As Gaddafi’s body sat on display in a butcher’s in Misrata, and people queued to take pictures on their mobile phones, I pondered the relationship between Gaddafi’s fitting end and the influence of New Media on this outcome:
Much here-say has been proclaimed on the potency of New Media to bring about political revolution and democracy. Some within traditional media have been quick to hail New Media as inherently liberating. Academics have been more cautious if not cynical. I want to be cautiously optimistic.
An early analysis of New Media and ‘contentious politics’ came from a team at George Washington University who put together a report, Blogs & Bullets, on the power of new media to accomplish institutional change in Iran. They stated conclusively that “the millions of Twitterers who colored their profiles green in support of the Iranian protesters could not prevent the Iranian regime from attacking its opposition. As one ‘tweet’ cruelly put it, ‘Note to would-be revolutionaries: you can remove the green tint from your pictures now, it didn’t work.’” (Aday et al, 2010). But is it a case of it instantly working or not working or is it a case of what impact it had for longer term institutional transitions within Iran? To what extent did the twitter campaign draw the attention of the international community and to what extent did it change the minds of people within Iran? To what extent did it open up a dialogue amongst Iranians about the power of social media to create change within their country? To what extent has it helped to pave the way for a paradigm shift in that country, and across the MENA region? These may not be easy questions to answer, but in a country where the rate of internet saturation was at the time around 11%, contrary to the reports estimation of 32.3%, it is also difficult to know how far reaching New Media had the power to be. After all, it worked in Tunisia & Egypt, where internet is around three times more prevalent. What happened in Tunisia and in Egypt are, in my opinion, causal relationships between, New Media, Traditional Media (including pan-Arab satellite), internet saturation rates, international politics and countless other individual factors.
John Sides, one of the authors of this report, stated in a recent USIP event called Sifting Fact from Fiction: the role social media in conflict that 89% of the million Libya related bit.ly links accessed on Twitter in the first few weeks of the conflict in Libya were accessed from outside of the country and he used this to reify his argument that this does not represent a clear relationship between revolution in Libya and New Media. Firstly, if we flip that figure on its head that represents 110,000 bit.ly links accessed in Libya during the early days of the conflict. Granted it is impossible to know who was accessing those links, but in a country where only 354,000 people have access to the internet on a good day and where at the time nearly the entire country was under complete internet censorship – I would read this as an impressive amount of national interest in twitter reporting. Further, I want to ask the question what percentage of the 89% accessing those links outside the country represent Libya’s diaspora community with connections to those living in Libya? It might be impossible to know, but it is certainly relevant. In a recent interview with Patrick Meier, who was responsible for the coordination of the Libya Crisis Map for OCHA and an expert in liberation technologies and repressive regimes, he told me that whilst censorship disabled some Libyans from engaging with New Media to report incidents within their country, people still managed to bypass around these restrictions and that “whilst you are not getting 100% of the information you could get you are still getting much more than you would ever ever get before [the advent of social media].”
Which leads me to the question of the relationship between citizen journalism and international response. Also during the USIP conference, the term ‘megaphone’ was batted about to describe New Media and I’m going to run with this: Professor Tim Luckhurst said at a Media Society event Libya and the Arab Spring two weeks ago that “yes, social media makes a contribution but it makes the least contribution when you need it most. And it cannot always be relied upon. And it can only be relied upon when it is curated by professional journalists.” (via Daniel Bennett’s blog Mediating Conflict). Contrary to this conclusion, where social media stands out is in societies where objective reporting is not possible: in severe conflict and under authoritarian regimes where traditional international media dare not venture. Three cases I want to discuss pre-New Media are Cambodia (under Khmer Rouge), Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Cambodia:
“The Khmer Rouge closed Cambodia to the outside world. Very little information came out of the country during the Khmer Rouge era between 1975 and 1978. Media coverage of Cambodia during this time was rare. One of the only sources of information about what was happening in Cambodia came from refugees that had escaped the Khmer Rouge and fled to Thailand and Vietnam. Their accounts were often discounted as exaggerations.
In the spring of 1978, in an attempt to improve its international image, the Khmer Rouge permitted Elizabeth Becker from The Washington Post and two other journalists to visit Cambodia. That same year a group of American journalists from The Call, a communist newspaper from Chicago, also visited Cambodia and published a photo book. The two accounts of what was happening in Cambodia were vastly different. The question of what was happening in Cambodia was fiercely debated by journalists and academics in the West. The world soon found out what the Khmer Rouge had done”. Cambodia: Public Health and Humanitarian Action (Columbia University, 2007)
No reporting meant that the international community were not privy to the atrocities happening in Cambodia. No one did anything to protect Cambodians at the time and until June of this year not a single Khmer Rouge had been tried in a court of law.
In Rwanda, the international community has been fiercely criticized for their lack of response in what was a genocide of incomparable proportions. In just three months over 500,000 Tutsi, 80% of their population, were slaughtered – one of the outstanding factors in the lack international response was a distorted media portrayal of the early events followed by a ‘total exodus’ of the international media presence in Rwanda at the time (Kuperman, 2000). Again, no one knew what was happening.
A third case, which the George Washington University team discuss, is the DRC. They state that new media have “paid little attention to ongoing strife in the Congo” (Aday et al, 2010) This is perhaps the most interesting case of all for the importance of new media in ‘contentious politics’. What the Georgetown team failed to mention is that in the Congo only 0.5% of the population have access to the internet, and we can assume that most of these people represent an extremely elite group within the DRC. No one is tweeting stories from inside the DRC! Sides also discusses the limited attention span of media’s audience; Traditional media will engage with a story so long as it can generate a sustained interest in the topic, when people have had their fill they stop watching, and the coverage dies down. It would be interesting to see how if there were a New Media presence in the Congo it might be able to generate a greater international interest in the civil conflict there and greater support from the international community. Tim Butcher’s Blood River topped the best seller list in March 2008. It’s not that people aren’t interested, it’s, perhaps, that there is no regular international reporting on the events. Incidentally, over 5 million people have died in the last decade in the DRC due to the ongoing conflict there.
The Libya conflict set a precedent globally for the international community to commit to a ‘responsibility to protect‘. Without a new media voice in Libya how could this have come about:
“When Libya banned journalists from entering Libyan territory in the initial days of the uprising and military crackdown, images soon circulated on YouTube that were incorporated into mainstream news media and documenting attacks on rebel forces by Libyan heavy armour. Dubbed ‘The Global YouTube News Bureau’, vivid images bearing witness to human rights abuses and impending humanitarian catastrophe circulated despite the absence of foreign correspondents on the ground. As they did so, calls were increasingly heard for those responsible to be pursued and prosecuted in the International Criminal Court.” Media and the Arab Uprisings (Cottle, 2011)
New Media, therefore, has a symbiotic relationship with traditional media in closed or inaccessible societies; New Media needs traditional media to act as a legitimiser and an amplifier and traditional media needs New Media to act as a gateway. This symbiosis has been essential throughout the Arab conflicts, especially where the internet has been censored, dependence on the presence of pan-Arab satellite and credible far-reaching channels like al-Jazeera to report back to people within closed countries, we can assume, has helped to generate revolutionary momentum within these hidden worlds. I await a response from al-Jazeera about their take-up in Libya at the time of the conflict, but I’m willing to bet it’s greater than the 6% internet penetration rate there.
Another point to consider is the use of social media by the regimes themselves and its impact. As with traditional media, people select their news, to some extent, by the ability of that source to offer the standpoint they choose to support (In the UK liberals don’t choose the Times, they read the Guardian) the same we can assume happens with twitter and new social media, we choose what we want to view and which perspective we want to ‘follow’. So from this point of view, dictators (and their supporters) jumping on the twitter band wagon are not likely to generate anti-dictatorship ‘follows’. As I have followed the Libya crisis, from an Anti-Gaddafi perspective, I read what is being generated by pro-rebel Libyans and their supporters. I’m not interested in seeking out pro-Gaddafi propaganda, except from a purely academic point of view and want of analysis of propaganda; It doesn’t stand to influence me, because it doesn’t have any credibility for me. Just like I wouldn’t give value to anything I read in the ‘News of the World‘. I think we have to assume that people in Libya experiencing the feeling of oppression under the Gaddafi regime are not likely to be equally influenced by pro-Gaddafi propaganda as by pro-rebel incites. Where this kind of propaganda can have an effective outcome is where a percentage of the population of any given regime-led country is still in support of that regime or sitting on the fence. Then we can assume that it might bring about renewed support or sway the unsure. As one Libyan man reported ‘Libyans I know rarely watch al-Jamahiriya. When they do they get angry…they watch al-Jazeera or Western Channels.’ This is not to say that Libyans didn’t watch al-Jamahiriya, but that the ones that were looking for change would be perhaps less likely to.
Some final points to consider, are:
1) Is the rhetoric produced by new media only so potent because of the ‘new’ aspect of New Media – is it the current hype around Social Media that is encouraging traditional reporting from/about New Media sources?;
2) New Media depends on services like BBC Monitoring to extend its reach through the translation of native language reports for an international predominantly English speaking audience;
3) There was much rhetoric at the time in the mainstream media suggesting that, by standing down, Ben-Ali had set a precedent that would have repercussions across the Arab world. To what extent this rhetoric was a catalyst for action is also a worthy topic of debate;
4) Citizen action, in any form, does not necessarily lead to change. I saw with my own eyes more than a million people from across the UK march in peaceful protests in London against intervention in Iraq – 1 month later we went to war. And to some extent, the outcome in Libya was dependent on a nearly unanimous national hatred for Gaddafi in order to go the distance and gain the rebel support needed (Tarzi, 2011).
There are many factors that equate to a desired outcome in home-grown activism, New Media is just one of them.
But how do I know Gaddafi is dead? Because I saw footage uploaded from a Libyan’s mobile phone and I believed it…the final testament to the power of citizen journalism in the Libya conflict.
For further reading on this topic see:
Advancing New Media Research. Sean Aday, Henry Farrell, Marc Lynch, and John Sides, 2010
Blogs and Bullets: new media and contentious politics. Sean Aday, Henry Farrell, Marc Lynch, and John Sides, 2010
Media and the arab uprisings. Simon Cottle, 2011
Mirage in the Desert: reporting in the arab spring. Alan Fisher, 2011
Are foreign correspondents redundant? Richard Sambrook, 2010
Arab Media Influence Report –AMIR 2011, Social Media & the Arab Spring. Fadl Al Tarzi, March 2011
USIP Peace Watch: media, technology & conflict. Winter 2011