Digital media and the Arab spring

By Guest Contributor
February 16, 2011

BAHRAIN-CLASHES/

By Philip N. Howard, author of “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam,” and director of the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam at the University of Washington. The opinions expressed are his own.

President Obama identified technology as one of the key variables that enabled and encouraged average Egyptians to protest. Digital media didn’t oust Mubarak, but it did provide the medium by which soulful calls for freedom have cascaded across North Africa and the Middle East. It is difficult to know when the Arab Spring will end, but we can already say something about the political casualties, long-term regional consequences and the modern recipe for democratization.

It all started with a desperate Tunisian shopkeeper who set himself on fire, which activated a transnational network of citizens exhausted by authoritarian rule. Within weeks, digitally-enabled protesters in Tunisia tossed out their dictator. It was social media that spread both the discontent and inspiring stories of success from Tunisia across North Africa and into the Middle East.

The protests in Egypt drew the largest crowds in 50 years, and a second dictator fell from power. The discontent spread through networks of family and friends to Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen. Autocrats have had to dismiss their cabinets, sometimes several times, to placate frustrated citizens. Algerians had to lift a 19-year “state of emergency” and are gearing for demonstrations over the weekend. Even Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi has had to make concessions to activists brave enough to raise street protests against government housing policy.

But perhaps the most important casualty in terms of global politics is the U.S. preference for stability over democracy in North Africa and the Middle East. This preference, expressed in different foreign policies, seems untenable when groundswells of public opinion mobilize for democracy.

What are the lessons for the West? First, Islamic fundamentalists may terrorize parts of the region, but a larger network of citizens now has political clout, largely because of social media. The Muslim Brotherhood is no longer the only way to organize political opposition. In a digital world, older ideologically recalcitrant political parties may not even be the most effective way to organize effective political opposition.

Second, democratization has become more about social networks than political change driven by elites. The U.S. needs to spot when a dictator’s social networks fragment to the point that he is incapable of managing his regime. More urgently, the U.S. needs to take serious note when networks of family and friends align — increasingly through digital media — on a set of grievances that political elites simply cannot or will not address.

So what are the lessons for Tunisia and Egypt’s neighbors in the region? In this global, digital media environment, it is going to be increasingly difficult for the strong men of North Africa and the Middle East to rig elections. It will also be increasingly difficult to suspend democratic constitutions and pass power to family members. In the West, we may not think of these things as significant steps. But historically, closing options for authoritarian rule has been an important part of democratization. Giving a dictator less room to maneuver is as much a part of democratization as is running the first successful election.

Finally, what does it all mean for democratization? The Arab Spring has already brought down two dictators. Regardless of whether others will fall in the next few days or weeks, terms and conditions for authoritarian rule in North Africa and the Middle East have changed. With even a modicum of outside support, democracy in these countries can be home grown.

The West has a significant opportunity to help people across these regions enshrine the democratic norms we value and they seek. America should issue the right kinds of rhetorical and practical support, such as working hard to keep the Internet infrastructure open and publicly accessible. Taking advantage of this opportunity means understanding the ingredients for democratization — especially digital media.

Photo: People gather at a Shi’ite village cemetery in Sanabis, west of Bahraini capital Manama, February 15, 2011. Thousands of Shi’ite protesters marched into the capital on Tuesday after a man was killed in clashes between police and mourners at a funeral for a demonstrator shot dead at an earlier anti-government rally. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

588 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

When I initially commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a remark is added I get four emails with exactly the same comment. Is there any manner you possibly can take away me from that service? Thanks!

This is a very good tip especially to those fresh to the blogosphere. Brief but very accurate information… Many thanks for sharing this one. A must read article!|

Its not my first time to pay a quick visit this web site, i am visiting this web site dailly and take good information from here every day.|

Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you writing this article and the rest of the website is also really good.|

This is getting a bit more subjective, but I much prefer the Zune Marketplace. The interface is colorful, has more flair, and some cool features like ‘Mixview’ that let you quickly see related albums, songs, or other users related to what you’re listening to. Clicking on one of those will center on that item, and another set of “neighbors” will come into view, allowing you to navigate around exploring by similar artists, songs, or users. Speaking of users, the Zune “Social” is also great fun, letting you find others with shared tastes and becoming friends with them. You then can listen to a playlist created based on an amalgamation of what all your friends are listening to, which is also enjoyable. Those concerned with privacy will be relieved to know you can prevent the public from seeing your personal listening habits if you so choose.

Hands down, Apple’s app store wins by a mile. It’s a huge selection of all sorts of apps vs a rather sad selection of a handful for Zune. Microsoft has plans, especially in the realm of games, but I’m not sure I’d want to bet on the future if this aspect is important to you. The iPod is a much better choice in that case.

I am actually glad to read this webpage posts which consists of tons of useful information, thanks for providing these statistics.|

It’s very simple to find out any matter on web as compared to books, as I found this paragraph at this web page.|