February 4, 2011
The following Q-and-A is an edited excerpt from the Feb. 1 Global Alliance Bulletin published by the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. You may read the full article here. Reprinted with permission.
David R. Holdridge, CEO of the international civil society organization Bridging the Divide, recently returned from a trip to the Middle East and agreed to speak with the Global Alliance. His views are presented as one informed opinion for consideration by GA members, the global PR profession and society at large.
Are the events unfolding in Egypt on the heels of the demonstrations in Tunisia a potential inflection point for the global impact of social media?
New technologies have always transformed global dynamics, and the Internet is no exception. In Tunisia and in many other developing countries, it is the combination of significant changes in the internal demographics (youth bulge), a growing modern middle class, and a dramatic revolution in connectivity which, together with unresponsive governance, has produced an unsustainable situation for autocrats. However, as we say in the development community, context is everything. Tunisia has particular circumstances which are not shared by Egypt (much higher rates of poverty and illiteracy) or Syria (front-line state in the conflict with Israel) and Lebanon, which seldom has a functioning government.
Yet in all four countries cited above, the new technologies are having an impact in three important ways: They are an excellent organizing tool, they directly link national movements with international support groups and they represent the “street” (crowd sourced information). All three of these characteristics represent a new and significant threat to national autocrats; they allow for local grievances to travel trans-border [instantly] and can/could form an Arab unity of opinion — not only on autocracy but on other major issues such as the Shia/Sunnite dynamic, Palestine, Pax Americana, Iran, etc.
That said, the new technologies are only tools, and can be used by autocrats for their own purposes. The subscription rates to social media applications do not guarantee more participatory and inclusive governance. In 1914, the greatest era of connectivity known to mankind at that time, trains were quickly turned to move troops and munitions, and the telegraph become the key vehicle for “command and control.”
Is this a global wake-up call for all governments to re-examine their commitments to human rights, equal opportunity and freedom of expression?
Yes, there are some articulate experts out there [believe that] the relations between the governed and the governors must change or a nation will fall into economic and political irrelevance. Many informed observers of the Middle East have been predicting a renaissance or awakening for some time.
My sense is that Arab States cannot be other than participatory and inclusive if they want to enjoy economic progress. Over the last hundred years they have suffered from a dearth of creativity, and therefore from a dearth of homegrown productivity and that this lamentable state cannot be rectified without including all the intellectual wattage of all of their citizens. For this to happen, citizens must become owners — not renters — of their nation.
The government closed Al Jazeera Cairo yet Egyptians continued to demonstrate. Is this new evidence of a re-balancing of traditional media and social media?
Television was, and still is, an extraordinary transformative technology. It has allowed the citizens of the developing world a daily look at Western society, with its relative opulence and its freedoms. It has inspired and entertained the Arab public for decades. Oprah was the single most popular show in the conservative Shia heartland of Iraq from 2003 onward, leading some analysts to argue that she had more influence on the democratization process there than all the billions the United Sates spent there on its promotion.
But television is not interactive; it has its content managed by its owners and can be turned off in a split second. By contrast, the Internet is crowd sourced, often open sourced, interactive and hard to turn off. In the event that access is blocked, as was the case in Egypt starting last Thursday, worldwide outcry was immediate, with the vast global online network scrambling to reconnect Egyptians to the outside world through devices now often considered archaic, such as fax, dial-up modem and even amateur radio.
When used as a tool to organize and to reach across borders for support and advocacy, the Internet connects more that 30 percent of the world. If you include global mobile connections, you now have 75 percent of the world with access to information either online or through their mobile devices.
Long term, how best can international civil society, especially in its use of social media, encourage the advance of representative government in countries under fire?
Empowering an emerging civil society overseas must be the work our Chambers of Commerce, our Labor Unions, our women’s rights groups, our disability rights organizations, etc, and not through the further export of federal bureaucrats.
In 1961 when the federal apparatus was first conceived for delivering foreign assistance overseas, America had an independent economy and no affordable means for its civil society to reach out to its emerging likeness in newly independent countries.
However, the Internet has changed all that. Today, American citizens and citizen groups alike can go online to activists overseas for little or no cost, and support them as they insist on more inclusive and participatory governance. This union, via the new technologies, between mature and fledgling civil societies is part of globalization — the free flow of labor, knowledge, and capital which has lifted over 500 million persons out of poverty in the last twenty years and seen the demise or modification of many of the world’s command economies and political despots.
Can globalization, so enhanced by the Internet, be reversed? Absolutely. Just as nations can respond to global exchange with crippling tariffs, so too can the Internet be reduced to gated communities and the constraint of popular representation.
For further reading: PRSA Condemns Attacks on Journalists and Free Press in Egypt, PRSA Newsroom