Social Media's Impotence During the Turmoil in Libya and Japan

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Even in our digital age, change often comes sweepingly, powerfully and from forces far more lasting than 140 characters could ever be.

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In early March, I attended a roundtable at the Paley Center for Media called "The Fourth Estate in a Digital Democracy." Only a few weeks later, that gathering and the countless others like it (celebrating the prominence of social media) have been given a chastening lesson. The centerpiece of the discussion was the role of Facebook and Twitter in the unfolding revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and, in its early days then, Libya, with ripples elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East. The essence of the issue came down to the positions of two media celebrities who were not actually present but had this exchange in the current Foreign Affairs: "Even the increased sophistication and force of state reaction," wrote Clay Shirky, "underline the basic point: these tools alter the dynamics of the public sphere. Where the state prevails, it is only reacting to citizens' ability to be more publicly vocal and to coordinate more rapidly and on a larger scale than before these tools existed."

As Qaddafi routed his opponents, little more was said about Facebook and Twitter. And then there is the cataclysm in Japan. One of the world's most advanced societies has been devastated by the power of nature.

Malcolm Gladwell's response was that, for Shirky's "argument to be anything close to persuasive, (he) has to convince readers that in the absence of social media, those uprisings would not have been possible."

Two major developments have now demonstrated how abruptly what seems like certainties about technology and communications can be overwhelmed. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi's brutal counterattack transformed the initial successes of opposition groups into a massive retreat. Finally, the United Nations Security Council and the Arab League authorized a military response now unfolding. But as Qaddafi routed his opponents, little more was said about Facebook and Twitter. And then there is the cataclysm in Japan. One of the world's most advanced societies has been devastated by the power of nature. For all the technology available to the Japanese, the country has been at the mercy of what has turned out to be a cascade of catastrophes that no amount of 140-character messages and updates to friends could handle, as communications of all kinds were disabled across stricken areas and even, at times, in Tokyo.

It is pointless to dispute that digital advances have played an enormous role in recent years in the speed of communications, and, in some situations, Egypt and Tunisia certainly among them, these technologies have played a meaningful part in the rallying of crowds and in garnering international recognition. A global generation of mainly young people will continue to refine and use the capacity to reach out to each other. Turmoil reflects the conditions of the era in which it occurs, and social media are very much a factor of our age.

But as I listened to the Paley Center dialogue, I recalled two transformations in the latter years of the twentieth century that proved revolution has a dynamic that transcends contemporary gadgetry. These were indigenous revolutions, that of course had their origins in widespread discontent, but they were led by charismatic religious figures around whom people mobilized, for better and for worse.

Both examples took place in 1979, when I was the foreign editor of the Washington Post. The surprise choice of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II and his trip soon thereafter to his homeland was unquestionably a trigger in what culminated a decade later in the fall of Communism throughout the Eastern Bloc and eventually the Soviet Union. I was in Poland for those ten amazing days in June and watched as crowds in the millions gathered wherever the Pope was scheduled to appear. If there was any institution responsible for the celebration, it was the Church. But in reality, Poles had found a way to express themselves that confounded the oppressive regime that ruled them. These were not specifically political demonstrations, but in retrospect the Polish leaders and their Kremlin overseers realized that the Pope had unleashed a measure of self-confidence that proved to be a power greater than the police state. There were setbacks to follow: martial law was imposed in 1981 to forestall a Soviet invasion. But from the moment the Pope arrived in Warsaw in 1979, Communism was in its final period.

Also in 1979 came the Iranian revolution, which ousted the Shah, who like the autocratic leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, had seemed supremely in charge until suddenly he wasn't. It was the Ayatollah Khomeini from his exile in Paris whose fervent perorations circulated in cassettes galvanized the population and turned the country in a matter of months from a relatively progressive society, at least in social norms, to what it has become: a country run by Mullahs with the capacity and will to crush opposition and cling to power. No matter how vividly the repression is displayed in cellphone camera footage on YouTube or described on Facebook and Twitter, reform in Iran has been brutally stifled. The regime has even turned social media against its own people by tracking their use of it and arresting or intimidating those identified.

Religious expression as ancient as the teachings of Jesus Christ in Poland and Mohammad in Iran were the underpinnings of revolution in those two nations. If there is a broader message in the events of this past month, it is how abruptly change (even in the digital age) can be swept aside by the deployment of unrelenting military force against the will of the people or the force of nature at its fiercest, a tectonic shift on a massive scale. As we recognize the influence of all that is new in our times, we should also be humbled by these reminders of eternal powers.

Image: Reuters/Steve Crisp.


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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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