CRASSH Conference: New Media and Alternative Politics in the Middle East and Africa

As I mentioned previously, I had the opportunity to attend the conference hosted by CRASSH at Cambridge this week, which explored the growing role of new media and its uses in alternative politics.  Just a note, CRASSH is but one organization that makes up the alphabet soup of organizations at Cambridge and this particular acronym stands for Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (just noticed that they don’t use the serial comma in their organization name…which, while apparently a strong trend in written English language, never ceases to anger me…also, I’m thinking of giving the old blog an acronym to fit in better with my new surroundings…I’m thinking of KJAB or EOA or KJAB:EOA…yes, I know, I crammed a lot of stuff inside these parentheses). 

Moving on, the conference was small, but quite interesting at times.  A personal note, I was happy to learn that no matter how poor one’s presentation is at one of these events…the moderator and audience questioners will always proclaim that it was brilliant…so I have no worries about any future presentations I might have to give in such settings.  It was definitely interesting to hear the perspectives of a variety of cultures and perspectives…from political activists in Kenya to NGO workers in Zimbabwe to Nigerian and South African academics.  On the flip side, my only critique would be that the subject of the conference was rather narrow. “New media” technologies (e.g., texting, blogging!, Twitter, Facebook, online newsletters, etc.) are undoubtedly valuable and important tools in any modern day enterprise from corporate marketing to political campaigning.  However, it is certainly too early to draw empirical conclusions about the effectiveness of such technologies in, say promoting activism or political dissent in countries ruled by totalitarian regimes.  In fact, if there was one clear consensus from the conference it was that many people are asking and expecting too much from new media technologies.  New media will not, by itself, revolutionize the world…but what people use these tools for (or even other more traditional tools) very well could.  Yes, internet technology, cell phones, and social media allow everyday citizens to share information more quickly and efficiently with large groups of people; however, whether this increased information flow ultimately results in more action remains unclear.  The pop author Malcolm Gladwell asks this precise question in a new (and timely) piece in the New Yorker.  He concludes that “the revolution will not be Tweeted,” because social media is better designed to create loose ties and connections rather than firm, hierarchical ones that result in actual action.  I think Gladwell makes some good points here…some that were echoed by contributors at the conference.  However, I think that he does in some ways miss the broader point. 

Activism is not the only activity that makes new media technologies important or revolutionary.  The availability of more space for the disempowered to let their voice be heard is a huge step forward.  For example, a young girl in Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe may live under a politically repressive regime, but she may be able to share her story or feelings through poems, blogs, songs, or videos if she has the access to the necessary tools (more on the access problem later).  This opportunity in itself is very valuable from a human perspective.

The so-called new media tools, while perhaps not earth shattering or revolutionary technologies for organizing and political action, are important outlets for information sharing.  For example, Professor Herman Wasserman of Rhodes University, South Africa and Nduka Otiono, a Nigerian from Alberta University in Canada, both argued that common South Africans and Nigerians (respectively) are increasingly utilizing new media to circumvent the mainstream media that often caters to the elite and powerful.  Young South Africans have been increasingly drawn to political satire (i.e. their versions of the Daily Show or The Colbert Report) as a means of expression and protest (of course, I find this despicable…I hate poking fun at stuff).  On the flip side, white supremacists groups have effectively used Facebook and the comments section of online news articles to spread their message of hate.  The apparent organization of such campaigns (which can also be observed in the comment sections of mainstream internet news on Yahoo, for example) makes it difficult to distinguish between personal expression and a larger, more hierarchical activity.  In addition, video websites such as YouTube are also outlets for expression, but even videos can be doctored or skewed to fit a particular point of view, as admitted by YouTube scholar Fanar Hadad who has been investigating ground level videos coming out of Iraq.  Thus, once again, the content of the message distributed (including how we interpret, authenticate, and analyze it) remains paramount.  New media technologies are neither good nor bad…but can certainly be used for good or bad purposes.

Of course, putting aside whether new media is used for good or bad, there are fundamental problems of limited access that prevent millions of people around the world from utilizing the new tools we have at our disposal.  For this reason, Firoze Manji of Pambazuka News in Kenya wisely proclaimed that, “print is here to stay.”  Print media, and other more accessible outlets such as radio, remain invaluable tools for raising awareness and sparking popular movements in parts of Africa and the Middle East where the tools of technology are largely unavailable due to poverty and lack of investment by media corporations and government.  That being said, activist organizations remain committed to using any and all tools available to reach every person they can…from potential donors to potential freedom marchers.  Thus it seems, that while the revolution might not be Tweeted…it almost certainly will be Tweeted about.