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Change in the Middle East and Social Media


February 22, 2011

doesDoug Hadden, VP Products

There has been a lot of talk about the so-called “Facebook revolutions” in the middle east. It’s created an interesting phenomenon: tension of social media and traditional media. Authoritarian regimes leverage traditional media while citizens leverage social media. And, many commentators suggest that social media is not enabling social change.

Irony in Traditional Media

Malcom Gladwell’s October 2010 New Yorker article created a twitter stir by claiming that social networking cannot build the strong ties needed for social change. Both Evgeny Morozov in Foreign Policy and Clay Shirky in Foreign Affairs have recently criticized the United States State Department efforts to promote Internet freedom. These articles are well thought-out narratives with valuable insights. Yet, these article predict little change thanks to social media. Morozov rejects the “notion that technology can succeed in opening up the world where offline efforts have failed.” Shriky has more understanding of social media effects but suggests that Internet freedom to “encourage regime change — are likely to be ineffective on average.” Some average over the past month!

Articles go through a publishing cycle, so it is unfortunate that the good points in both articles are lost with what seems a poor predictions. Granted, the contribution made by the State Department may not have had any effect whatsoever except to highlight what Morozov describes as  movement of countries “seeking ‘information sovereignty’ from American companies.” (In all fairness to the State Department, the organization has been pushing open source software that provides full information sovereignty to whomever wants it.)

Why So Wrong?

Gladwell suggests that hierarchy is needed for social change. He points out that “social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.”

This exactly where the State Department, Malcolm Gladwell, Evgeny Morozov and governments in Egypt and Tunisia may not understand the new dynamic. It’s true that social change required strong organization and strong ties in the past. A replacement set of elites. Or oligarchy.

But as Jaron Lanier has pointed out, Web 2.0 creates a “hive mind“. Lanier is very much against this change, but look at the results: in the past governments could leverage media monopolies to present the message that unrest has been created by foreign interests. And, opposition organizations could be monitored over time.

Today, facts and opinion can not be quickly suppressed. Social media is self-organizing. It moves too quickly. Hierarchy is the old way.

Marshall McLuhan described how social and political change were generated by media in “Understanding Media: The extensions of man.” He described how one medium changes with the introduction of another. Machine technology made society fragmented and specialized, according to McLuhan. Social media may enable “integral and centralist”  social organization.

What does this mean for Governments?

There are some key lessons from social media effects including phenomena such as the Tea Party use of Twitter and the use of social media Obama’s election in the Unites States. Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams in Macrowikinomics suggest that “most governments till reflect industrial age organizational thinking.”

  1. Governments need to move in-network to use social media to improve policy formulation and policy execution. This will improve social cohesion and what we once called “efficacy”.
  2. There is no stopping what Tapscott and Williams calls the “rise of the citizen regulator.” It is time for governments to recognize the participatory benefits of this trend to help improve performance and outcomes.
  3. Traditional media does not have the impact it once did. Traditional media organizations are hierarchical in nature and suffer from the same inefficiencies as other “command-and-control” organizations. Therefore, transparency, even to the extent of “dis-intermediating” traditional organizations is becoming a competitive differentiator for governments.
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Doug Hadden

Doug Hadden

Executive Vice President, Innovation at FreeBalance
Doug is responsible for identifying new global markets, new technologies and trends, and new and enhanced internal processes. Doug leads a cross-functional international team that is responsible for developing product prototypes and innovative go-to-market strategies.

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