When the medium becomes the message in the media
For observers partial, impartial or militant, there is now a barometer for the turbulence in the Middle East. The Qatar-based news outlet Al Jazeera has set up an online tool to track Twitter updates from Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen.
But if you’re an aspiring insurgent worried that your movements are now more visible to the government you’re trying to topple, rest assured – social media will find a way.
When Libyan secret police monitored Facebook and Twitter, revolutionaries seeking to oust Muammar Gaddafi from power turned to a dating site called Madawi, assuming aliases from “Sweet Butterfly” to “Melody of Torture” and exchanging coded messages. Their missives, and their mission, are another entry in a series of social media-attributed uprisings that has already claimed the scalp of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
Call it what you like, digital evangelism or cyber-utopianism, the acclaim has been widespread. There have been calls for Twitter to win the Nobel Peace Prize. There have, in fact, been calls for the entire internet to win the Nobel Peace Prize. But there has also been a backlash, which has grown into a raging debate.
One of the most strident opposing voices is Stanford University scholar and Foreign Policy magazine contributing editor Evgeny Morozov. Last year, Morozov wrote an article for Foreign Policy which systematically cast doubt on many of the feel-good reactions to the internet.
He argues that every time social media or the internet are used for good, they are just as likely to be used for other, more murky aims, such as allowing homophobic activists in Serbia to organise against gay rights via Facebook. It’s a sort of Newton’s Third Law of the internet, if you will. And one of his pithier statements – “Tweets don’t overthrow governments, people do” – was expanded upon at length by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker.
Gladwell uses the framing device of sit-ins by black US college students in 1960, refusing to move from white-only cafés in a bid for equal rights, to argue that actual, physical effort is a vital ingredient for change, that news of such movements has ways of spreading, and that revolutions, social or otherwise, happened long before the internet. His take is that the activism associated with and fostered by social media is built on, and creates, “weak ties” that provide access to information as opposed to the “strong ties” – personal connections, and personal or financial risk – that characterise high-risk activism such as the protests that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
If you’re sitting there preparing a backlash against the backlash, fear not: Jay Rosen has got you covered. Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University and a prolific press critic, has a label for the preceding flavour of reportage – Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators – and finds that it avoids the most difficult and interesting question: Just how does the internet affect the balance of forces in a contest between the state and people fed up with the state?
“Revolutionary hype is social change analysis on the cheap. Debunking is techno-realism on the cheap. Neither one tells us much about our world,” says Rosen in the Huffington Post. So why does the debate continue?
Perhaps a key to understanding its roots (and enduring popularity) lies in appreciating how those old-style presses regard their newer, speedier kin. Discussing the efficacy and effectiveness of social media does two things – it implies that the rubber stamp of a masthead is required, and it generates content. Much like the article you’re reading right now.
And while Malcolm Gladwell’s take has drawn some appreciation and much derision, there is one salient point that emerges: coverage of how communication in a revolution takes place often overshadows coverage of the revolution itself . The traditional media have long been obsessed with vectors of communication – no other industry is as uniquely positioned to eulogise its own demise – but while social media has been successfully used to break stories, it has also become the story.
A nice example comes by way of The Age’s website, in a video called Quake as reported by social media. The clip consists of amateur and CCTV footage of the earthquake in Christchurch, as well as seconds-long shots of scrolling tweets and Facebook pages set up in the quake’s aftermath. In this instance, “social media” appears to have become a synonym for “citizen journalism”, which is to say footage and reportage delivered by those not attached to a media organisation.
There is a place for this. The bastions of traditional media play an important role in whittling down massive amounts of information from disparate sources and knitting them into a clear narrative. But there is a fundamental difference between reporting via social media, or using material from social media in reportage, and merely reporting that social media has covered an event.
Facebook and Twitter encourage journalists’ accountability and interaction, but another part of their appeal is in increasing the visibility of traditional media, an extension of the ethos that sees talking heads on television dispensing opinion and commentaries sharing front pages with reporting.
Consider the shots of crowds that often accompany coverage of a protest, hundreds or thousands of anonymous faces revelling in victory or snarling in righteous anger. If social media can give a voice to those faces, then the opposite also holds true – it can put faces on those in the media already possessed of a voice. And so it comes full circle. Or, you might say, a revolution.