Exploration of the Arab Spring and What we can Learn

This blog post features our collaborative note-taking in class on Monday, 11/7, regarding the Arab Spring. Thank you to Mary for facilitating the discussion. Below are the main ideas from our class. The raw note taking can be viewed here: http://brownbag.me:9001/p/introcivic-arabspring

Summaries and discussions from the core readings:

Sami Ben Gharbia, “The Internet Freedom Fallacy and the Arab Digital activism”: http://samibengharbia.com/2010/09/17/the-internet-freedom-fallacy-and-th…
-developed a local version of activism through digital means.
-Sami critiques funding from ‘Internet Freedom initiative’ (Clinton): This is the same US state department that provided millions to these autonomous/dictatorial regimes–ironic and wrong.
-arab blogs should stay free of US funding-in fear of losing independence (interference free)
-Arab blog sphere: need autonomy (vs. US private sector companies Google, Yahoo, Twitter, etc.) this argument comes from the mindset of post-colonial theory
-each country’s blog sphere is uniquely complex and different–need to maintain this.
-Broader critique of professionalization of activism and international development
– replacement of local, autonomous participation by transnational efforts
-practical critique: by becoming associated w/ US based funding, local activists face heavy repression from their govt. (Singled out as “supported dissident” == danger from state)
-there is also a strong anti-US sense in many Arab countries: so receiving funding may cause you to lose respect of readers and credibility
– Egypt as an example
-funding increases repression
-tools that are funded are sometimes not effective or not even implemented
-activists in US should encourage govt to stop funding autonomous/dictatorial regimes rather than these small cyber tools.
-anonymity should be allowed for bloggers and activists in repressed countries (safety)
-local needs are so different and not understood by people in the US
– critique of Orientalism – belief that Middle East needs (in this case) its own system/set of tools
-cohesive message, hierarchy rather than decentralization is efficient and good-
-military aid is a way of engaging–can defend human rights and other values in the long run by engaging through military but what they actually need is a broader shift in policy than just little
funding for blogging tools.

Reaction on Sami’s critiques by Ethan Zuckerman from the Center for Civic Media: Tor was (originally) developed by the USG. Should it be used by local activists?
Info about Tor: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tor_%28anonymity_network%29#History
There should be attributes that leads to greater transparency so people know what’s going on. If a tool is Open Source, then it can be clear what’s happening w/people’s data. (though open source may not be sufficient. see this example: http://arstechnica.com/open-source/news/2010/12/fbi-accused-of-planting-…)

Example from Bolivia: criticizing indigenous movements regarding a road cutting through national park. government supporters blamed that the activists were being funded by the US to protest the construction. (in truth, this is an organic movement without any affiliation): https://nacla.org/blog/2011/8/26/bolivia-tipnis-marchers-face-accusation…

There was a parallel critique in the context of elections in Ukraine: poisoned from US funding in the election to nurture democracy but what really mobilized people was the online civic media used (main focus: how the online platforms will continue to work post-political crisis)

Nouredine Miladi: “Tunisia: A media led revolution?” http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/01/2011116142317498666…
-provides context of overall media ecology of Tunisia
-discusses the importance of moving away from the simplistic debate about the importance of social media and delve more into broader contexts
(e.g. relationship between media and social movements/mobilization)

-Al Jazeera does not have a base in North Africa. So they were kicked out because they were critical of the leaders
(because they were doing the best job of reporting what was really going on there)
-Mary’s obervation: some of the coverage is sometimes not correctly analyzed by the audience.
-Main point: satellite networks pick up compelling content and spread it through satillite broadcasters (citizen produced content is spread this way)
-large proportions who access satellite networks through pirating (collective feed) or in wealthier countries.
-This is possible because people have their own dish. In Tunisia specifically, internet penetration rate was only 10% but about 90% had satellite access.
-The importance of Twitter was also raised: is it being used extensively within Tunisia or is more of the Twitter from outside of Tunisia?
-Case study in Egypt: The Egyptian army was not willing to kill and slaughter people at large but rather, target certain activists and leaders
-Contrasting case study in Burma: there is a massacre –makes it more difficult to ‘win’
-visuals of this creates mass mobilization.
-tangent conversation–has not been as visible as Libya (why?)
-US military will pressure countries not to kill everyone or else threaten with cut of funding
-Synthesis of discussion: Why are some countries more willing/less willing to kill people? They are trying to Keep up appearances/maintain images: In Egypt,there are economic ties to US but in Syria, they are not connected to a great world power.

What was available to the people in Tunisia?
-it wasn’t Twitter alone that helped mobilize–it was all the other resources present that helped as well.
News that is provided is presented in a narrow scope. It doesn’t take into consideration the history and background influences of these news stories. Context is missing.
For more in depth information and using Egypian revolution as a case study, look at suggested readings: design brief on tahrir square from thereboot.org http://thereboot.org/wp-content/Egypt/Reboot-Egypt-From-Revolutions-To-I…

Class Activity on civic media: create a video recording discussing one lessons learned per member of the class from the Arab Spring. Here is the text of what was said in the video:

-Social Media tools like Twitter can help facilitate action, but they are not at the root of a movement. They don’t produce tangible results–rather, revolution does.
-Civic media can be the source of news when traditional media are controlled by the government. Main stream media could be used as amplifier to refeed the loop.
-Provide context about the region or issues of interest, such as current media ecologies and a historical perspective.
-Take advantage of tradtional channels. The old can be as good as–or better than–the new.
-Outsider perspective and/or resources, without context, can have different interpretation than locals.
-Civic media can be decentralized and unstructured– this doesn’t make it ineffective.
-Civic media can help subjects become citizens. It pushes people in becoming active information participants, it helps coordinate different actors for organizing and bring outside solidarity for a movement.
-Local civic actors are capable of advocating for themselves. (Even in non-democratic societies!)
-Civic media makers almost certainly come with a certain level of education and tech-savviness. We need to recognize that there are different demographics participating within a movement, and civic discourse may reflect only one of them.
-The Revolution will be tweeted, but tweets do not the revolution make.

Here are even more lessons that we identified from the Arab Spring that were not included in the video but are still important to understand. Some of them detail the statements made in the video:

-It can look like hypocrisy if you come in as an outsider with (for example) US funding but some other branch of the US govt is helping the state in some capacity. This hypocrisy can impede your effectiveness and your ability to work with local activists/ bloggers, etc.
-Censorship can make it difficult to get messages outside of sphere of influence. International media don’t always pick up on local happenings. Need to make the rest of the world interested.
-Be careful about where you get your funding. Real dangers in affiliation with foreign influences/actors. Must be taken into account.-stay aware of the implications of that funding Foreign funding can undermine legitimacy of local efforts.
-Modern traditional media is most likely willing to take your input into consideration or beyond.
-Active engagement is as important as passive reporting.
-Possible lesson: “revolving door” between private companies (Google) and US govt can make activists yearning for autonomy wary of relying on them/ using them.
-Local topics are more pertinent when they’re written by locals. It’s easy to miss a local perspective if you’re coming in from the outside
-Media is a complex ecosystem
-Maintain relationship with both mainstream media and also have a more united front with collaboration with all activists.
-It’s important to build relationships and legitimacy through networks to (know journalists who work for mass media).
-More of the civic in conversations and less on the media
-Simply tweeting about an issue doesn’t mean that someone is active in the movement or have knowledge about the issue-understand who is participating in the civic media (in the issue Iran–most of the Tweets came from outside of Iran–where is the info and tweet coming from? from within the community?)

For more exploration, watch one film from the AlJazeera English series “The Arab Awakening:”