Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Social media are not revolution but they are the stage setters for change.

What happens after the protests are over?

Trends: Finally some good news creeps onto the world stage.

by Tom Thorne
The first two Trends pieces I wrote for this blog concentrated on some bleak prospects for the next ten years. Good news is in short supply with European Eurozone countries moving at glacial speed to sort out their profligate economies. Political and economic stagnation is everywhere in Europe and also in the United States. The status quo is strong and change seems to be only a wistful hope. 
Then in the second Trends piece I discussed issues for Africa which seem obvious to correct but there seems to be no will to deal with these problems. Clearly depressing stuff.
Leadership is in short supply. Greed and careless form without substance business and politics seem to be the norm. Well it won’t do and many people (mostly young and without prospects) are beginning to realize that their futures are not with the aims of power elites and sadly even with their elected officials. The power elites hold onto their power but it is no longer without challenge.
Dare we hope for democracy?
There is a demand across the world by people for a more public controlled democratic politics. Connected to this is another important change. Women expect to have respect and be able to control their lives often in parts of the world where they are treated as second class citizens and where their human rights are under constant stress by honour killings and other misogynous imbedded practices. 
The wealth, resources and power controlled by a minority are now being challenged. Many oligarchies and dictators are under stress or have been removed across the Arab World. Egypt has removed Hosni Mubarak and held its first wave of Lower House elections, Libya has unceremoniously removed Mu’ammer Gadhafi and President Assad is losing control of Syria as the army and the people polarize into a likely civil war. In addition, Iran is stressed within its borders by its own people as much as it is by world opinion. In North America we see the Occupy Movement camping in parks to get change rolling.
In the US, Republican presidential hopefuls are self destructing in scandals and Congress although still in self-imposed gridlock is in status quo mode which cannot ultimately work for the US. Control by the few is slipping and there is change in the air. President Barack Obama is the first US president who effectively used social media to get elected. The Occupy Movement is also using social media to organize and their presence in the streets has all the makings of the Vietnam protests of the 1960’s and those events did alter politics to the point of ending that war.
The Occupy Movement is in the streets continually. There is no major city in the west that hasn’t had to deal with the Occupy groups just as the Arab world has been dealing with their versions of this phenomenon. The main feature of these groups is that they are leaderless and the power elite people can’t relate to groups that just exist with no perceivable agenda or perceivable leadership. As a result there is little focus for persecutions and secret police forces have little focus on who to arrest, intimidate or try to control. These protests are apolitical at least in a content way. They are amorphously joined together by social media. 
The Internet and its social media is a technique of our times has a content free influence over events. It signals a need to change.
The Internet is inherently democratic and fragments large formal power structures and hierarchies. Once the power brokers get wind of this fact they begin attempts to control this amorphous entity that can bring disenfranchised people into the centres of large urban areas to protest the very existence of power itself that is concentrated into the hands of a few.
Propagandists for the powerful few call it insurrection. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak ordered the Internet shut down and turned off cell phones. It took seconds for phone land lines to light up with computers and social media to begin dialogues and structures to keep the “revolution” running. The results you know.
So that is the good news. It remins me of the 1976 film Network. In that film the audience is extolled by the on air TV news host Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, to go to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore." That is the current message of the social media induced actions that assemble “revolutionaries” in Tahrir Square in Cairo or fill public places worldwide as the Occupy Movement. It’s better to do something than sit and watch power brokers run your life by intimidation. 
Refreshing developments
I find this development refreshing and very positive. The "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore." is typical of social media induced protest. It is largely unfocused except by generalities. It means that the Internet is changing thought patterns of its users in ways no one in authority can understand, and what’s more important, they cannot control what happens. It’s an edge for people to gain their freedom without an actual content focus.
Social media are inherently democratic. The Internet social applications focus almost pure energy without any real propaganda attached to that energy. Ideas no matter how general and unfocused can go “viral”. Truly the medium, in this case, is the message. The message is that we can organize, connect and make things happen without defining the content or creating focus to put down protests for change. Social media are inherently change itself. 
The content of what’s happening is ill defined change. It is change as change. It is the fact that the protesters or users can do it that’s important. It is too diverse to carry one propaganda message. The message is the medium’s ability to create an environment where change itself is expected while remaining undefined and vague. In Tahrir Square the simple message was “Mubarak Leave Office”. Just how that could be achieved was not the point.
Let’s look further at the recent Egyptian experiment. The actions of the “revolutionaries” was that most of them were linked by cell phones and in a portion of the “revolutionaries” had smart phones with web access. Twitter and Facebook played a part along with simple texting and email. The activities focused through the Internet brought a critical mass of like thinking which was basically to protest the Mubarak regime and get it to peacefully resign. 
The content was only that deep. If you don’t like Mubarak, protest by going to the streets or Tahrir Square. There was no detailed political agenda or discernible political movement or ideology at play. Not even very much specific anti-Mubarak propaganda. The content was to link and protest a generic dislike of the socio-political conditions Egyptians find themselves in. Mubarak was the brand to attach very complex economic and political  troubles in Egypt to although details remain vague as to how his removal would change anything.
Most Egyptians attached their troubles to the Mubarak brand identity. 

The protests crossed all political bounds from Islamic fundamentalists to secular Arabs and Christians and even the Army. Why you were protesting was not based on agendas except that you could network to do so using social media on the Internet.
Only when the “revolution” is won and Mubarak fell and elections were set did the political differences and agendas emerge. Violence started in Cairo and Alexandria. Christians were persecuted and their churches were burned down as old prejudices surfaced. The Army and security forces still in control, knew that they could not control the protest part which is so amorphous that it cannot be focused into any real tangible political form. The recent Egyptian parliamentary elections did that part. Now there are some fears that the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing will take power with large portion of the popular vote setting the stage for an Islamic state. 
In short the cool medium of social media is without propaganda it is a form to organize protest. The hot medium here is the election process which is all propaganda and isolates points of view into conventional platforms and positions on where Egypt should go after Mubarak’s downfall. 
Politics are pure content, social media induced protests are without focused content. The social media are cool. Elections are hot and live in the world of content and the political need to define problems and provide solutions. Elections are promotional events that run on content. Social media protests are simply a medium to organize a content free protest. They merely set the stage for change to happen.
Egyptians twittered themselves to Tahrir Square each day.

© Copyright 2011, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved

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