Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Facebook Effect: Tunisia, Egypt and The Oscars

In 2003, President George Bush had a theory he thought would change the world. How much of the theory was actually his and not Dick Cheney's and his neocon buddies' is up for debate, but the gist of the idea was this: Get rid of Saddam Hussein, establish democracy in Iraq, and the rest of the Middle East would fall into freedom like a cascade of dominoes.

In 2011, we're seeing the Middle East falling into freedom like a cascade of dominoes. Huzzah! Were Bush and Cheney, gasp, actually right??

Well, yes and no. They were right about one thing: freedom is contagious. It's common sense, really. If your hard-earned money is being taxed, then you're funding your government. And if your government treats you like a slave, that breeds resentment. Freedom is the logical desire: the hope that your efforts will provide you, and not the members of your government, with a better life. The hope that one day, nothing will stand in the way of your happiness.

It makes sense that if the yoke of autocratic rule is thrown off in a country where that hope once seemed impossible--those elsewhere who similarly seek freedom will be encouraged to take action.

Autocrats rule by making their people believe that freedom isn't for them. They stay in power by making their people fear that without an iron fist, anarchy will take over. Once that illusion is dispelled, there's nothing left to hold back the floodgates of democracy.

But the Cheney-Bush Middle East domino theory was wrong, catastrophically wrong, about the agent of change. They believed military intervention would be the driver behind a people's revolution. According to them, the people would only rise up if they knew they had the backing of a superpower, the United States. Without military assistance from abroad, the people would be too scared to turn on their leaders.

We've recently seen otherwise. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt (and possibly elsewhere... Iran and Saudi Arabia being next in line), were not precipitated by the U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, they were sparked by another idea that developed in 2003.


From The New York Times:

After a strike that March in the city of Mahalla, Egypt, Mr. Maher and his friends called for a nationwide general strike for April 6. To promote it, they set up a Facebook group that became the nexus of their movement, which they were determined to keep independent from any of the established political groups. Bad weather turned the strike into a nonevent in most places, but in Mahalla a demonstration by the workers’ families led to a violent police crackdown — the first major labor confrontation in years.

Just a few months later, after a strike in Tunisia, a group of young online organizers followed the same model, setting up what became the Progressive Youth of Tunisia. The organizers in both countries began exchanging their experiences over Facebook. The Tunisians faced a more pervasive police state than the Egyptians, with less latitude for blogging or press freedom, but their trade unions were stronger and more independent. “We shared our experience with strikes and blogging,” Mr. Maher recalled...

After the Tunisian revolution on Jan. 14, the April 6 Youth Movement saw an opportunity to turn its little-noticed annual protest on Police Day — the Jan. 25 holiday that celebrates a police revolt that was suppressed by the British — into a much bigger event. Mr. Ghonim used the Facebook site to mobilize support. If at least 50,000 people committed to turn out that day, the site suggested, the protest could be held. More than 100,000 signed up.

“I have never seen a revolution that was preannounced before,” Mr. Ghonim said.

In Tunisia and Egypt, where the rights to public assembly were severely restricted, and free speech non-existent, Facebook became the logical place to organize and assemble a protest.

The youthful leaders of the respective opposition movements each took advantage of Facebook's age gap-- it's unlikely that Mubarak or Ben Ali were checking their Facebook newsfeeds or that their secret police even took note of the myriad Facebook groups dedicated to ousting their regimes. It's likely that Mubarak and Ben Ali, if they even thought about Facebook at all, thought about it like some harmless fad, a method that the youth of the nation used to share pictures and post baby bunny videos.

They soon discovered, however, that Facebook could be a powerful force. By bringing together people and their social networks, information could fly fast and unfiltered among dozens, hundreds, thousands of people at once. Dictators like Ben Ali and Mubarak relied on control of information to control their people. Facebook subverted that control, providing a conduit for mass communication that flowed free of government censors.

Freedom is contagious. But it didn't spread through military intervention. It's spreading through technological innovation.

In Apple's famous 1984 Macintosh TV spot, a hammer thrower shatters the Big Brother image lording over a population of slaves:

Twenty-seven years later, we're seeing the fulfillment of that promise: technology destroying totalitarian control. Apple is part of that-- leading the way with mobile devices that allow people access to information anywhere. Google is part of that too, bringing together facts and information from all perspectives and corners of the Earth-- it shouldn't surprise us that an Egyptian Google executive would be such an integral part of the Egyptian uprising.

Facebook completes the freedom-fighter's toolkit, providing a digital gathering place, a way to show people dreaming of a better tomorrow that they're not only not alone, but part of the majority.

Bush's military policy removed Hussein and the Taliban from power, but it didn't empower the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Their revolution was stolen from them. Instead of rising up and grabbing control of their country, someone else grabbed it for them. And as a result, they got neither the leadership nor the constitution they wanted. They got... "America, F*ck Yeah!"

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left the people feeling powerless and helpless, dependent on a foreign nation for all their daily needs. All at the cost of billions of American dollars and thousands of American lives.

Of course, the inability to see the future is a condition shared by more people than just Bush and Cheney. In 2003, not even Mark Zuckerberg (and the Winklevoss twins) could have known that social networking would step into a pretty major global role as a real-world action driver. But what if? What if we had the patience not to go to war?

Would the regimes of Iraq and Afghanistan have fallen on their own, as their populations became more digitally connected? Or were their technological infrastructures so primitive that the world of Facebook would have been inaccessible to them, even eight years later?

These questions aren't addressed, or even hinted at in the blockbuster film, The Social Network, about the origins of Facebook. I liked the film, but the movie reduces Facebook to a hookup engine... one reason, I suspect, that Mark Zuckerberg wasn't its biggest fan. But one can't blame the writers and producers. The truth is, our awareness of the power of Facebook has only recently been heightened, by its use in Tunisia and Egypt, and its influence in the Tea Party movement of our own country. The true utilities of Facebook's social network have yet to be fully explored.

If Facebook can spark a democratic revolution in a place where such a thing seemed impossible... then are there any limits the the change it can ferment in the world?

Is Facebook the new military intervention?

Is Facebook... world peace???

If The Social Newtork wins an Oscar, it won't win it for what was depicted on screen: a vapid tale of success at all costs. It will win because the members of the Academy and all the rest of us know--even while we're posting stupid status updates and links to Justin Bieber videos--that Facebook isn't just a website, it's become something inextricable from our lives.

The future of the human race has always relied on the evolution of our communications. Our planet is a large one, and our experiences on it are diverse. The closer we can come together and the stronger the lines that connect us, the more difficult it will be for us to fall apart. Once upon a time, communiques sent by flaming beacons and carrier pigeons helped end wars. It's foolish to think of Facebook and WiFi as anything less than the latest in a series of innovations that will help transform the world into a better place.

Perhaps instead of sending armies to remove dictators, we should be sending routers and iPhones.

We're seeing the power of technology at work right now. In a cascade of dominoes set off not by a gun, but by the Like button.

1 comment:

Hot Mama said...


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