Over Pizza, UM Professor talks Social Media in Middle East

By Daniel Nott

What do fax machines, revolutions against decades-old Middle Eastern dictators, and UMass students organizing against the administration have in common?

The multi-facetted answer that involved the history and implications of new media was the focus of a faculty talk by Political Science Professor Jillian Schwedler last night in the lounge of Goodell Honors building.

“Social Media has gotten so much attention in the Arab Spring this year,” she said at the beginning of the talk, “One of the things that I think is interesting is that this media revolution goes back several decades.”

The talk, “Can Social Media Start a Revolution?” was a mix of lecture and discussion, with questions and comments being encouraged to the approximately 20 students who were present. The talk was put on as part of Commonwealth College’s weekly “Pizza and Prof” program.

After a brief introduction that gave her a chance to take a few bites of pizza, Schwedler explained that one of the first developments in new media communication was the fax machine in the 1980’s. The new device which could send text and images across phone lines allowed people to get documents across borders very quickly, making it an important political tool.

“It used to be that when you were doing research you’d get stopped at the airport, and it would be very difficult to get documents out of the country,” said Schwedler.

Schwedler talked about Jordan, which along with Yemen is where her research has been focused. She recalled when the Internet arrived in the monarchy in 1996, it was just an email service, but by the end of the decade, something phenomenal had happened.

“The [Jordanian] minister of information put up a website in English and in Arabic. In English they had a section on it called ‘ask the government.’ It was literally [where] you could post questions and he would go on and answer them. There were a few questions a week for a while, and the questions were things like, ‘why do they keep digging up the road in front of my house?’ Just sort of frustrating questions that no one really knew how to answer.”

“The reason I think it’s interesting for mobilization is that during this period there were a lot of protests, and a lot people figured out that it was a non-edited site, so you could just post things.”

Over the course of a weekend in 1999, Jordanian protesters and activists used the government website to share information with each other, leaving hundreds of messages that the government could not keep up with or delete in time.

“And so long before we had Facebook and Twitter, people have been finding innovative ways to use these openings in technology, trying to stay ahead of the curb of what the governments were doing, and being pretty effective at it,” said Schwedler.

Schwedler explained that while the way protesters and activists use social media such as Youtube, Twitter and Facebook to organize and communicate is interesting to political scientists, what is possibly more significant is how it will effect the ability of non-democratic states to remain non-democratic.

“In a number of Arab countries, TV and radio are military posts,” said Schwedler. “Why? Because it used to be that with these you could control the message. He who captured TV and radio could tell the world what was going on, [either] there’s nothing going on in the streets, go home, everything’s fine, or the government has fallen come out into the streets.”

Now with satellite, the monopoly on messages and images has been broken. Any home in the Middle East could get a stream of images from Al Jazeera, a popular news network that started in 1996 in Qatar. Schwedler claimed that the recent revolutions, rather than “facebook or twitter revolutions” have been described more aptly as Al Jazeera revolutions.

As the lecture opened into a discussion, the conversation turned toward the social media revolution here in the United States, and even at UMass.

One student mentioned that in only six days, nearly 1,400 students had joined a facebook group called “Save UMass Peer Mentors” in response to the recent controversial decision to cut the program from residence life.

“It’s an open forum, and I love to be able to go on and be able to see the active dialogue that’s going on,” said a freshman that was recommended to the group by her peer mentor.

While Professor Schwedler thought it was great to see students involved, she noted that the new media brings challenges as well.

“The new media can be an incredible resource for those who are politically engaged and active. The problem is when you retreat only to social media, and you’re not out there politically engaged and active.”

Schwedler wrestled with whether the emergence and influence of new media has a positive or negative effect. She offered facebook as an example of social media that has advantages and disadvantages for mobilization and questioned the effectiveness of people solely “liking” pages and causes that they agree with.

“But it’s interesting what you see with the Occupy movements, with people actually getting out there, and they’re finding solidarity with supporters on these media sites, Schwedler noted. She paused and added: “I think we have all different versions of ‘is it good, is it bad?’ and not enough data points to draw a broader pattern yet.”

“I see it happening in exciting ways, and I see it happening in ways where nobody’s getting out there, and activism is reduced to the time you happen to be on facebook, or another site.”

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