Internet No Automatic Revolution
Internet No Automatic Revolution
Saturday, May 24,2008 17:35
By Anwer Sher

The Current Discussion: Egypt has detained a number of its citizens for using the social networking site Facebook to organize anti-government protests. What online sites are most effective in influencing politics -- and is the impact positive?

In the context of Egypt, the government’s reaction to the use of sites like Facebook to influence politics within the country forms a broader pattern of media control. In essence Facebook, Hi5, and other social networking communities do get the wrath of governments on the basis of alleged erosion of "social values". This is a delicate subject for most of the emerging world, but I am not entirely sure that Facebook, per se, is known for being a platform for political dissent. For instance, the entire protest against General Musharraf"s handling of Pakistan’s Judiciary, while absolutely high-handed, has not been reflected in places like Facebook. Yet blogs, other internet sites and even email e-blogs have become more effective mainly because they remain more targeted.

As far as the internet media is concerned, it’s becoming more powerful, especially with the ease of net traffic and of course more flexibility in content presentation. However, in a number of cases even the more serious political platforms on the internet have questionable effectiveness as instruments of direct change. Burma, Tibet, Iraq, the Arab World, Israel’s behavior and American insensitivity to world opinion – all have figured in various prestigious platforms. The result has been that while people may end up being better informed, I am not sure they are willing to do much more about it than perhaps an occasional protest email.

Take the example of PostGlobal itself. While there is no doubt this forum has a respected readership, there is perhaps, judging by some reader comments, a tendency to only read the headline and the first paragraph and then leave a comment. (To use my last post as an example, some readers felt I was asking only the Arabs to accept Israel, when I was additionally arguing that Israel has to stop its inhuman treatment of the Arabs and even quoted Amnesty International.) So on balance, the situation is not as simple as saying that if it’s on the Internet, it will influence opinion. It is more likely that it will shape some opinions, but unless the leadership or the audience that needs to act is really going to take serious note of the media on the net, I would argue that it will still be some time before we can say that Internet-based opinions matter. Perhaps this is because of the fractured nature of the Internet, and because I can hardly see General Musharraf, President Bush or Hosni Mubarak waking up each morning and reading the hundreds of blogs out in cyberspace.

Nevertheless, for those who care and do understand the writers’ complete arguments, there is a case that it can provide the basis for interaction and perhaps eventually action.