Tag Archives: Social Media

Liberation Technology

(Photo: the New Middle East blog)

We live in a connected world: social media platforms that did not exist a decade ago now boast hundreds of millions of users and mobile phones are commonplace in even the poorest and most remote regions. Are these technologies, which have reshaped daily life for millions, a catalyst for democratic reform, or part of a new digital panopticon through which governments can spy on and control their citizens?

In 2007, when Larry Diamond coined the term “liberation technology,” these questions were largely academic – and were discussed at length in a collection of articles in the Journal of Democracy, recently updated and re-released in a book of the same name. But when democratic revolutions swept the Arab world four years later, spurred on by Facebook and watched around the world in real time on Twitter and YouTube, it seemed that the Internet had finally emerged as a force for positive political change in even the most repressive regimes.

At the same time, authoritarian governments are learning how to fight back, with some of the same tools. In many countries, the Internet has itself become an electronic battleground where repressive regimes are employing increasingly sophisticated strategies for repression and manipulation.

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Citizen Journalism is Gaining Momentum in Pakistan

Workshop participants in Karachi (right) and Lahore (left).

“If you’re going to fall out of love with public approval, something interesting will happen: people will be deeply attracted to your work.”Jeff Goins

Social media has transformed the debate around democracy and access to information in Pakistan by giving citizens and activists the power to write about topics that are impossible to cover in the traditional media. To help support the voice of these new citizen journalists, CIPE Pakistan organized blogger training workshops on June 15 and June 29 in Karachi and Lahore.

Forty-three participants, mostly younger people, were taken through the process of creating blogs to publicly voice their opinion on issues such as corruption, women’s issues, entrepreneurship, and corporate citizenship. The event activities can be followed on Twitter with the hashtag #Pakbloggers and on Facebook at http://goo.gl/AyrCF.

Participants learned tools and techniques for effective blogging that can easily reach the masses. They learned about the importance of blogging; the challenges and technical issues associated with it; CIPE themes such as corruption, entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility, and women’s issues; and how to use social media effectively in this modern age. The presentation is available at http://goo.gl/jldgo.

The participants were highly motivated to cover important issue, particularly corruption and the geopolitical situation, resulting in the development of the following blogs:

Geo Politics in South Asia and MENA

Enough!!!! Views on Women Issues around the Globe!

Take a Leap! A blog to Discuss Corruption Issues and Anti-Corruption Measures

Feminist Me

Lady UnderCover

Participants were of the view that these workshops helped them to better spread and market their ideas over social media. Topics covered so far on these blogs include:

These self-motivated bloggers are determined to unleash their potential to create notable examples of citizen journalism in Pakistan – provided they continue to update their blogs regularly!

Civil Society Restores Twitter Access in Pakistan

On May 20, the Pakistani Information Ministry blocked access to world’s largest micro blogging site, Twitter, on the pretext that the company had not removed derogatory material about Prophet Mohammad.

Pakistani authorities are known for taking such actions: exactly two years ago in May 2010, based on a verdict from a local court, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and 1000 other such websites were banned in the country. This time, however, civil society organizations and activists moved quickly to start a campaign against the government’s decision. In 2010,after ten days of hectic efforts, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority lifted the ban. This time it took just 10 hours.

Two years ago, on May 20, 2010, Jehan Ara, President of the Pakistan Software Houses Association and a civil society activist, wrote a blog suggesting that banning Facebook would not help Pakistan. She said “We stifle our own voices by banning a social networking site where 2.5 million Pakistanis could have been heard. We hide our head in the sand like ostriches. We react like little children do – closing our eyes and pretending that if we don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.”

The move to ban Twitter came only a day after Senator Rehman Malik who also is the Interior Minister tweeted “Dear all, I assure u that Twitter and FB will continue in our country and it will not be blocked. Pl do not believe in rumors.”

Immediately after the Twitter Blackout, social media activities started a campaign against government’s decision. They engaged Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, on Twitter, which they were able to continue to access through proxy sites and other alternative means. Facebook discussions started heating up, forcing broadcast media to focus on this story, which soon ran on all TV channels and online newspapers as breaking news.

The blogosphere also came out strongly against the ban this time. BoloBhi (Speak-up) wrote:

“Time and again, the government has blocked websites supposedly to protect ‘public sentiments and emotions’ and to prevent blasphemous material from circulating within Pakistan. This is being cited as a reason for the Twitter ban too. But this is akin to hitting your own foot with a hammer. Firstly, each time blanket bans are imposed, more attention is actually drawn towards such competitions and discussions. Secondly, what does banning the website in the country achieve?

Another blogger suggested:

“Pakistan should leverage the power of Twitter rather than getting swept away by the negative content. Banning Twitter does not going to make any dent to Twitter nor it is denying access to experienced Twitter users. There are hundreds of third party applications which make tweeting and retweeting possible and government cannot ban such applications. Social networking sites are like multi-headed hydra. You cut one head and many heads appear. The government could have sought advice of social media experts before taking this frivolous decision.”

Support also came from Hussain Haqqani, former Pakistani Ambassador to the US, who tweeted “Ban on any form of free expression has no place in a democracy. If someone offends, bar offender instead of banning medium.”

Sherry Rehman, the current Pakistani Ambassador to the US, kept tweeting until she was told she may be breaching the ban, according to news sources. Civil society activists also engaged her in advocating for restoring  access to Twitter.

Immense pressure from social media activists made Pakistani authorizes quickly realize that such actions are not welcomed by the Pakistani public, showing the power of social media technologies to democratize debate and quickly relay the thoughts and opinions of the public to high-level decision makers.

In any democratic society, free access to information forms the foundation of open and honest debate about how the country is governed. By trying to shut out one of the most important new mediums for public debate, Pakistani authorities unwittingly demonstrated just how much power these new social media tools have in the hands of dedicated civil society activists.

How Social Media is Shaping Debate in Pakistan

The new face of activism in the information age (Source: bolobhi.org, photo: Zaheer Kidvai)

Historically, Pakistani governments have been known for limiting access to information by their citizens. However with the emergence of social media, the situation is changing. Social media activists are becoming vocal and spreading information that was otherwise impossible to publish in the traditional forms.

Blogosphere has transformed the debate around democracy and access to information in Pakistan. Express Tribune was one of the pioneering newspapers that took a bold step and allowed its readers to comment on news published online. Its blog became an extremely powerful tool for disseminating user-generated content to a wider public. Now all major newspapers and television channels have active blogs.

Following are several examples of how social media is helping frame debates around sensitive topics in Pakistan.

To deal with the heavy-handedness of the government when it comes to information access, a group of journalism students started a blog called Pakistan Media Watch. The blog is aimed at initiating debates around controversial stories published in Pakistani media. They were extremely vocal, for instance, about killings and persecution of Pakistani journalists that all too often go unpunished.

Few people will recall that in mid-2010, after a provincial court order, Facebook and Youtube were banned in Pakistan. Sana Saleem, a social media activist wrote a blog in Pakistan’s largest circulating English daily Dawn:

“This is a sad day for new media in Pakistan. While many claim this to be a ‘victory’ against the offensive campaign, I feel at loss. The ban frenzy has only created a win-win situation for extremists on both sides. Instead of allowing people to opt for deactivating their accounts and registering their protests in the way they want, we have been forced to act like sheep once again, forced to jump on a bandwagon, and bear the burden of the perception that we are in fact an intolerant society.”

In a similar vein, Jehan Ara, President of Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA) wrote on her personal blog:

“Nothing justifies the taking away of my right to access information online or offline, to use the networks I want to. I don’t need the government to make such decisions for me. I am quite capable of doing that for myself. If I want to protest against something I find offensive, I will (and I do). The PTA [Pakistan Telecommunication Authority] and the courts have no right to deprive me of my freedom to do so.”

The ban was eventually lifted after offensive content was removed, in a significant part thanks to the protests such as these, which pointed out that closing access to the entire social media services is not the right way to handle controversies over content.

A recent proposal by the Information Communication Technology Research and Development Fund (ICTRDF) of the Ministry of Information Technology to install a national-level website filtering system that may be used to further political agendas and curb freedom of expression also encountered stiff resistance from concerned citizens through the social media. According to local press, “The National Level URL Filtering and Blocking System (NLUBS) would help the government block websites systematically, much like the Internet censoring methods adopted by Chinese and Saudi Arabian governments.”

A local initiative Bolo Bhi which means “Speak Up” started a massive social media campaign against the unclear and potentially discriminatory policy by PTA to enable blanket filtering of up to 50 million URLs. Thanks to the efforts of Pakistani social media activists, on the 19th of March this year, local newspapers quoted a member of the National Assembly saying that the ministry reversed its decision and the Secretary in the Ministry of Information Technology admitted that “the URL project has been withdrawn due to the concern shown by various stakeholders.”

Sana Saleem, CEO of Bolo Bhi, in a recent interview gave an overview of the situation of social media activism in Pakistan:

As Sana concludes, “In a society where social spaces are shrinking, social media offers a space to share, interact, and mobilize. It is an enabler. But bridging the great divide between online activism and on the ground actions remains key.”

 

Five Ways to Use Social Media for Economic Reform and Democracy Advocacy

(Photo: The New Middle East blog).

One year after the Arab Spring, where emerging technologies like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs are thought to have played a crucial role, many organizations are asking themselves how social media can best be used to shape debates and organize for advocacy in developing and emerging market countries.

CIPE has worked with nearly 500 business associations and chambers of commerce, think tanks, entrepreneurship training programs, and other organizations in more than 100 countries around the world. For Social Media Week, I asked some of them about how they were using social media most effectively to carry out their work.

The results were impressive: many, if not most CIPE partners are active across the whole spectrum of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and local or regional social networks. For groups that are trying to shape and contribute to national policy debates on a limited budget, social media can be a highly effective way to reach a large and influential audience.

Here are five key lessons that can be distilled from CIPE’s partners’ experience:

1. Know your audience.

This is truism for all communications, but is especially important in the social media space, where it can be easy to blur the lines between the professional and personal. Eduardo Reyes, communications director at the Center of Research for Development (CIDAC), a Mexican think-tank,  notes that content should be tailored for different platforms. “We strongly recommend not to use these channels as a mirror of what you do in terms of your traditional content development or even your web site efforts,” he said. “Social media requieres dedicated content.”

At the same time, it is important to maintain authenticity. Serdar Dinler, a civil society activist and chair of the Corporate Social Responsibility Association of Turkey, stressed that maintaining trust on social networks is vital, “because once innocence is lost, it will never come back.”

2. Be responsive.

All of the partners I spoke to stressed the importance of monitoring, and responding to, audience engagement and responses, and adjusting accordingly. Dinler said he uses feedback from social media users to crowdsource  the direction his advocacy will take. “In this Information Era, users are the only source to find the right way to go,” he said.

Reyes noted that at CIDAC, which is the most active think tank on social media in Mexico, they measure success not only in terms of “followers” or “likes,” but “for the level of engagement we have with them and the fact that we have consolidated through these channels as a reliable and creative source of information.” This engagement goes both ways: Reyes added that “social media in Mexico has been very helpful as watchdog, but also to share new ideas and incorporate them in public discussion in order to improve democratic debate.”

3. Use the right channels for the right purposes.

CIPE works with many different kinds of organizations, and each organization has different needs that social media tools can meet. For example, membership organizations like chambers of commerce may want to use social media to build their membership and promote discussion within their member community, while think tanks and advocacy organizations can leverage these same platforms to get their message out and contribute to key policy debates.

CIPE Pakistan has helped partners embrace both types of roles, encouraging business associations to build up their Facebook presence and also planning training sessions for bloggers on how to write about economic reform, corruption, and entrepreneurship. “They are the new wave of reformers that we want to focus on immediately,” said Hammad Siddiqui, Senior Program Manager for CIPE Pakistan.

4. Don’t neglect offline interactions.

This is another social media truism, but one that is crucial for economic reform and democracy advocacy groups. Spreading a message and engaging a large following is only part of the work that CIPE’s partners do: at the end of the day, real policy changes require policy-makers to sit down face-to-face with stakeholders and their constituents, which is what CIPE and its partners try to facilitate. Social media works best when it complements, rather than supplants, “offline” relationships and conversations.

In many countries, this holds especially true because only a minority of the population has access to social media. Despite the explosive growth of the Internet and mobile phones, even in middle-income countries many people lack regular Internet access. As Reyes points out, “Internet penetration is about 40% in Mexico. Although most of them use at least one social network, any [entirely] web based effort will be missing a significant population share.”

5. Social media requires dedicated resources.

This is an important point, especially for organizations who are initially attracted to social media due to the apparent ease of reaching a large audience with a relatively limited effort. Although the return on investment can be huge, maintaining a high-quality and consistent presence on social media takes time and resources.

For example, Revista Perspectiva, which publishes a successful print magazine covering economic, political, and social issues throughout Latin America from a pro-democracy perspective, has recently revamped and expanded their social media strategy. Newly-hired Web Editor Carolina Gomez says that staff now hold an “editorial board” meeting each day to plan content for the blog and social media accounts, and use extensive metrics to track audience interests, engagement, and the best times to post. Social media channels are of little value without staff dedicated to producing content for them, as well as monitoring, tracking, and engaging with the community.

The Future of Social Media

All of the partners I talked to agreed that social media would play an increasingly important role in their future work. The huge growth of internet penetration in developing and emerging market countries is expected to drive an increasing focus on social media as a key part of the public debate on economic policy, governance, and institutions.

So far, social media tools have also been effective, to some extent, at bypassing the restrictions put in place by authoritarian rulers. In such countries, said Gomez, “the use of internet and social media allow citizens to easily access quality information without control measures. In this sense, social media is especially important to promote market oriented themes and democratic ideas.”

Dinler said he believes that the rapid uptake of social media, especially among young people, is part of a broader generational phenomenon. “We believe there is only one place where all people are equal; it is the web and social media environment.  So we should strongly defend our rights using web and social media to communicate.”

Democracy, dissent, and digital media in the Arab World

"Τhrough the Western Looking Glass" Revisited by Spiros Derveniotis. (CartoonMovement.com)

An expert panel convened on Capitol Hill yesterday all agreed that digital media have been central tools in toppling autocrats in the Middle East and North Africa, but they do not replace the human agency and courage that are the true forces underlying change in the region.

The Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) recruited a panel of two conventional media journalists, an information technology expert, and NED’s own program officer for the Middle East and North Africa. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Representative Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Representative Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) were honorary co-hosts for the event. Rep. Schiff delivered a brief statement for the occasion.

“One need only walk the streets of Tunisia to see graffiti on the walls saying ‘Merci Facebook’,” Schiff remarked.

NED President Carl Gershman introduced the panel, noting how social media made it possible for once-distant and isolated bastions of dissatisfaction to connect and mobilize against common problems.

Amira Maaty, NED program officer for the Middle East and North Africa, painted a broad context of youth-led civil society in the region, some of whom are NED grantees. Youth-led organizations aren’t very many, but they are very dynamic, Maaty said. Some are affiliated with older human rights organizations, some are student groups, and there are others. What intrigued Maaty most besides their energy and courage was how they have been using social media as place to find and exchange ideas and best practices for activism through training videos, notes, and messages through Facebook or YouTube.

Maaty also detailed how digital media allows new groups to challenge traditional media as sources of independent and grassroots reporting, and also allows new groups to challenge traditional civil society as outlets for self-expression and sources of personal and organizational support. She stressed the importance of supporting, through NED or other channels, the human backbone of emerging digital media-driven civil society, as digital media are just tools and authoritarian forces can make just as much use of them.

Egyptian Journalist and Blogger Mona Eltahawy emphasized the much overlooked traditions of both dissent and digital media usage in the region. She hearkened back to 2005, when she spoke publicly on a number of occasions about digital media in the region and how Al Qaeda’s ability to make use of it dominated conversations, yet at the same time she repeatedly encountered examples in Bahrain and Tunisia of individuals who had early on tapped the power of digital media tools to share stories of yearning and struggling for human freedom. Though digital communities in 2005 were small – she gave a figure of 280 bloggers in Egypt in 2005 – they learned quickly and grew even faster, as authoritarian governments kept a tight hold on the real world.

“In the virtual world, they could build the world that they wanted,” Eltahawy described. Activists could influence each other and share stories that could not have been shared otherwise. Eltahawy cited an example of LGBT groups forming among Saudi Arabians on digital media that had no origin in the real world. “Facebook and Twitter are tools,” she distinguished. “But they did not invent courage.”

“The human need to rise up against a regime has always been there,” Eltahawy went on. Digital media allows people to see others acting on impulses they have long shared and yet suppressed for sheer lack of real or virtual networks that can support and facilitate human agency. “Digital media didn’t invent courage,” Eltahawy continued, but it allowed people to gain a broader sense of just how many others shared the same concerns and thoughts and to find out where they could join each other in protest.

Georgetown University Visiting Professor of Internet Studies Michael Nelson picked up where Eltahawy left off by comparing the Middle East and North Africa’s current wave of change to the Reformation. Martin Luther’s ideas and dissent spread so much more quickly than ever before thanks to the printing press, which according to Nelson cut the cost of sharing information by 99 percent. “Today digital media has cut the cost of sharing information by 99.9 percent,” Nelson said.

The hunger for information sharing manifests itself in some unexpected but unsurprising ways, Nelson elaborated, such as the desire for online pornography that helped drive the process of creating and sharing ways to circumvent blocks and controls imposed by authoritarian governments. Nelson also told of group organizers using dating site profiles and messages as a means of disguising coded information about meetings and gatherings.

Of course, Nelson warned, autocrats can certainly find ways to stop or worse hunt down those they suspect of using digital media to subvert their grip on power and might even elicit the passive support of corporations that could supply them with tools to block content or track dissidents.

“Ninety percent of the people won’t be able to find what they want,” Nelson summarized. “But all it takes is for that 10 percent to find what they’re looking for and to share it with their own social networks,” and suddenly what had been just conversation fodder becomes fuel for change. They could be looking for pornography, for stories from other countries about LGBT experiences, for reformer training materials, for WikiLeaks cables, or for news about their childhood friends who have moved abroad and started their own businesses.

AlJazeera’s Washington Bureau Chief Abderrahim Foukara spoke last, emphasizing that, “We still don’t know why it happened when it happened in the region.”

He spoke about a recent trip to Iraq, where he was compelled to ask Iraqis whether social media would have made a difference in the 1990s when Saddam Hussein crushed multiple rebellions in horrific and violent ways. Foukara said he could not get a consensus on anything other than that Saddam was certainly a more deranged leader than even Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi, who has hired mercenaries to slaughter his fellow Libyans.

Foukara also reiterated the role of digital media in allowing people – especially youth – in the region to see more and more of what life is like outside of their countries where so many have only ever experienced repressive autocracies. Such connections created ‘dots,’ according to Foukara, and in turn conventional media could play the role of connecting dots, where such outlets have been open to new media. Conventional media, Foukara said, can provide a broad context around individual stories, photos, and images shared via Facebook or Twitter.

Foukara also emphatically predicted that if democracy emerges successfully in the region, a debate is certain to emerge over the underlying forces that allowed so many to live under such harsh leadership for so long.

In responding to audience questions en masse, panel members agreed on the quality and durability of digital media-driven commitment to following through on democratic reforms. In a region where autocrats had long maintained a near-perfect monopoly on public political discourse, the virtual world has captured and reflected back so many thoughts, conversations, and desires for change.

“It’s now a process of cleansing and a process of accountability,” Eltahawy concluded, referring to the ability of Middle East and North Africa residents to obtain information from a diversity of digital media sources tracking what is happening in each country and what they can learn from watching each other. “But saying WikiLeaks or Facebook or Twitter caused revolutions takes away agency from the real human beings who have long been demanding freedom.”

Will tweet for democratic reform

A live and interactive visualization of CIPE’s social media network on Twitter. Hover over to zoom in; click and drag to move around. Relative connection thickness represents hashtag or re-tweet frequency.

It can’t be denied that social media has exploded in the past few years. With its seemingly unlimited marketing potential, Facebook and Twitter have taken up much of the technology spotlight and have shared ups and downs in the “privacy versus access to information” debate. But with recent events, social media seems to have involuntarily expanded its role towards facilitating democratic reform.

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