Political and technological changes have a history of going hand in hand. Technology empowers individuals to overcome their isolation and connect to share ideas, information, hopes, and dreams. The most recent phenomenon in this long history (which dates back at least as far as the Gutenberg printing press) is the Arab revolt that has swept the Middle East since last December, brought on by a generation of cell phone and social media users. How to deal with this phenomenon—and how to help steer it toward a pro-democratic outcome—are challenges for policymakers here. And the question of how to control it is more difficult for autocratic rulers in the Middle East.
The “Arab Spring” is only the most visible example of the impact of technology and social media on policymaking, social movements, and protest. Globally, there are now more than 4 billion cell phone users—six out of every 10 people on the planet. Mobile and digital technology is changing parts of the world where lack of communication infrastructure has impeded economic growth. Africa is growing the quickest, and the developing world accounts now for two-thirds of the cell phones in use worldwide, according to a new report by the Center for International Media Assistance.
This means that the potential for revolts similar to the Arab Spring exists far beyond the Middle East. The popular revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya have been called a “Facebook revolution,” but mobile telephony has played an equal or dominant role in Syria in circumventing news blackouts and censorship.
Yet, writes James M. Dorsey on RSIS Commentaries:
It is not technology that sparks revolts. No doubt, social media facilitate and accelerate the speed and breadth of communication, and impact politics, social movements, communications and the flow of news. But the answer to the question whether the Arab revolt would have erupted without Facebook is a resounding yes. To dub the Arab revolt a Facebook revolution would require revising explanations of past revolts such as the Islamic revolution in Iran and popular uprisings in the Philippines and Indonesia.
Other conditions have to be in place in order for uprisings to take place. Suffering, poverty, and repression fuel the fire, but there also has to be a certain amount of hope or at least anger to spur a population and its leaders to action. Where the new technologies come in: spreading knowledge of the outside world and providing the means of organizing.
For autocratic regimes, cracking down on all this activity is a befuddling problem insofar as shutting down Internet and cell phone service also means shutting down commerce and banking. It can be done—and was done by the Egyptian government in January—but it is like shooting yourself in the head. For the U.S. and other Western governments, the issue is how to engage the youth of the Arab street and other developing countries who embrace the new technologies, hoping to steer their passion toward democracy and away from Islamist fundamentalism.
The digital revolution has produced an interactive media environment and a democratizing information ecosystem. As a consequence, governments and institutions today have to be more attentive than ever to public opinion.