How has the development of social media and new communications technology influenced the political landscape in the Middle East? Has social media been used by a new generation as a force for democratization? As a force for radicalization by Islamists? Have repressive regimes within the region manipulated this internet phenomenon to monitor and hunt down those who seek change and modernization? There is a conflict inherent in social media - it is used for good and for evil depending on whose hands are at the controls. How can we harness this means of communication to help in the spread of democracy while at the same time attempting to lessen its power when used by radicals and tyrants?
It is a global story, a new industrial revolution. The spread of the internet and the proliferation of social media have led to dramatic changes with salutary results: greater access to more diverse information, gateways to goods and services that have transformed the retail experience, and opportunities to engage and network with expanded communities, while still staying in touch with friends and family, all thanks to the blessings of these new technologies.
“One of the startling discoveries of our time,” the author and social philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote nearly half a century ago, “is that revolutions are not revolutionary.” Hoffer’s insight has aged well. All across our world, particularly in the emerging world over the past three decades, we have been witnessing quiet revolutions that are “not revolutionary” driven by urbanization, growing middle classes, and increasing access to information coupled with the rocket fuel of rising aspirations.
The global expansion of social media over the past decade has sparked a vibrant debate about its role in mobilizing political protest movements worldwide, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street. Clay Shirky was among the first to claim that social media can serve as a tool for bolstering civil society and the public sphere. Others, like Larry Diamond and Marc Plattner, took this further and defined social media as a ‟liberation technology” with the power to expedite democratization processes. A counter-argument to these so-called “cyber optimists” came from thinkers like Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov. These and other “cyber pessimists” argued that the impact of social media on the political arena is limited, and cautioned that repressive authorities might exploit it to suppress opponents.
Under the subtitle of “How an Egyptian revolution began on Facebook,” the New York Times in February 2012, ran a laudatory review of Wael Ghonim’s newly released book Revolution 2.0. The review noted how a young Google executive frustrated by his country’s injustices, especially police brutality, had started a Facebook page that quickly attracted hundreds of thousands of similarly frustrated young Egyptians, becoming both a platform for expressing anger as well as a mobilizing venue.
A trench war, fought in our labyrinthine digital world, has been raging in the Islamic Republic of Iran for more than two decades. On one side is a youthful internet-savvy society—adept at the gender-neutral, hierarchy-averse pluralism of platforms and networks—a society craving to join the 21st century. On the other side is a clerical despotic regime with a claim to divine legitimacy, a parallel male-dominated septuagenarian elite, enamored of gender-apartheid and of ideas more than a millennium old—a power structure that is retrograde, passé and stale, compared to the vibrancy of Iranian society at large.
This essay combines the first-hand experiences and analyses of two young Syrian activists. One, Kassem Eid, survived the sarin gas attack and starvation siege of his Mouadamiya suburb of Damascus. He has written extensively in opinion pieces on the subject of the revolution in Syria. Qutaiba Idlbi’s work has focused on the accountability of aid organizations. He speaks widely on the nature of the Assad regime and the cause of the opposition. He was twice imprisoned by Assad’s intelligence services at the age of 21.