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Clay Shirky: How Social Media Abetted The Arab Spring

Benjamin Gottlieb, Arezou Rezvani |
November 10, 2011 | 2:16 a.m. PST

Senior News Editor & Staff Reporter

This week on Eye On The Middle East:

Syria's defected soldiers and Iran's unwillingness to retreat from a nuclear program.

This week's featured guest is Clay Shirky.

Clay Shirky is a writer, consultant and scholar of social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He has a joint appointment at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and the Interactive Telecommunications Program. In addition to teaching, Shirky's writings about the internet have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Wired.   

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Featured song: "Boee" by Idan Raichel

Run Time: 22:06



Arezou Rezvani (9:19): Clay, it's great to have you on the program.

Clay Shirky (9:21): Thank you, Arezou. Great to be here.

AR (9:24): There has been a lot of talk about how New Media tools and technologies have played such a key role in the Arab Spring. To what extent do you think that real-time tools like Twitter or Facebook play a role in a people's revolt?

CS (9:39): You know, I don't think you can say people's revolt as a kind of general category. One of the things we've seen is that different regimes respond in different ways to different pressures. Certainly the fact that Egypt and Tunisia fell quickly, Libya defended into a civil war, that Syria has just turned into a kind of bloodbath, Bahrain is becoming effectively an anti-Shi'ite apartheid state means that there isn't a single dial labeled real-time that when you dial it up you get one coherent set of effects. That having been said, what we do see with the social media tools, what we do see with tools that allow for both amateur access to public speech and for group coordination is that it allows a committed group of citizens a way of taking on the state in a way that at least so far the states have a hard time responding to in completely coherent ways. There is what's called the dictator's dilemma that these tools force onto autocratic regimes and when I think about the effect of these tools on these regimes what I think I'm seeing can be broken down, just as a model, along three axes. These tools have done a better job of allowing citizens to synchronize their opinions. If you look at the Kafiya movement in Egypt starting in about 2004, it was a largely blog-based movement which allowed for a bunch of ideologically distinct actors in the Egyptian political scene like the Muslim Brotherhood and relatively secular pro-democracy movements to all agree that whatever else they disagreed about they wanted Mubarak out. The second effect is to coordinate action. It was possible for the Egyptian dissidents to say in advance, "We're hijacking National Police Day, we're taking over January 25 and we're turning it into kind of an ironic protest day. Even though it's National Police Day we're actually going to make an anti-police statement." And they could spread that message throughout the population without having to get permission or help from state media. And then the third thing, which I underestimated but has turned out to be one of the few universals of this wave of protest movement, is documenting the results. The ability of the Bahraini people, for instance, to document the state intervention in the Pearl roundabout in Bahrain or the ability of people to continue to use their cell phones to take photos and videos in Syria and get them out and up onto Youtube and distribute it widely. 

Benjamin Gottlieb (12:20): Clay, let's return to the idea you brought up about the dictator's dilemma. Bashar al-Assad is trying to snuff out opposition in Syria by silencing the media and blocking access to social media services like Facebook, like Twitter and this is a tactic we've seen work very effectively in places like Iran and in China, among others. For our listeners, Clay, can you walk us through the basics of how something like that is done? How social media can be stifled.

CS (12:50): Well, social media can be stifled in a number of ways. The most blunderbuss tactic was of course one Mubarak adopted, which just took down the network and the effects there were so dramatic, so rapid and so much the opposite of what Mubarak wanted that I think it essentially put the autocracies of the world on notice that cutting off countrywide access actually radicalizes parts of the population that did not previously consider themselves to be involved with the ideological dispute, that weren't previously radicalized. So, what countries particularly like Iran and China do is that they do selective time-based, space-based and sometimes content-based shut downs where they will attenuate the network, they will make it run slowly so people can send mail but they can't watch video or they can't upload video. They will block out cell tower, particular cell towers and particular reaches on particular days where there is threat of coordinated action. The Chinese have become very committed to the idea that they will desynchronize public opinion. So for instance, during the rise of the Arab Spring they didn't ban the word "Egypt" and they didn't ban the word "jasmine," but they did prevent it from showing up in trending topics. So there, the goal was not to keep people from talking about those things, because they didn't want to let their citizens know that they were worried, but they wanted to prevent their citizens from realizing that everyone else was talking about that at the same time. And this is really, this why media that allows for social coordination is such a big deal. Governments, particularly authoritarian governments are not afraid of empowered individuals, they're afraid of coordinated groups. So, in many cases the strategy now is to allow a dissident subculture to operate but to prevent them from synchronizing the opinions of a public outside the dissident group.

AR (15:02): Now, the U.S. government has denounced the technological monitoring of citizens and the control of cellular and Internet networks in the past. But then you have incidents like the one in August in which mobile service was shut down in San Francisco of all places to prevent protests from the shooting and death of Charles Blair [Hill]. Can we expect see more of this interference especially say if the Occupy Wall Street protests escalate? 

CS (15:31): Well, I mean God forbid I think has to be the answer if anyone cares about democracy. What they did in Oakland was visibly odious and that control of freedom of speech as an element of control of populations around protest is so antithetical to really the core spirit of the First Amendment. There have been debates about whether or not the First Amendment protects speech outside political speech-- you know, kinda constructionist versus expansionist arguments-- but there is no way to say that speech that is related to freedom of political assembly does not fall under First Amendment control. What I find so interesting about this, is that the tension you were alluding to, which is State Department policy would like to say, "We want the citizens of the world's governments to register protest against those governments, particularly if they're autocratic regimes. But if that policy is followed, then it is clear that what was committed in Oakland wasn't just bad but unconstitutional. And so we now have this situation in which a formerly robust separation between local public policy and foreign policy, you can pursue one foreign policy around freedom of speech and a different foreign policy locally, that is starting to evaporate. Another example was our pursuit, mainly through pressure from Congress of extra legal controls on Wikileaks-- famously convincing Amazon to kick them off their servers, denying access to credit card infrastructure and so forth. It was so undermining of Secretary Clinton's message of Internet freedom to have her own government use extra legal tools to go after Wikileaks that I'm starting to believe that the distinction between local policy and foreign policy, which has been a hallmark of U.S. government for as long as we've had anything worth calling a foreign policy, I think that is starting to evaporate.

BG (17:49): I mean, Clay, obviously the argument was that Wikileaks was a threat to national security and that's why we had the government go in that way.

CS (17:55): The Chinese could make that same argument, the Syrians could make that same argument. I personally understand that there's a group of people who believe that national security is the root password to the Constitution, but even if you invoke national security it does not get you out of the dilemma of, are we a country that believes citizens should be a freedom to speak their minds and free to speak about politically important issues or are we not.

BG (18:26): Social media was used by protestors well before this year's Arab Spring. Demonstrators were using tools in Belarus, for example,  in 2006, in Thailand in 2010. Why has it been more effective for some movements and less effective for others? 

CS (18:41): Certainly the single biggest predictor of the effectiveness of social media is actually the responsiveness of the government to the citizens. In almost all of the cases we had prior to Ben Ali fleeing the country…I believe in all cases prior to leaving the country, every unscheduled change in the executive that was created by insurgents or protestors using social media happened in a democracy. In the Philippines, in Spain, in Thailand there were all of these examples where social media became a coordinating tool for people determined to make a democratic government respond to citizen pressure. It was really not until January 14 of this year that we saw an unscheduled change in the executive office of an autocratic regime when Ben Ali fled the country. So, one of the things that says is that it's much harder to do in an autocracy because an autocracies are by definition less responsive to public pressure and have the opportunity of both violence and suppression much more readily than democracies do. 

AR (20:03): In an issue of Foreign Affairs back in March you said that the political impact to social media has focused on the power of mass protests to topple governments, whereas media's real potential lies in supporting civil society and the public sphere. So, talk to us a little bit about how you see social media supporting civil societies and the public in the foreseeable future. 

CS (20:26): This gets back to this breakdown of sychronization of opinion, coordination of action, and documentation of results. The exciting part and the part that I focused on in 2008 when I wrote Here Comes Everybody --particularly the political chapter of that book, the part that examines politics-- the exciting part is the use of those tools to turn people out on the streets with this information cascade in which a bunch of people who are dissatisfied with the society see other protestors not suffering too much, join the protest, it gets larger, that convinces more people to join and you get this famous information cascade. What I didn't do a good enough job of assessing at the time and what the Foreign Affairs article was written in part to correct was that that effect-- the ability to turn people out on the street-- is the end of a long process rather than a shortcut. It relies first on having a group of people who essentially know and trust one another enough to be willing to turn out in the first place. And so when we look at the Tunisian situation, when we look at the Egyptian situation and particularly when we compare them to places like Burma or Sudan where there isn't a deep civil society, or even frankly Libya where the civil society was so fractured and contentiously competitive with one another, what we see is that the countries where this kind of turnout worked best was where there had been years of conversation in advance among people who were politically like-minded enough to agree on a strategy. 

AR (22:14): Clay, thanks so much for joining us today. 

CS (22:17): Not at all, great to talk to you guys.

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