Jillian C. York writes about free expression, politics, and the Internet, with particular focus on the Arab world. She works at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and writes for Global Voices Online. In a blog post here she asks the question 'How are protestors in Egypt using social media?'´ Her blog post made me think about my own fascination of social media and Africa.
Jillian C. York namely questions the West's enthusiasm for social media - and the common idea that the present demonstrations and revolutions in the Arab world might be facilitated, so to speak, by social media:
'To suggest that this type of organizing is limited to right now would be to ignore the existing use of digital tools in the region for social and political organizing. To be honest, so much of the rhetoric around the use of social media in Egypt and Tunisia makes me want to scream — folks act like these American tools just dropped from the sky like humanitarian food rations, set to save the people from their (American-supported, natch) dictators.'
'Egyptians are not out in the streets because of Facebook, nor Twitter. They are not angry because an American diplomat who spent a few years in their country revealed something that a nation of Egyptians already knew. Egyptians are angry, and rightfully so, at a dictatorship that has been around for longer than I’ve been alive, a dictatorship that has been supported by the United States for almost as many years (see Alaa Abd El Fattah’s thoughts on that here). And if their will is to bring that dictator down, then so be it'
Photo>>: Writing on the wall in Belgrade in 2000, making a reference from Serbia's dictator, Slobodan Milosevic (Slobo) to the Romanian dictator, Caucesku, who was shut in 1990.
The only revolution I ever had a personal relationship with was when the Serbian resistance movement and civil society protested back in 2000. E-mails and mobile phones were available then, but no social media. Serbs are outstanding networkers by nature, and I believe their sense of connectivity played a role when they organised demonstrations back then.
For an outsider this was evidently a challenge to follow due to language and culture. As an outsider, I experienced that I had to grow strong personal relations in order to follow what went on inside the country when I left Serbia in September 2000. I remember how I tried to reach people in early October 2000 via mobile phone, landlines and e-mails, and only got sporadic reports back, because the network was instable, but also because people were - off-line - in the streets.
Today I wonder if a reason for the West's (myself included) fascination with social media in relation to change, activism and revolutions is that news no longer are limited to mainstream media, and because it provides us all with an option for following people closely and for communicating with those involved?
I'll be the first to admit, that I'm truly fascinated by the recent use of social media in African context, probably because I was living in Uganda and Tanzania while it took off. I know that it is a relatively simple task for me to hashtag, retweet and share, and through social media indicate my interest and solidarity with people who have gone to the streets in a country I may only know too few details of (had it not been for the social media).
However, social media also has its limits.
Back on September 19 2010, I blogged about the Tanzanian MP, Zitto Kabwe, running for office while combining kanga and ngoma with social media. And again on January 19 2011 I summed up in a blog post here: 'A new breed of techno-savvy politicians in Africa?' In Tanzania, a recent survey, however, showed that 83% of the population get their news from the radio and that government still is the most trusted source.
The African politician - or a civil society organisation - might be operating social media smoothly from urban centres, but their biggest challenge still remains to connect with the far corners of the rural areas where social media doesn't make much of a difference.
- Similar case in Zimbabwe, where activists have to work on alternatives like Ezra Sibanda's 'tin-can version of Twitter'.
Can our fascination be explained by the fact, as Jillian C. York points out, that we (maybe subconsciously) need to believe that the West has a vital part in it all, because most social media tools are invented in the West: 'folks act like these American tools just dropped from the sky like humanitarian food rations, set to save the people from their (American-supported, natch) dictators.'?
One problem is when journalists (and others) draw hasty conclusions, i.e. by defining a trend before it is a trend: 'Go one way, and you risk overstating the influence, go the other and you’re dismissed as assuming individuals in the Arab world incapable of leveraging social media tools for organizing.', another when we fail to aknowledge that change, activism and revolutions are hard work fought in real life, not in cyberspace and due to real problems like unemployment, repressive governments and food prices:
'To do so is to take credit from the very brave individuals who’ve spent the past few days in the streets of Cairo and Suez, the individuals who’ve been shot at, some killed. To do so is to ignore the brutality, the tear gas, and the killings.'
I'm not sure of the answers to my doubt, but Jillian C. York's blog post made me think of two reasons for thinking twice when it comes to my fascination of the impact of social media:
In Serbia 2000, where I experienced being in and out out the country, I learnt that personal relations - no matter what - are the key to understand what's really going on. In my experience from Africa I've tried to make the same effort, and I must conclude, that interacting via social media makes much more sense if you also occasionally engage with social media actors in real life.
Social media may make us feel a little bit closer and almost on the inside, though we are continents away - but maybe it is time to underline that social media may only represent part of the truth; that people will demonstrate and revolutionize no matter what; and that social media never can replace meeting/networking/sharing in real life?