February 28, 2011

I is for Information

"If only tweets could stop bombs."

The victor, it is often said, gets to write the history books. But those in charge of information, be it newspaper or television, get to write and re-write history every day. In Libya and Egypt, in particular, state-run outlets have been reporting false information about who controls an area, belittling protesters as “saboteurs” and “foreign-funded agents” and planting false reports and stories. (NYT-Libya) As Clay Shirky points out in "Political Power of Social Media," this information control -- and underground literature from opposition forces -- has been around for a long time.

The USSR had samizdat, Poland had the Gyzeta Wyborca, and even North Korea has outlets in South Korea and Japan that help get smuggled stories to press. John Darnton of The New York Times, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1982, snuck stories out of Poland in heels of boots, or as pictures in unprocessed color film. "Smuggling Xerox machines behind the Iron Curtain," as Shirky describes, won't bring down a regime, but providing a source of information or getting news to the rest of the world can help mobilize opposition movements as they find they are not alone in their frustration.

Just as the "State Department has committed itself to "Internet freedom" as a specific policy aim," Egypt found a way to shut down almost complete control to the Internet for five days (Shirky). Control of television and newspapers, the usual forms of information control by the state, were only part of Egyptian control, because "it owns the pipelines that carry information across the country and out into the world." (NYT-Egypt) Shutting down the Internet to a whole country isn't easy, and it provoked an international response that is surprising considering that it is fundamentally little more than a tool for communication. Syria actually reversed a past decision about YouTube and Facebook, allowing access again a few weeks ago after blocking access for three years. (NYT-Syria) Power over information isn't the only indicator of success, of course, as Gladwell and many others have pointed out. But without it, its hard to empower ordinary people to speak out against the powers that control dominant media.

Social media tools (as Chris Dufour and others have pointed out, they are just that - tools) aren't the first to connect those looking to take on an oppressive government, just the newest and considerably less costly iteration. But they give a power over information and the personal narrative that is a new experience for many people, and not one they want to give up without a right.

March 20th update, on the 5th anniversary of twitter:
"Tools like Twitter are just that: they're tools," he says. "I'd be the first to admit that forwarding an email, or sending a text message, or writing a tweet isn't exactly the same as true activism, but it's in support of activism, and it helps." - Twitter co-founder Issac Stone

Andy Carvin was mentioned in class last week or the week before, as an NPR staff member that was The Guy to follow for aggregated tweets and information from the uprisings. Here he is on "On The Media":

Egypt Leaders Found ‘Off’ Switch for Internet, New York Times, 15 February 2011

One Libyan Battle Is Fought in Social and News Media, New York Times, 23 February 2011

Syria Restores Access to Facebook and YouTube, New York Times, 15 February 2011

If Only Tweets Could Stop Bombs, Bunny Comic, 22 February 2011

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