people and tipped off the revolution? It was the newspaper. Did the ease with which it facilitated communication ensure that the revolution would achieve its goal? It did not. It only proved that granting a voice to the people does not guarantee change.
An unsettling trend has dominated media coverage of the unrest in the Arab world. It is the insinuation that the revolution would not have been possible without blogs, tweets, Facebook and Google. If it were not for the internet, the Arab youth would be incapable of organization, powerless in the face of controlling despots and wholly unsuccessful in their quest for democracy. The people behind the revolution are labeled the “internet generation” or the “Google generation”. Their success is being defined not by their ambition or values, but by how well they navigate a Twitter account.
Technology has become an art, worshipped and revered by all. As brilliant minds come up with new ways to engage electronically every day, we must be careful to give credit where credit is due. Veneration of the tool places ancillary importance on the weapon, at the expense of the people brandishing it. It is the people who hold convictions and morals. It is the people who are worthy of the credit or blame, the people who can be exalted or stand trial. The internet does not have a conscious and cannot be held accountable for the actions it facilitates. It cannot be manipulated or punished – regulating access to it in an attempt to manipulate an outcome is as effective as eliminating guns to eradicate evil. With or without weapons, evil will exist. With or without the internet, revolutions will take place. Their success rides not on the weapons used, but on the minds of the people brandishing them.
The residual consequences of social media are not restricted to revolutions either. In mid-November 2012, the Israel Defense Force began live-tweeting its assault on Hamas, effectively declaring war on the group in 140 characters or less. As parties on both sides scrambled to gain public sympathies, their constant spin-heavy feeds lent the conflict a hollow, surreal context. Graphic images and real-time updates were churned through followers’ twitter feeds, interlaced with the latest news on music, movies or celebrity gossip. The speed and agility of social media now allows interested parties to follow a violent conflict as easily as their favorite TV show.
Diplomacy is not immune to the vast reach of social media either. A “Virtual U.S. Embassy Tehran” was introduced by the U.S. State Department in late 2011, bringing Iranians information unavailable to them by their government-controlled media. The “embassy” provides information from world news to facts on U.S. policy and culture. It’s an incredible tool allowing people of diplomatically-isolated countries to engage on a global stage and it was made possible by the internet. We must be careful to not allow the technology behind this achievement to overshadow the purposes for which it was created though. If we continue to let technology take credit for what individuals achieve, we will soon see national leaders tweeting instead of meeting and Wikileaks will have eradicated any modicum of trust that generations of diplomats have spent building. Social media is a supplement to diplomacy, not a replacement.
As the international community increasingly relies on the internet for communication, the time has come for a candid conversation on the role of technology in revolutions, wars and diplomatic engagement. The internet is aiding the organization and empowerment of the oppressed, extending political awareness and perpetuating new ideas. It is also dehumanizing the revolution and all those for whom it was fought.
We can’t lose sight of the faces behind the blogs and the minds mobilizing the Twitter universe. It must not be forgotten that successful, multi-national revolutions were taking place long before the internet age. We have to remember that before there was a way, there was a will. If we don’t, we run the risk of believing that the people’s power can be as easily dismantled as a social networking page.