In the past couple weeks, various news outlets have credited social media for unrest in the Middle East, ranging from Tunisia to Egypt.
Only recently, however, have smarter media begun covering what should have been obvious along: social media is just a channel for communication. It can be an extremely powerful channel – but in these cases, the medium is not the message.
Jon Stewart’s analysis of the “Egypt Twitter Revolution” has been talked about in several circles, as it’s quite adept. On one of last week’s shows, he said, “If two speeches and a social media site is all we needed to spread democracy then why did we invade Iraq — why didn’t we just, I don’t know, poke them.”
Mocking? Yes. But, also true.
Of course, in both Tunisia and Egypt, a great many other factors are/were in play, such as economic turmoil and societal unrest for starters. Each provided the necessary spark for riots and protest. Social media channels just connected users with similar sentiments and helped them organized quickly and directly. The government can own television and radio stations, but no government will ever own all social media channels.
If the internet is on, these channels with present an authentic voice of the people, providing the people are not sharing false messages out of fear of being watched (as the New York Times noted in an article this weekend, K.G.B. agents in Belarus now routinely quote activists’ Facebook posts during investigations).
The Egyptian government, as many are likely aware, choose to flip the switch on the internet and mobile phone networks last week, in hopes it will also shut off the current revolution at the same time. It won’t work, but it will likely create a detour for organizations used to distributing messages via email, SMS, forums, or Twitter etc.
It’s a move that many in the U.S. found shocking, but this type of government mandated control won’t surprise those in the Middle East. Last year, the government in Saudi Arabia temporarily banned Blackberry’s because they wanted supreme control over the content being shared within their borders. It’s not that different, actually, than governmental demands in Egypt, sans protesting, if you think about it.
But, blacking out the internet won’t destroy content or societal rage at governmental regimes. It will only stop the flow of information momentarily, forcing modern day protesters to gather in more antiquated ways.
Social media’s power to disseminate information and the power of the information being shared are two very different entities. The sooner the two concepts are separated from one another, the better