Social Media – The Che Guevara of the 21st Century?

© Photosani -© Photosani - Fotolia.comIt is in authoritarian, strictly censored countries in particular that the Internet has created new channels of opposition and new ways of mobilising resistance. In Germany however social networking has also enabled community action groups and protest movements to organise themselves faster and more efficiently, as was shown by the demonstrations against the large-scale railway station project known as “Stuttgart 21”.

Up until outsider, Barack Obama, was elected US president in 2009 the realm of politics in Germany considered social media to be the domain of a handful of technologically savvy exhibitionists. Then these micro-blogging systems really took off in a big way. In the meantime there is hardly a campaign being run without the help of Web 2.0 communication technology, hardly a politician who does not have a Facebook or Twitter account.

Not good news for Utopians

All the hype however is deceptive. “Not good news for Utopians – a mere 0.6 per cent of Internet users comment on political issues more than once a month in weblogs, in social networks on the other hand it is 2.5 per cent. The number of contributions that are actually read at all is extremely meagre – and if they are read, then by people who are politically aware anyway,” twittered communication scientist, Christoph Neuberger, from the conference on “The Revolution On The Net – How The Internet Is Changing Political Communication”, held at the Akademie für Politische Bildung (Academy of Political Education) in Tutzing, Bavaria.

"When a breach of trust has taken place between the citizens on the one hand and the media and authority of state on the other – then people will start looking for other forums for organisation and discussion," argues Andreas Bühler, a politician from Stuttgart and member of the Grünen (Green Party). The Facebook community of opponents of the “Stuttgart 21” railway station project has over 100,000 members, giving it a wider circulation than a regional newspaper.

Political communication in the online world

© Colourbox.comThe question of just what the politically relevant effects of these new communication technologies might be is still open. Yet it has already become the subject of a project financed by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) that is examining “Political Communication in the Online World” – a project launched in April 2011 and headed by two media scientists from Düsseldorf, Gerhard Vowe and Marco Dohle.

The project is definitely not going to go short of illustrative materials. Be it Wikileaks or “Guttenplag” (German former defence minister Guttenberg’s plagiarism scandal), be it “Stuttgart 21” or the “Arab Spring” – Web 2.0 was always thought to be the driving force behind all these happenings. But was it really? An Internet and social media revolution in those countries of all places where you can often consider yourself lucky if you succeed in making a normal analogue telephone call? A veritable feeding frenzy for fans of conspiracy theories. They have long since exposed the “Arab Spring” as a large-scale invention of the West. The theory being that with the aid of the latest technological achievements from Silicon Valley the West has tried to get rid of the last remaining progressive leaders in the Islamic world. The reports posted by a male American student who on 13th June eventually came out as the female Syrian blogger, Amina Abdallah Arraf, were also no doubt grist to the mill for the conspiracy theorists.

Looking at the world through “Western” spectacles?

© Colourbox.comIn the weeks before he came out, the fake lesbian girl from Damascus under the user name of “Amina A.” had become one of the most important voices of the revolution because of her critical stance on the regime. As in Libya the media in Syria are subjected to strict censorship and this has led to foreign journalists, who are not allowed into the country, being dependent on eye-witness reports in blogs or Youtube videos whose authenticity is difficult to verify.

Nevertheless opinions on the role of the media with respect to the events taking place in the Arab world do in fact differ. Will Heaven from the Daily Telegraph has warned against looking at the world through “Western” spectacles and recalled the Iranian “Green Revolution” of 2009 that was prematurely celebrated as the “Twitter Revolution”, before it came out that only 0.027 per cent of the population had social media networking accounts. “Western media,” according to Heaven, “deliberately focused on the role of Western technology and less on the fact that active protest on the streets – one of the best-known vehicles for revolution - actually led to the fall of dictators.”

Remarkable conclusions

The German-Egyptian journalist and filmmaker, Philip Rizk, who posted a blog during the days of the revolt in Egypt, sees it quite similarly, "Of course social networks played a role. Most of the people however are not teenagers who surf the Internet for hours every day. That is why we cannot alone call it a Twitter or Facebook Revolution." In his opinion it is a case of a “Revolution on Foot”, in which small groups of people started to march through the town and then ballooned into armies of thousands upon thousands.

Nevertheless, even if they are quite clear about it being too early for a final assessment, the “Innovation Consultants” at the US State Department, Alec Ross and Ben Scott, feel that it is time to draw some remarkable conclusions. “None of what has happened in the Middle East is a revolution that was triggered by technology – but technology played an important role.” For them it is quite evident that social media accelerate political change, by creating networks for groups that think similarly and by facilitating real-time coordination when setting up the movement. In this way the time required to get a movement going can be reduced from several years to a process of a few weeks or months. “The Che Guevara of the 21st century is networking. An outstanding individual is no longer necessary to organise and inspire the masses.”

Roland Detsch
works as a free-lance editor, journalist and author in Landshut and Munich.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
August 2011

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