By Declan Hill
The murdered bodies were all over the hotel garden. They were sup-porters of Moammar Gadhafi. They had been kept at a hotel on the outskirts of Sirte. When they were found, some had their hands tied be-hind their backs, but they had all been shot in the head. The same week in Egypt, “they” came for the dissidents. “They” being the military police who rounded up independent thinkers and took them to the same prison where for 60 years authorities have been jailing and torturing people who speak out for change in their country.
This was not supposed to hap-pen. We have just witnessed an “Arab Spring” powered by the new power of the social media – the “Facebook Revolution” – that has transformed the region. The fresh flowers of democracy have come at last through Twitter and You Tube. Last month, there was even discussion of Twitter and Facebook receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. This is the paradigm that we are all supposed to know if we follow the media – so why the bodies in the hotel and the usual roundup of the dissidents by the police after such a change?
Part of the problem is that the events of the last year were a social media revolution, but the revolution was more important for us – the North American consumer – than it was on the streets of Cairo or Tripoli. We were told almost from the first protest that social media were an important factor in bringing about change in the Arab world.
This was largely not true. New media may have helped a little, but they did not fundamentally alter societal practices. For ex-ample, most protests in the region followed the usual practice of Friday afternoon after prayers at the mosque. You don’t need Twitter to organize that event – it is the equivalent of saying Twitter and Facebook helped bring out Canadians on a Saturday night. It may help direct them to specific places – Tahrir Square (difficult to miss with two million gathered there) – but it does not bring people out.
As for actual regime change, it was accomplished in the usual way, bombing (Libya) and be-hind the scenes negotiating with similar bad people to get rid of an equally bad President (Tunisia and Egypt). We know this to be true, because we have the examples of Syria and Bahrain. In those countries there are lots of Facebook posts, lots of tweets, lots of on the street protests and no regime change. The same is true in Iran. In the spring of 2009, there were widespread protests in Tehran against the obviously rigged election. Again lots of social media presence – mobile phone visuals on You-Tube, petitions on Facebook, the whole gamut. Nothing happened. Then Michael Jackson died. Most of the blogosphere went from discussing Persian political change to Jackson’s best songs in a few hours.
If social media are relatively unimportant in bringing about meaningful political change, the question is, why do they get so much credit? Part of this is obviously, that the social media companies want to promote the idea (who can blame them?). But there is another issue: journal-ism, particularly “foreign journalism,” is in deep trouble. In Canada, there have been wide-spread staffing reductions. In the United States, the situation is even worse; a recent study by the American Society of News-paper Editors estimated that one in four newspaper journalists have lost their jobs since 2001. So at a time of monumental change and foreign wars, when western societies need good journalism, it has been systematically cut away. Nick Davies (the British reporter who exposed the hacking scandal at the News of the World) wrote an entire book about this phenomenon.
However, it is not just journalists being laid off. The very practice of journalism has changed. Budgets have been cut. Foreign bureaus closed. Reporters find it difficult to even leave the newsroom because that would cost their employers too much money.
So what do they rely on? Social media. It provides them with great images and good quotes of the “We-all-hate-Gadhafi!” kind without them ever having to leave their desks.
Social media have been very good at helping to hide the cuts in journalism budgets, but they have not provided particularly good analysis or brought about regime change. Which is why we have mysterious massacres of Gadhafi supporters and the arrest of the usual Egyptian political dissidents by Hosni Mubarak’s successors.
Declan Hill is an investigative journalist, documentary maker and academic. He has worked throughout the Middle East, including Iraq. His book The Fix is an international bestseller.
Source: Ottawa Citizen