arab spring & social media thoughts

September 19, 2011

I originally wrote these in June, when Libya’s armed revolution was still struggling, the euphoric afterglow of overthrow lingered throughout the Arab world, and both Europe and the United States had not yet allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by their fiscal instability:

Watching the news lately, it’s hard not to be aware of the situation unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East. What fascinates me most, though, is the massive amount of (traditional) media attention about the role that social media/new media has played in shaping the nature of these (secular?) democratic revolutions. Apparently, I’m not the only one—the French have recently instituted a (rather fair) new law that makes it illegal for news media outlets to specify the social media websites that are being used throughout the countries. Instead of saying “Twitter” or “Facebook”, traditional media outlets are required to use more inclusive pro-nouns or more broad all-encompassing classifications (“social media”).

Even though it was widely ridiculed as more uppity French self-absorption, I welcomed the decision. In this post-millenial, globalised, New Internet age, I am not sure about the idea that privately-owned enterprises like Facebook and Twitter ought to constitute the face of radical dissent. I am concerned that radical left wing politics—what Orwell described as “the struggle for common decency”—will become subservient to what Jonathan Beller might refer to as the NASDAQification of radical left politics.

Let me take a moment to explain: I’m concerned that mass media outlets have painted this portrait of Facebook and Twitter as politically-neutral, no-motive platforms for solidarity and political expression. I think it’s important to point out that these are, in fact, major multi-national corporations. Materially speaking, Facebook and Twitter are basically bound volumes of coded text that would, honestly, probably be able to fit in one of your bookshelves. I think that the high-profile use of these social media outlets by prominent Arab Spring dissenters has been painted by mass media as a triumph of Western-style democratic (read: capitalist) reform, and that this belies the reality that Facebook and Twitter are profiting from both the increased traffic usage and global media attention. Why? Because these bound volumes of code are publicly traded commodities subject to (and in fact, entirely dependent upon) financial speculation. That means that guys like Mark Zuckerberg actually got richer when Arab dissenters talked to each other, went out, and got shot with rubber bullets.

I think it’d be interesting to compare the “triumph” of the Arab Spring with the actual democratic moves made by Wikileaks*, who do not profit from media attention, and yet is branded as a political brigand.

No, for me, the shining moment of the Arab Spring were the rebels in Libya and Yemen, who took to arms and rushed to the mountains when there was no more Internet, who found within themselves a powerful network that transcended “social media”, and who, most importantly, never gave up, even though their brave struggle against totalitarianism—paid for with blood—wasn’t as palatable or sympathetic to the neo-liberal agenda, since nobody was profiting from The Revolution.

*At the same time, however, I think that there needs to be a “third way” to approaching the organizational logic of the internet: one that resists both the bureaucratized centralization of Zuckerberg’s social framework and the disciplinary, almost panoptic, open-source forum of Wikileaks.


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