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Talkin' 'Bout Revolution in Morningside Heights

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, March 7 2011

From left to right, Sheila Coronel, Rebecca McKinnon, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, and Danny O'Brien. Not pictured: Nazila Fathi and Jacob Weisberg; photo by Nancy Scola


Getting together on the upper west side of Manhattan on Friday afternoon, a handful of academics, journalists, and advocates offered a sober view on whether Twitter, Facebook, email, blogs, YouTube, and texting had helped ignite and spread the revolutionary zeal capturing northern Africa and the Middle East at the moment, before indulge in a bit of the bubbly. Let's be sensible about this things, seemed the prevailing sentiment. But oh, what things these are. The setting: a panel session organized by the Committee to Protect Journalists to mark CPJ's 30th anniversary, hosted by Columbia University's School for International and Public Affairs, and moderated, almost as if to highlight the contrarian thread running through the afternoon, by Slate's Jacob Weisberg.

Let's not forget, "a pamphlet is social media," said panelist Ahmed Shihab-Eldin. "The Gutenberg press is social media." Shihab-Eldin produces and co-hosts a production called "The Stream," described by the project as "a new phenomenon -- a web community with its own daily show on Al Jazeera English." Sitting to Shihab-Eldin's left was Nazila Fathi, a reporter who covers Iran for the New York Times. Fathi told of descending on a Tehran square during that country's post-election protests in 2009 to find dissidents, disguised as normal folk carrying diapers or melons, whispering news of an alternative location so as to knock the legs out from under a government-schemed counterprotest. Thousands shifted spots.

"The only medium they used," said Fathi, "was word of mouth."

Such on-the-ground nuances are where the attentions of sensible people should be directed, argued several of the panelists. The on-going debate over whether it's dictators or dissidents most empowered by our modern technologies, one identified with the arguments of thinkers like Clay Shirky, Malcolm Gladwell, and Evgeny Morozov, bubbled up but was quickly swept away. "It's a little bipolar and a little useless," said Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of the Global Voices. "And it prevents us from helping to solve real problems of real people." Danny O'Brien echoed MacKinnon. Every country is different, its own unique snowflake. And in each, said O'Brien, CPJ's Internet advocacy organizer, there are actionable dilemmas to be plucked out. In Tunisia, it was password phishing. In Egypt, it was figuring out where the Internet was still turned on, and funneling towards those bright spots anyone doing acts of journalism.

With several of the relevant revolutions still in process, anecdotes carried the discussion's weight. Eldin told of the reaction inside Al Jazeera to the time that U.S. State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley posted to Twitter ("he tweets more than me," said Eldin of Crowley, in apparent admiration) a demand for a handful of the network's journalists to be released from Egyptian captivity. "There was a lot of heads that were perplexed in the news room," said Eldin. But whether causation was afoot or not, the journalists were quickly sprung. Sheila Coronel directs the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia. Looking to history, she told of mocking jokes passed widely via cell phone in the late '90s that helped turn the President  Joseph Estrada of the Philippines into a laughable character.

Then there was the wave of texting and tweeting that reportedly flooded back and forth between protestors and the military during Egypt's 18 day uprising in Tahrir Square. Those rallying in the streets, said O'Brien, used their cell phones to let their fellow citizens in the military in on the idea that they didn't intend for their anti-government resistance movement to get violent, bypassing what the armed forces might have been hearing, through official or back channels, from Hosni Mubarak's regime. Soldiers sent back affirming mini-messages. Coronel agreed with the implied power. "Social media is very good for reaching out to the other side, to tell soldiers, 'don't shoot, be on the people's side," said Coronel.

"It's especially powerful if the soldiers get the messages from their mothers, their sister, the females in their families saying, 'you can't shoot your own people.'