ICTs, Social Movements and Individual Accountability
By: Anna Greenstone
Over the past several months, we have watched ICTs play important roles in social movements and revolutions throughout the Middle East. In countries from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain and Yemen, public protests have been organized on and through social media sites while recorded footage of demonstrations and conflict with police are uploaded on the Internet and available for viewing around the world.
Bahrain, has been experiencing civil unrest for more than a year now, with a recent increase in protests and violent incidences in correlation with both the one year anniversary of unrest, and the upcoming planned Formula One race. We often hear positive reactions to these uprisings, referred to as The Arab Spring. While each context differs in scope, government reaction, and the people’s demands, the region is cited broadly as going through a period of civic action and disruption, and it is hoped this will lead to some ‘better’ form of democratization.
The media, increasingly through use of the Internet and other virtual platforms has become a place where the public finds information, and arguably can participate in informal education. Therefore the connection between notions of democracy, education and ICTs are strong, centrally shaping the ways in which we learn in a globalized world. Michtell Belfer’ s editorial in the Gulf Daily News, warns against the way in which Internet and the media have often distorted uprisings and protests, feeding into false and growing stereotypes about what civil unrest in the Middle East looks like.
“Police fire tear gas and arrest several protesters calling for cancellation of event scheduled for this month in Manama.” Aljazeer
Mitchell Belfer’s piece raises many interesting issues worth focusing on. He starts by criticizing the way in the media frames public demonstrations in Bahrain, and more broadly in the Middle East, claiming that protests are portrayed as chaotic, “rudderless, leaderless sums of their parts”. He argues that depiction of orderless movements of pure passion or anger, disregard the many roles and motivations of leading activists and the coordination inherent in these communal actions. Within both leaders and followers, lie different goals, tactics and levels of participation.
But he also discusses what is needed to build a strong democracy: a strong civil society, informed and relatively secure. He worries that the unending civil unrest, despite mostly progressive intentions, can potentially stifle a democratic atmosphere. If civil society does not feel safe, there will be a limit to their public participation and information sharing. He sees a lack of individual accountability for the destructive actions by protesters or police as a central problem to building a more secure environment. There has to be a shift in identifying damaging actions as crime, and not justifying them as a necessary part of protest or revolution. (Belfer 3/29/2012).
So my question is this— can ICTs play a better role in being a platform for educational information, transparency and multiplicity of opinion? Who, if anyone should regulate this? Can the media use ICTs for more than the spread of free information, but for providing a critical education, dialogue and serious consideration for the challenges that these forms of representation bring?
This of course, is not only about enhancing the content and information that is shared in media and on the Internet. There are serious issues of censorship by the government. Censorship comes in many forms, from the government blocking websites that are threatening to them, to the disappearance, detentions and murders of journalists in Bahrain who have been outspoken in recent months.
Educational media shared through ICTs is very much limited by the people who create it, disperse it, and those who try to control or shut it down. While ICTs have played an important role in the protests in Bahrain and the Middle East, we always have to ask ourselves, even with the powerfully raw video footage or audio recordings, what is not being said and why? Are all protestors motivated by the same thing? Which perspectives have received the most attention? What has the government covered up? What have they allowed? What have they been too slow to catch before it goes viral?
While we may or may not hear about developments in the Middle East in formal spaces of education, there is no question that ICTs have created a new age of information sharing and learning. In my view this information is at its core an educational moment or exchange—within or outside of the classroom. I am in awe of how the Internet has created such instantaneous access to content and action, across the globe. Though potentially tainted or censored, these tools have certainly done more than expose, they have helped communities organize, amplify their voices, and learn from the experiences of others.
http://goo.gl/ck9SP “Reforms Set Bahrain Apart” The Gulf Daily News 4/1/2012
http://goo.gl/eY7u7 “Bahrain: The government continues to attack journalists and target press freedoms” Bahrain Center for Human Rights 2/17/2012
http://goo.gl/ORt1Q “The Arab Spring” The Economist (multiple dates and entries)
http://goo.gl/9LPZx “Bahrain Activists protest Formula One race” Aljazeera 4/1/2012