Protesters in Syria are using text messaging, and social media to organize and satirize the government. Street dancing as a form of protest goes against the grain of a more somber, repressed social order, while it confounds and confuses authorities, according to a recent report in the New York Times.
Technology does not lead social change, it follows. Social change is rooted in the aspirations of local people in communities. It is dependent upon their experience. If their experience is of injustice, being ignored and/or abused, technology that allows them to tell their story is a tool for organizing and empowerment, but it is not the driving force. The driving force is the human desire to be heard and treated with dignity.
People in local communities are learning how to use technology to tell their own stories and to act collectively. There is a good discussion of this in SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa. Jeannie Choi provides an overview about online organizing in the United States in the July issue of Sojourners.
When people who have not had the means to tell their own stories find the mechanism to do it, they become empowered. There is a relationship between the ability to tell your story and the legitimizing function of technology. Simply put, if people listen to your story, the act of listening itself is affirming. It can be empowering to discover that your story is important enough for others to listen to it. This affirmation can become a driving force that reinforces your belief in the rightness of your cause. Today you can tell your story globally.
It’s often said that media shape culture and values. It’s also true that media give expression to culture and values. They provide the means for expressing frustrations and angers denied or ignored. The relationship between media and empowerment has become even more direct in the age of Twitter, the web and SMS (short messaging service) texting with an important caveat: the power of new technology depends on where it is available and who can afford it.
Protesters across the Middle East have used social media to coalesce the frustrations of people who are economically repressed and denied their rights. Emboldened by social media and its extensive reach, they have been able to use it strategically to counter official propaganda and coalesce large numbers of people to act in concert and call repressive governments into question.
The conflicting narratives being told by state media and independent media in Egypt today are the result of the earlier use of storytelling and calls to action through social media that gave protesters a voice and the capacity to act. Alternative reporting, often first-hand and in-the-street, challenged the narrative provided by the state-controlled media and continues to do so today.
The larger challenge
In a more ominous use of social media, it’s being reported that the Shabab Islamist militia in Somalia is using Twitter to reach an English-speaking audience outside the region for recruitment. The Shabab have imposed harsh punishment upon those who break their interpretation of Islamic law — amputating limbs, for example — and have restricted the distribution of food aid to starving Somalis unless they control it.
Some U.S. Somali youth have been recruited to Somalia and have died as suicide bombers and militia fighters. As U.S. officials consider how to shut down or immobilize the Shabab’s Twitter account, they must also struggle with the underlying alienation that attracts recruits, and the narrative of Shabab that makes it attractive. This is a far larger challenge than the use of technology itself. And it’s one that the repressive governments of the Arab Spring must contend with as well.
Herein lies a cautionary concern. The same media that empower can be used to disempower. If governments pass restrictive regulations that require media companies to turn over tracking information, personal data and airtime use for cellphones, for example, or tracking data for online use (among other data), the potential for harm to genuine grassroots activism is real.
We’re not at that point yet, but as we celebrate the opening of the repressive regimes in the Arab Spring, and as we see the empowerment of peoples across the African continent and the United States, we must also recognize the tenuousness of the technology that is being utilized — and with it, the fragility of the hopes that lie deep within the human breast to be free, to speak openly and to be heard.
We must work to ensure that the irrepressible desire to make the world a better place does not fall victim to the principalities and powers that would seek to use this technology for evil purposes, and we must resist those oppressive forces that would contain it or snuff it out.
(Postcript, Dec. 29, 2011: A report in the New York Times on Dec. 29 tells of an alarming increase in rape of women and girls in Somalia. The report says gangs of young men have raped women claiming jihad as justification and others have abused women in lawless refugee encampments with no security.)