Savir's Corner: Facebook and leadership

Bibi has not entered the real Facebook world, which is a borderless one, but communicates mainly inside Israel’s borders.

President Shimon Peres in Facebook interview 390 (photo credit: Screenshot)
President Shimon Peres in Facebook interview 390
(photo credit: Screenshot)
President Shimon Peres visited two superpowers last week – the United States of America, with 320 million inhabitants, led by Barack Obama; and Facebook, with 800 million active users around the world, led by the young Mark Zuckerberg. Nothing could have better depicted the transformation in today’s world than the almost equal media attention paid to Peres’s Washington visit, on the one hand, and the launch of his Facebook page on the other.
In Washington, Peres gave a remarkably patriotic speech, highlighting our alliance with the United States and with President Obama. At Palo Alto’s Facebook headquarters, he asked people from around the world to join him for peace, starting with Zuckerberg himself.
In Palo Alto, Peres also held a “Facebook Live” newmedia event, where he spoke of the new world, also transformed by the Facebook phenomena, in which people possess a greater sense of empowerment, and are therefore less governable; a world that is more transparent, with fewer borders, creating new ambitions among the underprivileged, who thus become rebellious; a world in which dictatorial regimes lose control over their people; a world in which technological development and science are more important than territories and military might. This is, to a large degree, a world that belongs to the young.
All this, in Peres’s young mind, goes for Israel as well, and for the Middle East as a whole. In Silicon Valley, Peres expressed great pride in our technological achievements and creativity. He actually offered a new scale with which to measure our national power; science, technology and education are now more relevant than territory and military victories.
He referred to the situation in the Arab world, saying that he does not recommend to anyone to become a dictator, as they have no future, and expressed his appreciation for the “Tahrir generation,” even calling on young Iranians and Syrians to join him in dialogue.
Peres was greeted with the highest respect by the champions of the hi-tech revolution, be it at Facebook or Google. He is, among Israeli leaders, the most modern expression, and unlike our other leaders, is a bridge to the world. No wonder that last week’s public opinion polls show him to be by far our most popular leader.
What Peres points to, is a fundamental transformation of the international social-economic and political system, brought about by a new climax in the information and technology revolutions.
Individuals on Facebook define themselves on their “timeline” or “profile,” and express their views and values.
This is especially true for the young.
They communicate with one another, almost on an hourly basis, on a variety of topics of common interest.
They express themselves on issues of concern and create communities of content, sometimes even of rebellion – be it “Occupy Wall Street,” Tahrir Square or Rothschild Boulevard. Thus, governments and leaders must seek legitimacy today not just every four years, but on an ongoing basis. The democratization of information is leading to a further democratization of societies and decisionmaking processes. Regionally and internationally, communities of common values are being created, as “groups” or in “events” on Facebook.
While in the process politicians have become more lonely, their constituencies enjoy greater local and global company.
As a result, the whole equation of “citizen vs government” has changed.
People’s desires and values are made obvious and are less easily manipulated by political leaders through traditional media. The name of the political game is no longer merely election victories, but legitimacy.
Decisions of leaders in democratic societies, and also in nondemocratic societies, have to be legitimated by the people in most cases. It is therefore no wonder that dark totalitarian regimes, like the Iranian and Syrian regimes, ban and censor social networking the best they can; yet it is only a matter of time before they too will succumb to technological advance and the will of their people.
The No. 1 world leader who understands this is Barack Obama. He was elected as the first “Facebook generation” president, with a massive campaign on social networks, and he maintains an ongoing dialogue with the American people on his Facebook page – Obama 2012. The Facebook dialogue, in most cases, helps to keep leaders more honest – Obama spoke last week with candor about his efforts to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, about crippling sanctions and about a military attack as a last resort, but also admitted, unlike the Republican candidates, that war with Iran would carry a heavy cost for the United States and Israel.
Obama’s other White House guest, Binyamin Netanyahu, also keeps an active Facebook page. He too understands the need to dialogue with his constituency.
Yet, unlike Obama and Peres, Bibi has not entered the real Facebook world, which is a borderless one, but communicates mainly inside Israel’s borders.
When Peres spoke on his Facebook page to the women of the world on International Women’s Day, Bibi spoke of Purim and its lessons for the Iran situation. Yet, even Bibi understands that he needs to seek not only election victories, but also ongoing legitimacy for his policies.
Therefore it is unlikely that he will wage war on Iran when only 20 percent of Israelis favor such adventurism.
While Facebook pages for Middle Eastern leaders are not yet that prevalent, they understand the power of social networks, that was itself so present in the Arab Spring.
The Arab leaders after Yasmin and Tahrir understand they need the legitimacy of the streets and the squares. We will witness an expression of this during the upcoming Egyptian presidential elections, as we did during the Tunisian elections. Arab leaders will need to learn to listen to the vox populi as their people tweet it, if they do not want to follow in the footsteps of Hosni Mubarak, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Muammar Gadaffi.
Shimon Peres spoke 20 years ago of a New Middle East, more open, developed and peaceful. We are not there yet, but with the information revolution, the potential for it exists. If the leaderships in the Middle East will heed to the voices of their young constituencies, who aspire to freedom, economic development and the avoidance of costly war, as can be witnessed in the “YaLa – Young Leaders” Facebook movement, we may see a gradual progress in these directions, despite the energetic forces of yesterday and fundamentalism. Israel, even under Netanyahu, needs to understand that we live in a transformed world, and a region in transition.
A region in which young people both matter and have much in common, as well as express themselves without fear. In this manner, the information revolution can lead to a political and economic transformation. It is insufficient for leaders to be “Liked,” they need to listen.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.