January 12, 2011
In an increasingly interconnected world, it has unfortunately become fashionable to assign blame for political upheavals, riots and rebellions on the electronic media, on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, or even on their older sibling, the cable television networks.
To be sure, never in the past has information flown so freely across swaths of national territories, between different regions of the world, or indeed round the world. The recent upheavals in Algeria and Tunisia are a case in point. The rioting youth of both countries and their grievances were instantaneously beamed by CNN and Al Jazeera around the Middle East, the US and the EU, while protesters communicated among themselves and possibly coordinated their actions via Twitter or Facebook.
From Moldova to Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, dictatorial rulers are blaming IT technology, the Internet and the social networks for their internal troubles. If one is to listen to what Iranian leaders have to say, for example, Great Satan (that is, the United States) is trying to use the Twitter network in the hope of undermining the Iranian regime. By now netizens have become all too aware of such official misgivings, which on occasion have led to harsh censorship measures like forbidding the use of Blackberries in Saudi Arabia or breaking into Tunisian Facebook user accounts in search for “culprits”. Arrests of bloggers or at least their harassment are also becoming widespread. And this is not only happening in countries like China or Tunisia.
I have recently come across a special report on national security, prepared by Kay King of the Council on Foreign Relations, the oldest and most reputable foreign policy think tank in the US. To my stupor, the report assigns blame for the inadequate performance of US congressmen to the negative consequences of the IT revolution on the American political process :
The relentless presence of the electronic media makes deliberation obsolete, forcing lawmakers to respond to blog reports instantly and without careful consideration, in an effort to counter negative stories before they “go viral”. The internet has also tended to encourage incivility, enabling rantings and misinformation to spread, without the benefit of an editor. Once in the blogosphere, inaccurate information is virtually impossible to correct and is repeated as gospel by both those who do and those who do not know better. Blogs and cable TV news also tend to amplify the echo chamber, reinforcing rather than challenging the views already held. This inflamed rhetoric has served to further polarize politics, making it even more difficult for lawmakers to find common ground on issues. (Kay King, Congress and National Security, in Council Special Report nr.58, Council on Foreign Relations, November, 2010)
Although the Internet is a 100 percent European invention, the work of an English and a Belgian researcher, most search engines, cable television and the social networks were developed in the United States. Over the past two decades, IT companies have been the only source of sound growth in an otherwise decaying American economic environment. To blame IT products for dysfunctionalities in the activity of American congressmen is preposterous. This puts the US in the same leagues with dictatorships around the world. Incredibly, the report in question has been vetted by dozens of influential American foreign policy experts and intellectuals, but the above paragraph was kept, and that diminishes the quality of an otherwise important and valuable document.
The problems and poor public image of the US Congress, shared by democracies everywhere, cannot and should not be blamed on bloggers, on the free exchange of information or on the 24/7 cable news networks. If anything, the electronic media contributes heavily to laying bare such inadequacies and, by exposing them, promotes long-overdue change.
Granted, not all bloggers and net journalists are well informed and many fail in their duty to act responsibly. Thus, an informal network in vogue in the United States (“The Truth About 9/11”) claims, for example, that the 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were actually the work of the US federal government. When questioned by Glenn Beck on Fox News where she stood on this issue, Mrs Debbie Medina, a candidate for the office of Governor of Texas, stated: “I think that certain people ask very pertinent questions in this regard and that we Americans did not have full access of all the elements which would allow us to form an opinion. I reserve my judgement” (The Houston Chronicle, February 11, 2010, quoted by Le Monde diplomatique, October 2010). By airing such beliefs about the tragic events, however, Fox News actually contributed to thwarting Mrs Medina’s electoral chances.
Moreover, during the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama’s landslide victory was largely due to his campaign staff’s extensive use of IT technology, including the Internet. Out of professional curiosity, I have checked out the Administration’s official national security strategy, posted on the White House’s Internet site. In regard to the IT revolution, the document states that
“the emergence of technologies such as the Internet, wireless networks, mobile smartphones […] created powerful new opportunities to advance democracy and human rights. These technologies have fuelled people-power political movements, made it possible to shine a spotlight on human rights abuses nearly instantaneously, and increased avenues for free speech and unrestricted communication around the world. We support the dissemination and use of these technologies to facilitate freedom of expression, expand access to information, increase government transparency and accountability, and counter restrictions to their use.” (sic )
As always with politicians, we will never know which version they endorse behind closed doors. Blaming the internal political problems of parties, countries or institutions on the IT revolution is morally wrong and politically counterproductive.