“All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescapably proaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda… when artists or art critics make the assertion that art excludes propaganda, what they are saying is that their kind of propaganda is art, and other kinds of propaganda are not art. Orthodoxy is my doxy, and heterodoxy is the other fellow’s doxy.” – Upton Sinclair
A few months ago I wrote about America’s Army, a first person shooter game developed by the U.S. Army as a recruitment tool for young people. In it, the player participates in a round-based tactical confrontation with other players online, simulating realistic combat conditions. Judging from the series’ more than 11 million registered users who have played a combined 260 million hours, America’s Army has achieved a level of acceptance in American society.
The U.S. is not the only country where government actors have created a game as a recruitment tool. In Lebanon, the armed political and religious group Hezbollah has created its own video game franchise, in a similar vein to America’s Army. The Special Force games place the players in the shoes of a Hezbollah mujahid fighting against Israel. The most recent entry into the series, Special Force 2, was published on the anniversary of the 2006 war fought between Israel and Hezbollah.
Special Force 2 places the player in the midst of the 2006 war, reenacting several of Hezbollah’s victorious battles in the 34-day conflict. In the first mission, the player carries out the July 16 raid which captured two Israeli border patrol soldiers and brought them back into Lebanon to force a prisoner exchange. The second and third missions showcase battles where Hezbollah repulsed Isreali offensives – in Bint Jabril, a town that remained in Hezbollah position despite three Israeli attempts to take it, and in Wadi al Hujeir, a valley where Hezbollah guerrillas were able to hold off a massive Israeli offensive. A further challenge allows the player to capture a fictional island and sink a destroyer.
The propaganda twist with which Special Force 2 represents these battles is fascinating, if not exactly subtle. Lebanon is depicted as a bird-filled forest, with green, rolling hills; Israel is silent desert. At close range, Israeli soliders’ lips curl into a snarl – when killed, they fall to the ground calling out for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Video cutscenes between missions only depict dead or defeated Israelis, or Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah shouting before cheering crowds. It’s a one-sided depiction of the war, which in reality Hezbollah won only at great cost. At no point does the player learn that close to 1,200 Lebanese were killed in the conflict, or that Lebanese infrastructure suffered nearly to $2.5 billion in damages. Everything culminates to glorify Hezbollah as protectors of the realm, and the military equal (or superior) to Israel.
Upon release, the game garnered little reaction (save scorn) from western audiences, but in the Arab world Special Force 2 gained plenty of positive attention. Special Force 2 quickly ran out of its initial 100,000 physical copies and soon became available for free online. The audience was Arab youth in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Bahrain and the UAE, but before too long, an unofficial English patch was created so that non-arabic speakers could play the game as well. It is difficult to know how many people were playing the game, but by all accounts, Special Force 2 had reasonable staying power. A friend of mine reported to have seen the game played in Lebanese internet cafes more than three years after its initial launch.
The Special Force games showcase one way that governments can communicate with an audience using interactive media. They are a recruitment tool, proudly displaying Hezbollah’s military successes over Israel and projecting the career of a mujahid as one of power and strength. Speaking about the first game in the series, Mahmoud Rayya, an official from the Hezbollah media bureau, told the Daily Star that “in a way, Special Force offers a mental and personal training for those who play it, allowing them to feel that they are in the shoes of the resistance fighters.”
The game also provides an opportunity for youth to “resist the Israeli occupation through the media,” according to Rayya. The box cover on the original Special Force declared that “the designers of Special Force are very proud to provide you with this special product, which embodies objectively the defeat of the Israeli enemy and the heroic actions taken by heroes of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon… Be a partner in the victory. Fight, resist and destroy your enemy in the game of force and victory.” By fighting in simulations of real battles, Arab youth experience these moments of Arab victories against Israel as a matter of personal agency. In a way, the game allows them to feel as thought they are a part of the battle against Israel, and that they can win.
For a game that stands so starkly to Western game experiences, Special Force 2 relies heavily on the work of Western developers. The game was built from assets illegally stripped the 2004 game Far Cry, developed by the German company Crytech and published by Ubisoft. Player controls, gun models, vehicles, animations, A.I. behaviors are all pulled from the original game, sometimes with a visual overhaul but often copied in their entirety. Whereas the Far Cry games take place in a tropical, leafy environment, Special Force 2 is largely barren. Looking at the game it’s clear to see which assets were created by Crytech and which were developed by Hezbollah – the quality of the textures as well as the level of detail applied to game objects is somewhat inferior for the latter.
The games market in the Arab world is growing, but still largely ignored by the majority of games publishers and developers. Most focus on North America, Europe, and South Asia as their primary markets, maintaining virtually no presence in the Middle East and North Africa. Few foreign games dedicate the time or expense to translating their game to Arabic, which would require the conversion of their engines to a right-to-left writing system. Many Western games are furthermore perceived as culturally insensitive. In this space, games like Special Force 2 have greater appeal. Mahmoud Rayya states that Special Force was “designed to compete against foreign computer games that show Arabs as enemies and Americans as the heroes that defeat them.” Arab youth looking for a game that caters to Arab experiences may find much appealing in Special Force’s unique message.
Special Force 2 is undoubtedly a propaganda game. For its one-sided depiction of the 2006 war with Israel, and for the demonization of enemy soldiers, the game has earned that title. Yet one could also argue that Hezbollah has simply done with a modern day war what many commercial American games have done with wars from history. Here in the U.S., there is an impressive litany of World War 2 games that pit the player against a one-dimensional German or Japanese foe. As terrible as either of these imperialist powers may have been, can we reasonably claim that American games as an industry represent war with more depth or subtlety than Special Force 2?
An excellent Extra Credits lecture points out that our ability to recognize propaganda in games often depends on whether we agree with the game’s underlying message. In recognizing Special Force 2 as a propaganda game, we must also be prepared to question whether the games that we play present a truthful reflection of reality or simply one that fits with our own preconceptions. It is also worth remembering that Special Force 2 represents a broadly held narrative in the Middle East, and that for many, it is less of a propaganda game than others produced here in the United States.
Follow Derek Gildea on Twitter: @derekpost
Readers interested in learning more about Special Force 2 may be interested in watching an analytical video series produced by the author, available here.
By Kate Mays
“When I was Secretary of State, I decided that women’s issues had to be central to American foreign policy. Not just because I am a feminist but because I believe that societies are better off when women are politically and economically empowered … So I think that it behooves us, those of us that live in various countries where we do have an economic and political voice, that we need to help other women, and I really dedicated myself to that, both at the UN and then as Secretary of State.”—former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a December 2010 TED Talk
Since 2006, the World Economic Forum has published the Global Gender Gap Report because “clos[ing] global gender gaps [is] a key element of our mission to improve the state of the world.” The report finds that the more a country utilizes its female half of the population, the better off that country is. In recent years, the US has emphasized women’s rights as key foreign policy objective, including the creation in 2009 of an Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s issues.
John Worne, in his piece “Schools, Hospitals, or Cultural Relations?,” presents an International Relations positioning spectrum that ranges from “giving” (aid) to “fighting” (military action). Cultural relations spans the middle points on the spectrum: “helping, sharing and boasting” (access, influence, and messaging). Worne justifies spending on cultural relations because, “at its best, cultural relations means more ‘helping and sharing’, less ‘shouting and fighting’ and maybe one day a less urgent need to ‘give.’” Considering the correlation between women’s greater participation in society and that society’s prosperity, it makes sense for the US to focus some of its efforts and resources on bringing women to the table; eventually, hopefully, those women will reach out and do the same for others in their society.
A current initiative that strives to “help and share” is TechWomen, a US-based mentorship program that connects emerging female tech entrepreneurs from the Middle East and Africa with American women mentors who come mostly from Silicon Valley tech companies. These “Emerging Leaders” are paired with both professional and cultural mentors, to foster not only professional development opportunities but also to facilitate mutual understanding and cultural acclimation during their time in America. A public-private partnership, TechWomen is an initiative of the State Department and managed by the Institute of International Education.
Announced in April 2010, TechWomen piloted in Spring 2011, bringing over to the US 37 women from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and the Palestinian territories, where they engaged in a five-week project-based mentorship that included professional networking as well as a concluding trip to DC for workshops. The program was enough of a success in 2011 that it not only continued in 2012 but also expanded to include women from Tunisia and Yemen. In 2013, it’s expanding even more to include women from Cameroon, Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The Emerging Leaders are all women who have already begun careers in the tech industry; the idea is to develop them further to become real leaders in their field.
TechWomen is notable for its dual focus on empowering women through education, and focusing that education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. The initiative was developed in response to President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, where he called for greater collaboration between the American and Muslim populations to address seven main issues. TechWomen hits on two: women’s rights and economic development and opportunity (through the development of science and technology).
The program has both short-term and long-term goals. In the immediate, of course, the goal is to bolster the mentees’ skills, by sharing tips and ideas, and building their confidence. A main theme in the stories shared on TechWomen’s blog speaks to the power of simply providing a common and supportive space in which these women would feel comfortable vocalizing their ideas. In the case of Evelyn Zoubi, the validation she received from her peers and mentor for her idea (eCloset.me, a website that digitizes wardrobes), was empowering and invigorating. For another Emerging Leader, Thekra, the most powerful workshop taught her to “speak the thoughts I have and not be afraid to take some risks.” These outcomes – confidence-building, creating a network of support and ideas – are mostly intangible, but are nonetheless important in creating a large, sustainable TechWomen network in the Middle East and Africa.
There are so far some real tangible outcomes to the program as well. The mentorship is project-based, so the mentees pick up practical skills and learn more about the tech field from mentors who are on the cutting-edge of the industry. They are also afforded opportunities to network with other leaders in the field to pitch their ideas. Evelyn’s pitch led to a connection with a US organization. Thekra’s idea, EduGirl – an NGO that would build a mentorship model to educate girls in neglected areas in Jordan – encompasses both the skills she learned through her mentorship, and touches on the longer-term goal for TechWomen, which is that the Emerging Leaders will go back to their countries and share their knowledge, to become mentors themselves for younger generations of women in STEM.
While the main focus of TechWomen is to expand opportunities and education, another major tool of cultural diplomacy is woven throughout the program: exchange. During their stay in the US, the Emerging Leaders have opportunities to visit schoolsto see the American education system in action. The program also encourages a two-way exchange. Once the 5-week program is complete, TechWomen mentor delegations travel to some of the mentees’ countries to “focus on: expanding networks of women in the technology sectors, creating and strengthening partnerships, and ensuring the sustainability of Mentor/Emerging Leader relationships.” (excerpted from the TechWomen website. In a video appeal for more TechWomen mentors, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasizes not only the benefits for the mentees, but the opportunity for growth and enrichment for the US mentors.
Hillary Clinton’s appeal for more mentors from American tech companies.
Speaking of the blog, the technical communication infrastructure around the TechWomen initiative seems to be an important piece of its sustainability: there is a robust website, an active presence on social media, and a blog that posts throughout the year. While US mentorship only occurs in the fall, and the delegations take a few trips after that, the conversation around TechWomen appears year-long, so that engagement remains fairly active.
To my mind, TechWomen has been a successful program because of its specificity in mission and audience. The ambitious vision of creating a professional network that can support the next generation of women leaders in technology in the Middle East and Africa (and continue to be self-perpetuating within the regions) is grounded in concrete efforts like the projects-based mentorship, professional development workshops, and networking opportunities. Hopefully the success of these kinds of initiatives will lead to others with larger targeted audiences – opening up educational opportunities for women who are not already on a career path. TechGirls is a promising initiative that reaches younger women to encourage careers in science and technology. Thekra’s EduGirl is a great example of the next step for this movement – an initiative that comes from within the region and reaches out to disadvantaged girls and women.
Kate Mays is a graduate student at the George Washington University.
The above post is from Take Five’s new Student Perspective series. Graduate students studying Cultural Diplomacy as Communication at the George Washington University are encouraged to think about themes such as youth, gender, health, climate, free press, and democracy, and write on how these themes relate to cultural diplomacy and to communication. The posts involve thoughtful commentary on the writer’s chosen theme, linking to class readings and discussions.
On Tuesday October 2nd, I had the chance to attend an event called “Groundtruth: New Media, Technology, and the Syria Crisis” at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) which consisted of three panels speaking about the presence and usefulness of social media in Syria (see more about the event here). This event was based on a report of the same title which you can read here. The first panel, Activists and the Regime, demonstrated that social media is being used in five major ways: as a fundraising tool, a method of negotiation, a way of accepting opinions, organizing and maturing civil society, and as a forum for encouraging thought and debate.
It is this last point that I found most fascinating. Rafif Jouejati (@RafifJ) from the Free Syria Foundation noted that Facebook comments were the most likely place to find debate among Syrians and that this tool was teaching the Syrian people how to debate and have respect for others’ ideas while maintaining their own opinions. Looking at the effects of social media in other countries that are part of the Arab Spring, I had never come across the point of social media being used as a tool to teach debate. Sure, there was preference revelation and the building of civil society, but the point about teaching debate on social media and the importance of Facebook comments was new to me. It is a fascinating perspective because this is the first time that these users have been able to engage in something that we take for granted. The anonymity of the Internet and the idea of not being face-to-face with a person or the possibility of being overheard by secret police or other government agents allows free-flowing discussion and this is where the actual revolution is taking place.
Later in the panel, the idea that not all analyzers, sympathizers, or potential aids understand Arabic was raised. This led me to think of the missing feedback loop between the debates and those who need to understand what is happening such as Department of State employees, researchers and analysts, news agencies and reporters, and aid organizations from outside the country.
As researchers of social media know, one of the greatest ways that social media can be used as a tool is in what is called the “boomerang effect.” This idea says that social media can lead to rapid response, whether by political pressure or monetary and non-monetary aid, by other countries that support the cause. However, because those that have the power to help do not often look to Facebook comments, most do not know about this debate. In speaking with fellow blogger and IPDGC fellow Mary Jeffers, during a break between sessions, she brought up another point in that there were some excellent ideas in those comments that she would like to share with colleagues, but couldn’t because of their limited knowledge of Arabic and the fact that no one has time to send everything through Google Translate.
Even if someone had this time, a non-Arabic speaker would probably not be able to understand the English that comes out of the translations because, as we all know, Google Translate is not perfect and one has to know the structure of the language to really understand the English results. Facebook’s “See Translation” link does not always work either as it just links to translation by Bing. In addition, Arabic posters write in two different forms: traditional Arabic script and the transliterated form.
Google Translate does not even read transliterated form and, as in English, online commenting is often abbreviated or written differently which is why a person would need to read these comments to be successful. Below is an example of what happens when I clicked on the “See Translation” button provided by Facebook.
As you can see, the translation of the original post makes sense, but the comment does not at all. This is the issue. There is inconsistency in the translation when and if it’s even available.
These comments and debates give us better clues as to what is going on in the crisis and help us to gain credibility when reporting stories which is a large problem in the Syrian situation. Information that comes from on-the-ground sources is useful and the debates provide the honest feedback that we need to truly understand the problems and to mobilize people and resources to give aid where it is needed. The problem here is a communication gap. There are no easy solutions to solving this problem. Clearly, we cannot expect everyone who analyzes and researches the crisis or is in the position to give aid to speak Arabic. We also cannot expect the Activists to write in English. What we need to do is have designated people at each agency involved to read through these comments on a regular basis and report the findings to people in power. We are missing some of the most crucial information and that needs to be changed.
This can also help news agencies because, as stated in the second and third panels, the Syria crisis has been a long conflict and the stories are no longer getting the attention they deserve. With information from the debates that are occurring on social media, there is something new to report and a new way to get the audience involved and interested in what is happening. As we know, there are two different messages going out: the ones between Arabic speakers and the ones in English directed towards non-Arabic speakers. We need to see the complete Arabic side of this to get the truth, maintain credibility, keep people interested, and find out the best ways to help.
Reading, understanding, and reporting on these debates will not be an easy task. However, this information gives us the insight we are missing and will help us to further understand just how civil society is being built and what people are thinking in this complex, multi-sided crisis.
With social media as a largely-used tool in the conflict, we cannot ignore these comments and debates. We have come very far in incorporating social media into research and reporting, but we still have a ways to go if we want to use this tool to its fullest extent.
Last week IPDGC and the U.S. Institute of Peace co-hosted a great conference, “Groundtruth: New Media, Technology, and the Syria Crisis,” that focused on the use of online videos by activists, new and traditional media, and policymakers. The event was the latest in the “Blogs and Bullets” series of research papers and conferences that have produced two major reports, and kicked off a new research project conducted by my GW colleague Marc Lynch, American University’s Deen Freelon, and myself.
There was much to chew on in the comments and observations of the various panelists, but I want to flag a few interesting nuggets concerning the role of social media in Syria – which Marc referred to as perhaps “the most social mediated protest in history” – and the complex intersection between new and old media.
First, a recurring theme from both activists and journalists involved the evolution of both social media and the public sphere in Syria as the regime’s hegemony wanes in the face of an ongoing civil war. NPR’s Deb Amos, who has been reporting on the Middle East for decades and the current Syrian crisis since it’s beginning, talked about how she has seen social media develop rapidly over the last year from something a few activists used to meet and share information, to something that is a more sophisticated tool for organizing, waging an information war with the regime, fundraising, and engaging with regional and world media.
Sometimes the online discussions via Facebook or YouTube comment threads and the like can turn viciously sectarian. After all, the pubic sphere, especially online, is not always known for its decorum. But even this can be seen as part of the maturation process as Syria moves from dictatorship to, perhaps, a more open society. For example, Rafif Jouejati of the Free Syria Foundation, pointed out that her organization has decided against censoring sectarian comments in favor of responding to them and thus creating a dialogue “so we educate against hate speech.”
Social media may be creating or strengthening the public sphere on multiple levels: within Syria and across the region. ABC’s Lara Setrakian called the “Arab digital vanguard” the “connective tissue throughout Arab Society.”
“Pan Arabism died a long time ago,” she said, “but it’s been resurrected online.”
There is, of course, a vast literature on the representative public sphere across several scholarly domains, highlighted by the work of Jurgen Habermas. Many have pointed out the complex role media play in fostering a functional and empowering socio-political conversation among the various layers in a society. On the one hand, media can create information baselines and be a conduit between elected officials and the public, among other functions. On the other, they can also misinform and misrepresent, be it because of their own latent biases (structural and ideological) and/or manipulation from sources, especially elites.
New media present these same challenges, as well as others. Fadl al Tarzi, from the Dubai News Group, whose organization has been monitoring social media across the Arab world, pointed out something that others have found in studying new media and politics in the U.S. and elsewhere: social media, more than traditional media, tends to include like-minded users. This is not often conducive to the (somewhat mythical) Enlightenment notion of an 18th Century Café/Salon style public sphere where ideas are contested on an equal plane with the best rising to prominence.
In Syria, one of the more interesting ways that new media are playing a role in shaping the information environment is in their use by traditional media, both within the region and across the globe. Several of the panelists, from activists to journalists, talked about how this has created an incentive for activists to create more credible media, rather than overt propaganda.
Rami Nakhla, of The Day After Project, discussed the way his organization has had to learn to adopt traditional Western news norms like balance to be taken seriously by mainstream media outlets interested in using their videos of regime violence, protests, etc.
The relationship between activists and traditional media can be a tricky one, though. The fact remains that it is still difficult to assess the credibility of many videos, many of which are of sketchy provenance and may not be depicting what they claim. Marc Lynch talked about the importance of being skeptical when a video claims thousands were at a protest, when in fact the tight focus of the camera may be obscuring that in fact only dozens were there. This is a phenomenon familiar to those who recall the exaggerated claims of thousands filling Baghdad’s Firdos Square when the Saddam statue fell on April 9, 2003, when in fact a couple of hundred were there.
Deb Amos raised another interesting challenge with traditional media coverage as the civil war continues and various rebel factions gain control of a growing segment of the country. In the early days of the conflict, outside media didn’t have much if any access to the fighting on the ground, making them more dependent on videos and other third-party sources of information. This is obviously not optimal for reporting and verification.
Now, however, as reporters are able to access places like Aleppo, a new challenge has emerged: Journalists may be over-reporting what they can see with their own eyes at the expense of important developments in less accessible parts of the country. “We have the same level of violence in Homs, but no coverage anymore because now journalists are able to get into Aleppo for a day” before going back across the border to safety.
This is a story familiar to any media scholar. Contrary to the claims of most prominent press critics (especially in U.S. politics), most press biases are not partisan but structural, the result of the routines of reporting and patterned and often latent norms that lead to certain stories, sources, and even places being covered at the exclusion of others.
What we’re seeing in Syria, according to Amos and others, is perhaps more credible, in the sense that it’s verifiable by journalist eye-witness accounts, yet at the same time less comprehensive, because it’s increasingly governed by a myopia of access. Journalists always have to contend with these problems, and Syria is no exception. This makes it increasingly important for audiences to critically assess a variety of news and information sources.
Finally, there is another type of structural bias we might be seeing in Syria coverage due to the prevalence of online videos in the news. Many panelists echoed the observations of others over the months in pointing out that the videos we see from Syria (and, before that, from other hot spots during the Arab Spring) often substitute for other types of reporting as stories within themselves. Schadi Semnani, of the Syria Conflict Monitor, for instance, commented that “lots of mainstream media use videos as their primary source rather than interviews with people behind them.”
There are many challenges associated with this, some of which I’ve discussed already. But another is this: videos tell one type of narrative, one that is highly episodic and typically vivid, rather than thematic or complex. They aren’t necessarily less informative, but they contain a different type of information, and therefore might be expected to influence audiences differently than, say, print reporting (online or off).
Research shows, for instance, that episodic narratives can have the effect of leading audiences to assume problems are caused by individuals rather than to look for more societal or structural causes, and, similarly, to look for solutions that are more punitive and focus on individuals. Put another way, an implication of this research is that episodic stories discourage support for diplomacy in favor of more bellicose responses.
There is also the question of what we learn from the videos and whether that helps us better understand the crisis they are depicting. Journalism’s principal job is, after all, to inform us in a way that helps us comprehend the world around us so that we can make sound judgments and assess our leaders’ policies. Videos tell us one kind of story. How journalists contextualize those videos will be a key variable in how people understand it.
If journalists rely overly on the videos to tell the story, one implication is that people might be more likely to simply understand the Syrian crisis through the prism of their own biases and predispositions. Research consistently shows that this is how most people process news they don’t know much about, and foreign affairs certainly fits that description for the vast majority of audiences around the world. But it also means that, within the region, sectarian predispositions might be a greater influence than the events and messages implicit and explicit in the videos and other social media coming out of Syria. This leads back to Fadl’s point about a collection of like-minded communities in the virtual public sphere self-selecting the media, and the messages, with which they already agree.
But it also places a greater value on traditional journalism, and the role of intrepid journalists to sift through an even greater array of information in making sense of complex crises like the one currently so tragically dividing Syria.
Yale’s Keith Darden and The George Washington University’s Harris Mylonas have an interesting piece in the current issue of Ethnopolitics (currently ungated) proposing a new way of thinking about nation- and state-building, and, by extension, counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. They argue that third-party powers (think: the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan) face a “Promethean Dilemma”: “How can they transfer coercive and organizational capacity to the local population without such capabilities being used to undermine the occupiers’ efforts to establish stable governance of the territory?”
Darden and Mylonas argue that current thinking emphasizes quickly building out the indigenous security forces (e.g., army and police). “When it comes to putting guns in the hands of the indigenous population, sooner is better,” from the mindset of those tasked with restructuring the country.
Darden and Mylonas recommend doing just the opposite, in two respects. First, the focus should be on building loyalty through cultural institutions, especially schools and religious organizations. “Coercive” institutions such as the police should come last. Second, external powers need to be willing to commit to a long-term, generational effort rather than looking for ways to extricate themselves as quickly as possible. Hence, they argue, nation-building comes before state-building, not vice versa.
I think the culture-specific focus of Darden and Mylonas’ argument has merit, though as made clear by the two most recent examples they raise, Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s impossible to imagine a reconstruction effort that doesn’t simultaneously build up the security apparatus while developing cultural institutions.
The point, however, seems to be more that external actors such as the United States can’t neglect – and indeed, must prioritize – education and other institutional modes of “indoctrination,” and also need to embrace long-term efforts rather than quick fixes (which never seem to be quick, at any rate).
It is always interesting to me, however, that discussions of state- and/or nation-building, and indeed COIN, tend to treat as an afterthought a society’s communication system, particularly its progress toward a liberal press-state system. Granted, millions of dollars are spent on development projects and other efforts related to communication, especially journalism training, but the theorizing of state-building and COIN typically give it merely a passing mention.
I would argue that the development of a responsible, independent, and professional media alongside an effective and equally responsible and professional government communication apparatus should be seen as key pillars in a post-conflict reconstruction effort. Indeed, doing so can be integral to improving security and defeating insurgents and terrorists.
Afghanistan offers a good example. Simplifying somewhat, a key component of the insurgents’ argument to the Afghan people is essentially this: “The government is corrupt and can’t provide security and services to you, but we can.” Now, this is admittedly a perverse argument given that another way of putting it would be “The government can’t protect you from us,” but that’s beside the point. The important thing is that if the people believe it to be true, and then believe its corollary argument that the insurgents can provide security and services, then the bad guys may eventually win over the people.
Furthermore, in this scenario a security-first approach is doomed because the enemy will be gradually gaining recruits and a corresponding ability to outgun the host government and its allies.
Given this, the insurgent propaganda needs to be met head on and effectively. This is, principally, the government’s job rather than the media’s. Let’s say, hypothetically, that the insurgents are wrong and in fact the government is doing a good job, or at least an increasingly effective job, of improving services, security, and infrastructure. How will the people know? One important way would be through government spokespeople and other officials communicating this progress to the local population. But this is impossible if government spokespeople aren’t trained to be effective communicators, if the communication bureaucracy is not well-established, or if there are not proper channels of communication.
A major problem for government communicators in these situations, however, is credibility. Whether it is because of sectarianism, other cultural or linguistic divides, or association with past (or present) government corruption, fledgling democracies are often fighting an uphill battle to be taken seriously by their constituents. Of course, to some extent simply becoming more responsive and effective at providing for the people can alleviate this problem. If the government isn’t actually credible, then neither will be its communication.
But another important determinant of government credibility can be a professional and independent media. I say “professional” because people in any society can spot amateurish journalism. Sensationalist and partisan or sectarian media are the prime offenders here, and they alienate audiences. (These concerns have always been the primary ones raised by government officials and journalists alike during the trainings I’ve led in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last few years.)
On the other hand, a professional media that are seen as independent from the government are more likely to be seen as credible. And if the messenger is credible, so to is the message.
So in our hypothetical, the best antidote to the insurgent argument that the government is corrupt and incompetent can be a free press reporting on a government’s successes.
Of course, an independent media is also going to be reporting on the government’s failures. But doing so is precisely what proves its independence and, if it’s done responsibly, its professionalism. By extension, it’s what will make the stories of progress more credible.
This is important for third-party and host governments, as well as occupying military forces, to understand. Too often, however, these folks fall into the trap of expecting nothing but good news from the local media, and assuming negative stories are a sign of bias or worse. This is counterproductive. Effective communication from government and military spokespeople does not begin by treating the media as your enemy.
Similarly, contemporary COIN strategy (if one can say there is such a thing), with its emphasis on a population-centric approach, could use a deeper understanding of the role of communication in building security. I was surprised, for instance, when I attended a multi-day COIN training hosted by ISAF for, primarily, NATO officers at a base outside Kabul in 2010, that literally nothing was mentioned about this. The only way in which communication was discussed was in terms of information operations (IO), which is decidedly not what I’m talking about.
I was, however, encouraged that several officers (mostly Australians) raised this problem in our feedback session on the final day. They had seen first-hand the importance of strengthening the institutions of communication, as well as learning themselves how to work with those institutions, during their time in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other COIN environments.
To return to Darden and Mylonas, who emphasize schools as a cog in nation-building, a key long-term approach to strengthening local communication systems is getting beyond Beltway Bandit approaches that simply pay NGOs (and professors) lots of money (well, not to the professors…) to do short-term trainings. Instead, those resources should be put into helping universities (and secondary schools when appropriate) develop journalism and public affairs curricula and programs. Too often, even when these projects are funded it is only on the journalism side. But many of the same skills that make one a good journalist make one an effective spokesperson: Both are, at the end of the day, about communicating effectively to the people.
These programs would include basic writing, reporting, and public speaking skills, as well as using inexpensive modern video and radio reporting. They would also include the development of internship programs that placed students in local and international media, and government agencies, thus giving students professional experience while simultaneously staffing the incipient communications infrastructure.
These programs have another benefit: They create a self-sustaining solution to the communication aspect of a successful nation-building (or state-building, depending on one’s emphasis) effort.
The State Department has begun such efforts at several Afghan universities over the last couple of years in an effort to seed future generations of communicators in that fledgling democracy. (Though these initiatives focus mostly on journalism education.) It will be interesting to see what blooms from these programs, assuming they are given a chance to succeed.
Al Jazeera English has produced a remarkable interactive network map that identifies much of the Syrian regime and its network of supporters — from senior military officials (generals and colonels) and members of parliament to diplomatic officials and ruling family members. It tracks those who defect or die, marked by various node colors, but also keeps a running tally in chart form below this tool.
Clicking on the individual nodes, which can be zoomed to, provides information about the person it signifies. The profiles of the defectors and the recently departed include details and sometimes embedded news clips about their highlighted fate.
Unlike a network analysis map, however, the relations between the individuals themselves are not depicted and distance within the clusters are not informative. Rather they are clustered into identifiable groups, such as Cabinet, Parliament, Security and Senior Military, Diplomats and Family, with Bashar al-Assad at the center.
Not all key pillars of the regime are accounted for in this tool. Bassam Haddad has also pointed to a co-opted business elite that bolsters the regime. Their defections, sometimes as entire families or splintered ones, can prove just as damaging as those within the internal clusters choose exit over complicity. Perhaps the business elite overlap with Parliament, anyways.
I have to say that despite this regime’s excessive cruelty, watching the color coding of deaths makes it feel like a spectator sport. And if this was used as some sort of tool for the planning of attacks, it would raise journalistic ethical questions. In the midst of an internal bloody war, though, I count on the rebels having their own network maps with more precision and actionable details. And I am sure plenty of the interested and meddling foreign powers are providing much more intelligence than we see on this page.
Nevertheless, this is a useful tool for Syria observers as a graphic representation of a corrupt and decrepit political infrastructure struggling to live to see another oppressive day. As the webpage cautions users, verifying defections and even deaths can prove difficult. The regime boots out critical journalists and keeps a tight lid on information contrary to its interests. This service gives us non-partisans a barometer of a conflict that has already gone on for too long and with too much human cost. The regime’s stubborn insistence to go on with business as usual has been a decision made with the willingness to sacrifice their country.
The information in the map may not change things on the ground much, but any application that sheds more light on what’s happening there is welcome.
Finally, it should be noted that AJE has the assistance of an organization Movements.org founded by Jared Cohen, the former State Department official and Director of Google Ideas, Jason Liebman, CEO and co-founder of Howcast, and Roman Tsunder, co-founder of Access 360 Media. It’s About webpage describes itself as “a non-profit organization dedicated to identifying, connecting, and supporting grassroots digital activists from around the world.”
Tim Lowden questions the wisdom of Larry Schwartz, the Senior PAO in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, employing snark in a twitter exchange with the Muslim Brotherhood following last week’s attack on the Embassy. In an interesting case of digital diplomacy, the MB had used its English-language Twitter feed to express sympathy to Embassy officials following the protests. Implicitly referring to the MB’s apparent tendency to adopt a more inflammatory tone in its Arabic tweets, Schwartz responded, “Thanks. By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too.”
Tim found this response to be cheeky, undiplomatic, and counter-productive to dampening down tensions, especially as a response to a seemingly well-intentioned missive from the MB. Personally, I rather liked it. But I think the incident illustrates the difficulties the State Department and other governmental organizations face when using social media to interact with foreign publics and, in this case, governments.
There are several aspects of social media that make them particularly tricky for diplomats. First, they move in rapid, real time speed, with shelf lives and attention spans that are often even shorter than that of traditional media. This is at odds with a bureaucracy’s desire to vet all communications before making them public. By the time a 140 character tweet has made it up the administrative food chain, the subject has changed and State has lost the opportunity to engage in the conversation. Recognizing this, State has slowly allowed for a more spontaneous approach to social media at its embassies, especially when it comes to posting on Facebook walls and tweeting. As former Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy James Glassman writes in a smart post at Foreign Policy, Ambassadors are ultimately responsible for tweets from the Embassy, but staff is trusted to proceed with the understanding that no communication can question or contradict U.S. policy. Generally, this is never a problem. That doesn’t mean, however, that tweets and wall postings can’t cause embarrassment.
Of course, this is potentially true of any communication; after all, it was a standard press statement that got Schwartz and the embassy in trouble in the first place. Another problem for Diplomats engaging in the public sphere via new media is precisely what bothered Tim: Tone. Social media — especially Twitter — speaks in the language of snark. To be credible, diplomats don’t necessarily need to descend to the lowest form of discourse, but they do need to communicate colloquially and authentically to be seen as legitimate members of the online community. This is why I am not bothered by Schwartz’s tweet: I found it to be a nice way to make an important point that worked in the context of social media.The question of whether it “works” or not is another matter, though.
And therein lies another challenge social media pose for diplomats. Twitter, Facebook, and the like are simply tools in the strategic communication utility belt diplomats can use to engage with foreign publics. But like all forms of communication, they are ultimately meant to serve the strategic ends of, in this case, the U.S. government. The real value of social media, for instance, is a combination of mass information delivery system, and a way to humanize the U.S. government for potentially skeptical audiences who see America as aloof, or worse. Measuring effectiveness of these communications is difficult, to say the least.
Take Schwartz’s tweet. Did it serve the U.S. government’s interests? Well, if it annoyed the Egyptian authorities and people when the government was making a genuine effort to extend an olive branch, then maybe not. But if it simultaneously stood up for the principal that the U.S. won’t stand for alleged allies engaging in rhetoric that endangers U.S. personnel, while also putting a human voice — piqued though it may have been — to otherwise staid government communications, then perhaps the answer is yes. The problem is two-fold.
First, who is the audience? The answer is a combination of one’s intended audience, and everyone else that will see your message retweeted, liked, emailed, etc. In traditional strategic communication, one identifies a target audience and crafts a message likely to be persuasive to that group of people. In social media, even more than before, the audience quickly grows beyond your target, especially when communications go viral — a diplomat’s worst nightmare. This leads to the other challenge: Context. When a politician airs a political ad on TV, they have a pretty good idea of the context in which the audience is receiving that message. But embassy officials have little to no control over how their unintended audience — or even their intended audience — will be seeing their tweets. For instance, research across decades shows that one of the most important ways in which people understand news and information is through the prism of peers or elites they trust and agree with.
So if I see Schwartz’s tweet because I follow him, then I am likely to process it differently than if I have it retweeted by someone I trust but who I know is hostile to the United States. More to the point, perhaps I see the tweet in a blog post from a trusted source that goes into a lengthy rebuttal to Schwartz’s message. The point is that in a new media environment, the messenger has much less control over the reception of that message than they did in a traditional media world. This is even true for their “old” media communications, because they, too, are often sent on a roller coaster ride through the “interwebs.”
This is reminiscent of the “Twitter Wars” between ISAF PAOs in Afghanistan and, purportedly, Taliban officials in the last couple of years. The exchanges were marked by extreme sarcasm on both sides, as in this repartee:
There are a couple of potential pitfalls exhibited in these exchanges. First, unlike Schwartz’s tweet, ISAF is in full-on Snark mode, to a point that I’m not sure works for them. When you are seen as an occupying force representing a host of imperial countries, it doesn’t really help win hearts and minds to in fact sound imperious. Put another way, this doesn’t seem to be furthering the strategic communication goals of ISAF. Second, it’s not clearthat the person tweeting here is really part of the Taliban, much less representing them. A coalition or government doesn’t look very credible if it’s arguing with an impersonator. A final problem posed by the Schwartz and ISAF cases is that these online squabbles are manna from heaven for the press, which loves conflict stories, especially if they allow reporters to write “gee whiz” stories about digital diplomacy gone awry. This can often fuel the story’s jet-packed ride to viral stardom.
Then again, the press itself can not only engage in what we might call undiplomatic behavior, but discover the hard way the same perils of social media diplomats have faced. In a matter of hours on Monday, Newsweek published a grotesque cover wallowing in the worst stereotypes of the Muslim world with the headline “Muslim Rage,” then invited comments about the cover on Twitter: “Want to discuss our latest cover? Let’s hear it with the hashtag #MuslimRage.” Well, they heard it alright.
I'm having such a good hair day. No one even knows. #MuslimRage—
Hend (@LibyaLiberty) September 17, 2012
You lose your nephew at the airport but you can't yell his name because it's JIHAD. #muslimrage—
Hijabi Girl (@HijabiGrlPrblms) September 17, 2012
Dooda دودة (@TheDooda) September 17, 2012
Goes on a plane. Sees Jack, a friend. Says "Hi Jack!". Gets arrested. #MuslimRage—
Mo Nazmi Ahmad (@monazmiahmad) September 18, 2012
Fortunately for Newsweek, a few hours and several thousand tweets later, Mitt Romney’s latest faux pas went viral and their own mishap began to travel down the memory hole, right on the heels of Larry Schwartz’s tweet. But in many ways, the damage had already been done.
I don’t envy the position Larry Schwartz finds himself in right now.
Schwartz, the Senior PAO and person responsible for press releases and social media at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, has been taking a lot of heat the past few days. As the smoke clears, we are now finding out that much of the uproar has been unfounded and as a result of a classic news hijack for political gain. But Thursday, Schwartz really crossed the line, and now he may be facing repercussions as the Obama administration moves to quell the media scrutiny around the situation, fend off attacks from the right, and repair damage with the Egyptian government.
Most readers of this blog are probably aware of the political firestorm that erupted after Mitt Romney made comments regarding a press release and tweets sent out from the embassy on Tuesday. To recap it quickly, Schwartz sent out a statement and an accompanying summarizing tweet at 12:18 p.m. Cairo time on Tuesday, according to this Foreign Policy article. The statement read:
“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
More than twelve hours later, at 12:30 a.m., Schwartz made a more controversial tweet:
According to the aforementioned FP article, neither of the messages was approved by Washington, but Schwartz ran them anyway (they’ve has since been removed).
After the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya not long after the events in Cairo, what was initially a rather small roller in the ocean of U.S. news became a surging tidal wave as the media began talking about the protests all over the Arab world, the infamous film blamed for them all, and what we should do next.
Mitt Romney jumped on the opportunity and lambasted Obama for being “apologetic” to the protesters and not standing up for American values like free speech. It was a political move, and an obvious news hijack. The facts are now out that the press release was preemptive, and that Schwartz disobeyed orders. Also, reports like this one from Erik Wemple, saying the release was in no way an apology anyways, are surfacing all over. Regardless, the Romney campaign has used it to start a larger debate questioning Obama’s leadership in the Arab world as a whole.
As for Schwartz and his decision to send out the press release prior to protests beginning, he was spot on. He did what he could to calm down what was probably a growing rumor that something was going to happen regarding the offensive nature of “The Innocence of Muslims”. There are rumblings that the film may have been used as a scapegoat for a previously organized protest, but let’s not bother with that. The man acted on information, and acted well.
In my opinion, you can’t blame him for sticking by his statement later, and adding that the embassy condemned the breach. To his credit, President Obama recently said, ”And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they’re in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office.” Schwartz and his colleagues were the ones dealing with a breach of security, and he did what he felt necessary to condemn it. In addition, it follows an acceptable line of thought while under attack. Romney can talk all he wants about promoting free speech, but when a mob is attacking your compound, you might not want to be spouting American rhetoric. Maybe it wasn’t exactly what Washington wanted it to be, but it surely wasn’t overly detrimental.
At this point in the sequence of events, it appeared Schwartz would have his reputation restored. He was under pressure and he did what he thought he had to do.
But then, Thursday happened, and the media is once again on his case.
Somehow, after seemingly making it out unscathed, it appears Schwartz was actually only in the eye of the storm. This article in The Atlantic, as well as many others, documented this exchange between @USEmbassyCairo and @Ikhwanweb, the official handle for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood:
I want to stop here and note a few things. Firstly, as of March 2012, the entire country of Egypt had 215,000 users on Twitter. The Twitter account for @USEmbassyCairo has a little over 28,000 followers, and at first glance, it seems a large number of them are more than likely not located in Egypt. A relatively tiny number of Egyptians in relation to the population of the country are seeing these posts, and yet the U.S. media coverage of them is more than superfluous.
Because of that, internet posts are meaningful and permanent. Someone always gets a screen grab of an ill-thought-out tweet, and it appears that such a situation is what happened yesterday. I have no idea what the Arabic feeds of the Muslim Brotherhood said, but I know that a knee-jerk response from an American diplomat to the current party-in-power over a public forum is definitely not what the Obama administration is looking for right now.
The move by Schwartz, who is undoubtedly under a lot of stress, insinuates that the party had some form of involvement with, or was instigating, the protests on their Arabic feeds. And that now carries even more weight, considering the Cairo protests seemed to fuel others, and have resulted in American deaths. Such an insinuation may have the propensity to create further tensions between the governments and/or stir the emotions of what is an already volatile Egyptian public.
More likely, the bigger headache for President Obama will be this incident giving the Republican party more fuel for their fire in saying the current administration has mishandled Middle East/North Africa affairs on a larger scale. Twitter is used as a device of public diplomacy by the State Department, and Schwartz just turned 180 degrees and called out the recently-elected Egyptian government for at best, not responding well to the situation, and at worst, contributing to the protests. Even if that information was to exist (and I am in no way saying it actually does), Twitter is surely not the right medium to address it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Romney and his advisors make haste in using that information to further their cause, possibly by saying Obama should have removed Schwartz after the first round of unapproved messages.
It appears President Obama has to do a little more damage-control than originally thought. I’m interested to see how this plays out, what Schwartz will face in the days ahead, if there will be an official response from the Muslim Brotherhood, and if the Romney campaign will triple-down on their cries of poor management by Obama.
All of the political bickering aside, we as Americans are all mourning the loss of Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone S. Woods. Let us all hope that the other protests end peacefully, and that U.S-Egypt, and U.S.-Arab relations in general manage to make it out of this mess, despite the Twitter gaffes.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and not ofTake Five, IPDGC or GWU.
While many of the uprisings of the Arab Spring appear to be have transitioned from bloodshed in the streets to struggles within a political structure, the conflict in Syria endures. Neither President Bashar al Assad or the opposition appear to have charted a clear path to victory, and with the death toll climbing (according to activists) to more than 20,000, no clear path to the end is in sight. What a transition it has been from the early days of the uprising, when Syrian protestors gathered in largely peaceful protests in Damascus. Syria has seen a lot since those days – a violent crackdown, a gathering rebellion, a failed UN Peacekeeping mission, and multiple attempts from the outside world to intervene and stop the bloodshed.
But the fighting in Syria is not simply on the battlefield and in the streets: an equally important struggle is being waged in the realm of public perception.
Back in June of 2012, NPR’s On The Media interviewed the BBC’s Paul Danahar on the evolving propaganda war within Syria. In the early days of the conflict, the regime was loath to allow reporters to catalogue the brutal crackdown that was taking place. Al Assad claimed that the opposition to his country was a mixture of Al Qaeda elements and foreign powers, and that his regime was all that stood between Syria and an extremist Islamist state. Few people took these claims seriously at the time, but over time, says Danahar, that narrative has become somewhat true.
”I think it’s become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy. He talked about there being Al Qaeda elements in Syria last year, and I think now there are Al Qaeda elements. So they’ve managed to worm their way into the structure of society because the society has become completely chaotic. His claim that the other governments are fiddling around in his back yard, they’re also true. He’s created the environment for the kinds of things he warned about happening to actually happen.”
It is correct that Al Qaeda and foreign fighters are taking part in the fighting. In many ways, Syria has now spiraled into the protracted civil war that everyone feared it would be. The rebellion – a fractured, disorganized collective of armed groups – has yet to provide the same sort of unified opposition that their counterparts achieved in Libya, and as a result, the deeds of individual factions are able to shift the narrative of the whole opposition. Images and videos of alleged mass executions of regime soldiers by the FSA have prompted a warning from the U.N. that the rebels are not immune from prosecution for atrocities.
President Al Assad’s goal in light of this is two-fold: to project his regime to both internal and external audiences as the inevitable, stable ruler of Syria, and to cast the opposition as a radical, unacceptable alternative. In some ways this objective is a continuation of the regime’s PR campaign before the uprising, in which Asma Al Assad, the president’s wife, received a glowing spread in Vogue magazine (recently dropped from the publication’s website).
Hassan Hassan of Foreign Policy documents his recent more recent PR offensive to carry the narrative – embedding journalists with Syrian forces fighting in Aleppo, highlighting captured foreign fighters and jihadists, and arranging television interviews to project confidence about the outcome of the conflict. The regime has met and given “positive commitments” to the Red Cross officials’ requests to address the humanitarian crisis, even as Syrian forces continue to shell civilian populations in Damascus and Aleppo.
By contrast, the opposition has failed to mount a similar imaging campaign, or anything close to it. Infighting and a lack of leadership in the Syrian National Council has made it very challenging for the organization direct the rebellion, much less combat the regime’s narrative with an effective counter campaign. As a result, says Michael Hughes of the Examiner, “the SNC’s poor media strategy and inconsistent messaging have allowed the Assad regime to frame the narrative.” Bassad Haddad laments the dysfunction of the opposition on display for all to see:
“We are no longer witnessing a clear-cut event where an independent pro-democracy movement is facing a dictatorship. Though the latter part holds, the former does not. The dependence, weakness, fragmentation, and divisiveness of the especially external opposition and its internal correlates are now evident to all.”
Skill with public relations doesn’t shift facts on the ground. No number of television interviews can banish the reality for Syrians of shelling and summary executions. But framing can shape the behavior of actors going forward. Perceptions of the regime’s inevitability and the opposition’s unacceptability may shift the behavior of ordinary Syrians as the battle for the country continues to play out. The belief by foreigners that the opposition is made up of radicals like Al Qaeda could stay the hand of powers with the ability to truly shift the winds in the opposition’s favor. Ultimately, If the opposition is to defeat the regime, they will need to do more than simply coordinate within the organization; they must also convince outsiders of their legitimacy and their ability to responsibly piece the country together.
That is the title of the latest IPDGC-USIP report in the “Blogs and Bullets” series, written by myself and my GW colleagues Henry Farrell, Marc Lynch, and John Sides, as well as American University’s Deen Freelon. Since 2009, we have been looking at the role of new media in political protest, activism, and movements for peace around the world. Although this has been an important topic for a while, it gained particular salience in 2011 when mass protests exploded throughout the Middle East, toppling two governments and pushing several others toward the brink.
Our first report, “Blogs and Bullets: New Media and Contentious Politics,” co-authored with Morningside Analytics’ John Kelly and Ethan Zuckerman from the Berkman Institute, we took a critical look at the state of research at that time in this area and called for a more complex, empirically-grounded approach. We proposed five “lenses” through which scholars and others could examine these internet-fueled movements: individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime policies, and external attention.
In this latest report, we go a step further by zeroing in on the role of new and especially social media in the Arab Spring protests that began in late 2010 and led to the toppling of some despotic regimes — but, importantly, not all — in 2011. We did this by utilizing a unique dataset from bit.ly, the URL shortener commonly associated with Twitter but used in several platforms, including Facebook. With these data, we were able to get a sense of how important a role these media played in what some hailed at the time as “Facebook Revolutions.”
Our findings suggest a more nuanced role for new media, or at least, for the new media we were able to analyze. First, it’s important to understand what we were able to do with our data. In a nutshell, we were able to see how different links spread throughout a country, throughout the region, and throughout the world, and when they did so. Put simply, we were able to look at spikes in linking (mostly via Twitter), which coincided with major events and their corresponding hashtags (e.g., #jan25 for Egypt), and see if most of that traffic was within the given country, within the broader MENA (Middle East North Africa) region, or external to the region.
In sum, we found that in nearly all cases we examined, the vast majority of link traffic was external to the MENA region and the country in question. So, for example, many of the links being virtually passed around about the Tarhir Square protests in Egypt were amongst people in places like Europe and North America, rather than from Egyptian to Egyptian, or even from Cairo to Manama.
There are many reasons not to be surprised by these findings. For one, most of the affected countries have very low internet penetration. For another, phrases such as “Twitter Revolution” or “Facebook Revolution” conjure up the kind of very powerful media effect not seen in most of the academic literature across a variety of contexts. It’s not that media can’t be powerful, but rather that their power is generally limited to very specific instances and dependent on many factors. (And that’s assuming we can agree on what “powerful” means.)
Yet precisely because of the occasionally breathless commentary about the alleged power of new media to bring down governments, these findings are important. For one thing, by showing that at least some social media (e.g., Twitter) didn’t appear to have a mobilizing effect internally, it helps refocus our attention on what variables do explain social movement organization and effectiveness.
Similarly, I would argue these findings are important for the way in which they tell us something about what social media did do during these protests. In a sense, what we found is a “megaphone” role for social media, whereby the rest of the world was able to learn about and have conversations about these protests and the violent crackdowns that they inspired. This could have important ramifications if, as some hope, this kind of external attention can generate international pressure on regimes to avoid or suspend violent reactions to protest, much less reform or resign. This is particularly important in an era where some governments, including the Obama administration, attempt to embrace a foreign policy based on the principle of a “responsibility to protect” (R2P) citizens threatened by extreme regime violence.
With Lynch and Freelon, our next wave of USIP-funded Blogs and Bullets research will explore how activists in the Syrian uprising are using new media — especially videos on sites like YouTube — to mobilize and inform others around the world about their fight with the Syrian government. Ultimately we will also be looking at how these social media campaigns might, or might not, influence the international community’s response. We will be discussing the Arab Spring report, and the Syrian uprising, at a conference on October 2 at USIP. Watch the IPDGC website for details.