A Revolution Does Not Twitter Make
The Arab spring of 2011 toppled long-held regimes, won huge concessions from five countries, and continues to shape the Middle East’s relationship with the world.
However influential social media was in the global discussion and news cycle, the energy of those revolutions came from basic human needs gone unmet for far too long, argues Philip Seib in his new book, Real-Time Diplomacy: Politics and Power in the Social Media Era.
Mr. Seib is a Professor of Journalism and Public Diplomacy as well as a Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. At a recent NYC event sponsored by USC’s Marshall School of Business, thirty or so alumni of varied ages but mostly political or media backgrounds gathered in an Upper East Side living room to discuss the role and impact of social media on the revolutions that swept the Middle East from December of 2010 to that of the next year.
In Part I, Seib deftly guides us through a country-by-country state of affairs, painting the picture of not one but two revolutions: that of politics and that of the media. Mr. Seib, a pre-eminent Middle East researcher, lays a strong foundation for the near-inevitably of social upheaval in some countries, like Egypt, in presenting details like the jobless rate among young men.
Perhaps more revealing, he discusses countries like Bahrain and Algeria, for example, which were able to avoid political ousting through social and infrastructure (read: jobs) improvement programs.
The media revolution is where the magic of social media made the difference, bringing first-hand accounts into the global fray, just as the world and the media were also learning how to handle false accounts and fraudulent digital content.
Freed by the clear distinction between new-age political diplomacy and the parallel media revolution, Part II recounts diplomacy in its Western historical context, recalling how much diplomacy has been shaped — sometimes for the worse — as it adapts to the 24-hour news cycle and the expectations of an increasingly-informed populace. In doing so, Seib does the human connection a welcome service.
Diplomacy is about the human and social connections that may not be quantifiable in a text message or email, however impacted by media expectations and technological capabilities.
In covering social media technology more directly, Part III reads like a much-needed beginner’s manual for the political and diplomatically-employed who may not have much regard or understanding of social media. Social media is inherently founded and fueled by the power of networks. These networks are intuitively powerful but given how early in the one-world stage we are, research is sparse and social influence is not necessarily predictable.
As a primer on the Arab spring, Real-Time Diplomacy is an excellent read. Mr. Seib’s background and lifetime of travels to the Middle East shine through. His tale of the social media aspect is fair and willing to challenge the sometimes over-hyped faith in technology, reminding that “old-school” diplomacy is really just about human connections, and that connection will never get old.
Rightfully, the book leaves the reader with questions about the true impact of social media and how the relationship between leaders and the public will evolve. But for certain, it is clear that technology is a much more dynamic conduit for human passion and human networks than ever before. These are early days for leveraging the power of human connections.