New media and revolutions

Millions of individuals in dozens of countries are taking to the streets with what boils down to one simple message: Do more for the people.

Wael Ghonim twitter 311 (photo credit: Screenshot)
Wael Ghonim twitter 311
(photo credit: Screenshot)
Take a look at the world around us, here in the year 2011. Who would have believed that the global status quo could go through such an upheaval in such a short time? Millions of individuals in dozens of countries are taking to the streets with what boils down to one simple message: Do more for the people.
Of course, there is a big difference between protesters in Western countries and those who are putting their lives at risk by calling for the removal of dictators such as Syria’s Bashar Assad.
The methodology as far as the media is concerned, however, is the same: to create alternative means of communication to organize and disseminate information via the Internet. There is no denying that almost all of the groups who have been putting together these demonstrations are coming together first and foremost online where information is transmitted in an instant. Things happen fast in cyberspace and that’s being translated on the ground with some of these groups seemingly coming out of nowhere.
This is all good and well. At the end of the day, a means of communication is a tool, be it a website, blog, forum, application, Facebook page or Twitter account. But there is a more serious danger which can lie ahead and is inherent in such mass participation.
Common problems such as lack of clear leadership and demands are running through almost every instance of the recent revolts, demonstrations and civil disobedience.
These issues have both a positive and negative potential. The more people who feel they are getting involved in a movement in any way, the more likely they are to contribute to its success.
While some might see sitting by a computer as an impersonal method to join a faction, it is not only effective in our day and age, it is the only real way to reach those individuals who consider themselves disenfranchised and wary of the lines fed to them by traditional media.
That applies mostly to the younger generation. There is no censorship on the Internet. No editorial or financial consideration as far as content is concerned not to mention the fact that it’s also cost effective from the organizations’ point of view. Gone are the days of traditional marketing and propaganda as a recruiting tool and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way.
Another side of the coin is historical precedence. Many regime changes have proven to be disastrous for countries. There have been the coup d’états, which traditionally were carried out by the military. They brought to power such leaders as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.
Popular uprisings gone wrong gave rise to radical Islam in Iran and the Communist dictatorship in Russia.
While geo-political history might be able to point out potential pitfalls of such uprisings, from the media point of view, we’re in uncharted waters. Never before have so many people been able to communicate to so many others so fast and practically without inhibitors. This is power fragmented into millions or even hundreds of millions of pieces. To make matters even more complicated is the seemingly exponential growth in internet technology.
Each new application brings about capabilities that can be quickly exploited and of which many might not be aware of. The ability to gather and manipulate data is not something that should be scoffed at, all the more so if individuals and small groups have the ability to do so.
One of the key requirements of building and maintaining a democracy is the need for consensus. While there will always be differences of opinion, there must be a widely spread readiness to accept certain key principals, inalienable rights and the “rules of the game” which guide democratic nations.
The overwhelming majority of the protesters are set against one or more of that list in their particular country. What particularly troubles me is the fact with so many major factors decentralized by the internet, is it even possible to set the stage for a new consensus? Is it possible the world is headed for a new system altogether that we can’t even see coming? Do more for the people.
The demands which will be synonymous with that statement in its many forms and the media which will continue to act its conduit will be dominating the headlines over the next few years. I don’t think there’s anyone who can comfortably predict what’s coming next.
The writer is an independent media consultant and a former producer at the Fox News Channel in New York.