Is the phrase “Arab Spring” a trope?
Content is always a tricky issue in the Middle East. There’s not enough of it, there’s no copyright law, the economics aren’t right, and my personal favourite – there’s just too much fluff. In this post I look at the reasons why the media and content industries have misunderstood the Arab Spring and as a result of most of the content being controlled, produced and monetized by brands, what the industry should do now.
The “Arab Spring” has been used to the point of overkill in referring to and explaining anything that has happened in the Middle East since 2011, but little in depth analysis is given to the history or underlying movements. Media have appropriated the revolutions as simply what happens when large groups of networked people have access to information touting the benefits of Twitter, Google and Facebook and promoting these platforms as change makers and beneficial for commercial enterprises. Other more political analysis forgets the context of power brokers and dismisses the role of the West as a transcendant power as conspiratorial.
Let’s have a look at some of the current narrative concerning The Arab Spring and the role of new media.
Al Jazeera in October 2012 – “the protests and riots would not have occurred without YouTube and Vimeo"
Khaleej Times in February 2013 ”I think the media, especially here in the Middle East, is changing quite a lot. Especially if you look at the Arab Spring, things are changing (in terms of media)…I think people are interested in the way the Arab Spring has changed things" – said the World Association of Newspaper Middle East Director
Policy Mic, 2012: “Ultimately, public information supplied by social networking websites has played an important role during modern-day activism, specifically as it pertains to the Arab Spring. In Arab countries, many activists who played crucial roles in the Arab Spring used social networking as a key tool in expressing their thoughts concerning unjust acts committed by the government"
Even more worryingly the same article goes on to say:
"Being capable of sharing an immense amount of uncensored and accurate information throughout social networking sites has contributed to the cause of many Arab Spring activists. Through social networking sites, Arab Spring activists have not only gained the power to overthrow powerful dictatorship, but also helped Arab civilians become aware of the underground communities that exist and are made up of their brothers, and others willing to listen to their stories”
Mashable in February 2013 – the Harlem Shake is an act of political protest in Egypt and Tunisia
Wael Ghonim, stated in an interview with CNN days before the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, ‘If you want to free a society just given them internet access’. Conveniently he was also Google’s marketing director for the region. But, as author Evgeny Morozov has pointed out, history has shown that when societies do get “connected” they are much more likely to consume the latest Sex and the City or Friends series than they are to learn about civil rights in other territories and compare freedoms of expression and then demand change.
More worrying is that the majority of those that work in the media industries here gobble up these stories and regurgitate them in the form of pitches and client presentations, blissfully unaware that they themsleves are victims of an even bigger marketing ploy.
If we look more closely at the official Media line, the “youthful bloggers trained in the use of new media technologies” did not begin their training in September / October of 2010 just before the uprisings, they actually began 3 or 4 years prior.
The 1998 mass movements in Serbia were led by Srdja Popovic, who used text messaging, the internet and social networks to galvanize the population against Milosevic, later he was overthrown in October 2000. In 2004, Popovic set up an organization specializing in non violent action and strategy called CANVAS and hosted a training center. This center was where activists trained for the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. Young politicized leaders from 37 countries went to Serbia for training including many from the MENA region. Tunisians received their training there and Mohammed Adel, one of the founders of the April 6th movement was trained for a week in Belgrade during the summer of 2009.
Documentaries by Al Jazeera demonstrated how Egypt’s April 6th movement had been set up in 2007. Young people went to Serbia and the Caucausus, reported AJ journalists, but no mention was given to their visits to the USA. A significant number of activists and bloggers were given training by 3 American government financed NGO’s: The Albert Einstein Institution, Freedom House and the International Republican Institute.
As early as 2004, but more so between 2006 – 2008 the trainings focused on the strategies and tactics of non violent mobilization, social networks, the use of symbols etc. The American, European and even Russian governments were well aware and funded most of them. The governments of Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia and Syria were also aware as many of the activists were arrested when they returned back from their activities abroad.
Bloggers do continue to debate whether to accept such funding and trainings so closely linked to Western powers. Sami Ben Gharbia, a Tunisian blogger wrote an article on 17th September 2010 where he identifies the risks in doing so.
Google, Twitter and Yahoo were directly involved in training and disseminating information promoting pro democracy activism on the web. A conference called Internet Liberty 2010 organized by Google on 20 – 22 September in Budapest with the participation of American and European government reps, saw the launching of the MENA bloggers network, with organizational impetus from an institute connected with the US Democratic party.
Early on Google helped Egypt’s activist bloggers elude the governments attempts to curtail internet activity by providing them with satellite access codes, but surprisingly Google refused to give the same codes to Syrian activist bloggers also facing repression.
Google’s position throughout the uprisings has been virtually identical to that of US foreign policy – explicit support for Egyptian protestors against Mubarak, but hesitant in the case of Syria in the hope that domestic reforms would keep Bashar al Assad’s regime in power.
Thus, rather than young people and new technologies coming together in a serendipitous evolution on the timeline of digital societies, new media is actually being used as a force to extend US foreign policy. The well oiled content machine, ironically perfectly supported by Google, Facebook and Twitter has no shortage of stories that tout the wondrous effects of Media 2.0 and the reach and sharing continues unabated. One need only look at the repeated stories in the New York Times about how great one or other of those platforms has been and contextualising it within “the Arab Spring”
So, much has been made of the power of social networks to overthrow dictators, an attempt by the media and ICT industries perhaps to show commercial entities that they should spend more money with them for social media management. However – what to do when for example your Facebook page gets hacked as in the recent case of Qatar Foundation?
Are people really using social networks to revolt, or to simply connect and do business, or is it unclear since the most active proponents aren’t really independent and have been trained and funded by concerned players to do so?
Can we really use ICT for good as was mentioned in the Ericsson presentation at the BOLD Talks event in Madinat Jumeirah at the weekend? According to Ericsson, information and communication technologies can lead to innovation, knowledge sharing, creativity and productive workforces. We have the highest consumption of some forms of digital media in the world here in the Middle East along with some of the highest penetration levels of internet and mobile devices, but I’m sure no one would claim we are in any way an innovation center much less a knowledge economy or productive workforce. How then can we move to that, is it possible?
We tend to dismiss groups such as the Salafists complaining about students doing The Harlem Shake and other “radical” segments complaining about Westernization as fringe lunatics that can be ignored. However, with over $2 million per day being spent at McDonalds across the GCC, an explosion in the amount of western brands being distributed by the large merchant houses here and more and more western media – these objections to the continued march of “Westernization” are valid. How will the advertising and media industries cope with this increased polarization in the population? Is it time they were more socially responsible given the sensitive period of time we are now in or do the economics of the business just not allow for the train to be stopped? A subject for another post….
Source: New feed
Let's never use the words Arab Spring again