The role of mainstream and social media in the Arab Spring

March 28, 2012 4:01 pm0 commentsViews: 67

In the current climate it is important to ask what textbooks will say about the events that were triggered in 2011, when Mohammed Bouazizi self-immolated in an act of protest which reverberated across the Middle East and threw the region into a seminal process of transition. How will this part of history, still in the making, be told?

It is said that a sense of the past illuminates the present. But what if the way we make sense of things in the present might already suggest how it will be reproduced once it is considered as the past? In a nutshell, can we infer from the way the ‘Arab Spring’ is covered today to the way historians will make sense of it in ten to twenty years time? If so, we are left with a rather fragmented picture of contemporary history, considering the coverage of the Arab upheavals by mainstream media.

The frequency of media attention given to certain countries and not to others, as well as the terminology that the media adopt is highly questionable. The term ‘Facebook Revolution’ misconceives current events. Representing the struggles for political and societal changes in the Middle East merely as a ‘Social Media Revolution’ of an upper middle class youth is selective and simply does not correspond to the situation. It ignores the majority of poor people, also among the urban youth, and misses out the various forms of creative activism on the ground and their grass-root organisation in forms of neighbourhood patrols and cleaning troops, for example.

It draws a worrying picture of activism, since it implies that by clicking on a link or forwarding something, one has done one’s share. However, it was the people who continuously gathered in the streets, demanding change and claiming their dignity. However, their role is misconceived in the current developments in the Middle East

What the term ‘Facebook Revolution’ gets wrong is that it gives credit to the tool where it should be given to the people. It frames the events from a technological perspective of development through modernisation and by this presumes an ‘inability’ to democratise without new media.

However, as spontaneous as the ongoing developments in the Middle East may have appeared, they barely came out of the blue. Recent history has its examples of successful mass mobilisation in the Middle East, long before the world was obsessed with the potential of social media: the student movement in Egypt after Nasser’s defeat 1967, the first Palestinian Intifada of 1987, protests against wars in Iraq 1990/91 and 2003, or the Iranian Green Revolution 2009 are but a few examples. The region saw labour movements as it did generate female activism. Yet, media coverage mainly failed to put the Arab upheavals into perspective and acknowledge them as part of a continuous historical development of ups and downs.

What if a more cautious and balanced way of covering the Arab upheavals at present could prevent us from getting history wrong – how may such coverage be realised and what are its obstacles?

Whereas the role of new media has been exaggerated in triggering protests, it does play an essential part in gathering information. Video footage captured by mobile phones and distributed via the Internet enables a counter perspective to official state media. A potential that increasingly gains relevance in cases were journalists are not allowed to enter a country or when authoritarian regimes try to disconnect their people from any communication with the outside world by cutting-off internet access and mobile services.

Yet, citizen-captured footage is of no immediate value, since it does not speak for itself. Initially, it only expands the pool of incoming information which needs to be verified – just as any other source. Not to forget that every bit of citizen generated content that appears in the mainstream media was carefully chosen. Hence, there might be more information available to balance the coverage, however, this does not thoroughly challenge the power of mainstream media to be selective along their agenda.

New ways of information gathering do not stop information warfare. In Syria, the devastating explosions in Damascus and Aleppo are a case in point. While the opposition accused groups loyal to the government of carrying out the attacks to tarnish the uprising, the regime took the events as proof of being targeted by terrorists and consequently legitimisation to continue its brutal crackdown.

Although the ‘war of information’ is nothing new, it has reached a novel dimension with the era of cyber warfare. Technological innovation opened up new possibilities in the game of controlling information and spreading disinformation. The most recent example is the leak of emails from Assad’s private email account obtained by the The Guardian, revealing for example how Assad took advice from Iran. The emails were intercepted by members of a Syrian opposition group and according to The Guardian, are genuine. Al Jazeera, too, has gained access to confidential documents which were passed to the network by a former member of Assad’s government.

 However, the new possibilities of communication technology are a mixed blessing which should be treated with caution. Communication always works two-ways and whereas some information is leaked there is other information that is being covered up. For example, when a respectable opinion poll found that 55% of the Syrians are in favour of Bashar al-Assad remaining as president, despite being major news, it did not make the headlines. ‘It was ignored by almost all media outlets in every western country whose government has called for Assad to go’. If anything here is clear, it is that everything is unclear.

If it is also true that ‘journalists write the first draft of history’, how then is this reconcilable with truth being the ‘first casualty of war’ ?

Maybe we should forget about hindsight and rather acknowledge that history is made today, in the way we look at events, how we reflect on, name and frame them. Therefore, we have to be cautious and critical today, and ultimately challenge the information we are presented with. Making sense of current events is not about seeking the elements of truth within a story, but rather about detecting and recognising the underlying complexity of today’s news, which will shape the history of tomorrow.

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