They are afraid — the great firewall of China, the blocking of Facebook in Pakistan, Bangladesh and others, Iran’s blocking of foreign media and the eventual temporary internet and text message blackout following 2009 presidential elections (Zuckerman, 2010), these are just a few instances of how powerful social and citizen media have become and how governments are attempting to cope with the loss of informational control. In countries where the press is tightly controlled, citizens, and often foreign media as well, turn to various self-reporting outlets such as Twitter, Indymedia, YouTube and other blogging sites. These social media networks allow not only information to disperse across borders with unprecedented ease (such as the case of Iran’s bloggers) but also allows cross-scale interaction between transnational actors and local, previously out-of-sight groups (such as the Mexican Zapatistas) (Dodds,K., 2007). It has become common to see Twitter and YouTube posts referenced on various American news outlets as part of their main news segments (Zuckerman, 2010).
By breaking the traditional boundaries of scale (Glassman, J. 2002) and the "territorial trap" (Agnew, J., 1994) of geographical state-based social identity these various technologies are changing the geopolitical landscape. New media are being used by various actors including politically oppressed parties, minority ethnic groups, non-governmental organizations and civil societies across the world for the purposes of collaboration, drawing attention to causes and issues, and expressing opinion and positions.
The "imagined geographies" of Edward Said, the language and the cultural expressions used to describe people and places that are "other", have heretofore defined geopolitical relations. The popular conceptions of what other places are like, are in essence largely imagined. However untruthful these representations may be, they do exemplify deeply embedded coded attitudes about these spaces. It is thus informative to try to understand what the imagined geographies of various geopolitical actors are and to attempt to unpack them into the ingrained conceptualizations that a particular culture has about another. Perhaps in the study of interconnected social networks it is now possible more than ever before for cultures to be able to see themselves in the imagined geographies of others. The power and effects of these media can be captured in several recent events.
Iran: dissemination and organization
When the results were announced after the June 12th Presidential Elections in Iran as a landslide win for the incumbent Ahmadinejad, there were widespread protests of election fraud. Iran, with its largely youthful population (almost seventy-five percent of the population is under 30 (Hamedani, N. 2009)) is also quite well connected in terms of new media. With 600,000 Facebook users, more than 400,000 regularly updated blog sites and other Persian-language social networks, SMS text messaging, one third of the population with access to internet and two-thirds on mobile phones (Sohrabi-Haghighat, M., Mansouri, S. 2010), Iranians were able to quickly start a groundswell civic movement in response to the election results. On June 17th, largely through the use of Twitter to get the word out, supporters of Mousavi rallied in Tehran. Prior to this, the Iranian government was already disallowing unfettered access to the internet, blocking many sites allegedly for pornographic content but also for political content as well. However in the wake of this unprecedented use of social media for oppositional organization they took swift action in an attempt to prevent further use: foreign journalists were forbidden from reporting and satellite communications were jammed, SMS texting on the mobile network was disrupted and the internet was throttled to a bare minimum (ibid). However these efforts were not effective enough and were not quick enough. The protesters were still able to upload videos of the brutal police repression and the riots in the streets from their mobile phones and indirectly to YouTube. At the height of the protests Iran related Twitter tweets came in at a rate of 15,000 per hour (ibid).
In the foreign media these videos and posts were shown over and over -- in particular a harrowing mobile phone video of a young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, dieing from gunfire on the street. However, the official Iranian government news attempted to downplay the size of the protests and showed the protesters to be disruptors of the peace. In the west the main news outlets were eager to show the grainy and raw seeming video. Without their own journalists on the ground, they simply broadcast the citizen media. Both because of the sheer amount of material and the rapidity of events, material was reported without confirmation. The citizen media had practically taken over foreign news outlets as well.
This is a remarkable example of the power of decentralized social networks allowing for the collaboration of protests and, in this instance, the birth of the "Green Movement" in Iran (Diamond, L. 2010). Demonstrating the larger geopolitical entanglements between the U.S. and Iran, the U.S. State Department requested that Twitter postpone a scheduled downtime so as to not hinder any protest communication (Drezner, D. 2010). Not only was the movement able to form despite the censure and repression of the Iranian government, but it was able to continue planning and executing protests for months after the initial protests, albeit in later stages to mourn for those killed in the repression rather than to continue the ultimately failed election protests. Additionally because of the blackout on foreign reporting, internationally the citizens media was practically the only media, this was an unprecedented event and, since then, has contributed to many news outlets aggregating citizen media into their daily news cycles (Zuckerman, E. 2010).
This is only one recent example of the use of new media for dissemination and organization. In neighboring Iraq new media has been put to a very different use.
Iraq: cracking imagined geographies
The U.S. Iraq war of 1990-1991 is barely remembered by the younger generations of Americans. Any dissent that did exist to Desert Shield and Desert Storm is all but forgotten and buried beneath images of a successful and high-tech military success. The internet in those days was fledgling and largely inaccessible to anyone but researchers and military. The majority of Americans only had traditional mainstream media access through TV or print media. According to one reporter on the ground in Iraq at the time, the mainstream media in the U.S. was self-censoring -- only showing anesthetized images and shielding the public from some of the more horrific aspects of Desert Storm (Gregory, D. 2004).
The mainstream media for a large part of the Second Gulf War (2003-) has also been largely pro-American biased and propagating the imagined geography of the U.S. government. However, now there are more options. Foreign media, including Al-Jazeera with it’s very different perspective, is readily accessible online. Additionally, as seen in the case of the Iranian "Twitter Revolution", citizen media can be a powerful alternative news source. In the early days of the Second Gulf War a Pew poll showed that fifty-six percent of internet users in the U.S. were going to online sources for their information about the war (Madanmohan Rao 2003). With this war came the major advent of "warblogs." "The Iraq War represents a significant online-news milestone. We now have the content and the infrastructure in place for serious purveyors of Internet news to call themselves mainstream media [...] it truly is a defining moment" (ibid, pg. 6).
Warblogs such as Salam Pax, Riverbend, and Juan Cole’s Informed Comment have attracted millions of readers and eventually resulted in published books and have been highly regarded and referenced by mainstream media (Drezner, D., & Farrell, H. 2004). Salam Pax (the Baghdad Blogger) and Riverbend both provided personal narratives of the war in Iraq from a completely different perspective than the embedded journalistic establishment. Part of what makes blogs so effective is that
"for readers worldwide, blogs can act as the "man on the street," supplying unfiltered eyewitness accounts from foreign countries [...] For salient topics in global affairs, the blogosphere functions as a rare combination of distributed expertise, real-time collective response to breaking news, and public-opinion barometer." (ibid, pg. 3)
What is so different about the Iraqi case from the Iranian bloggers is that there is no active state suppression of these blogs. Bloggers in Iraq are, however, limited by the availability and stability of the internet connections and electrical supply. These are not small hurdles and in many cases can be as effective at preventing the non-privileged from being heard as active state censorship.
Blogs allow geopolitical jumping of scale: "the scaling up of social struggles from local to regional, national, or international" (Glassman, J. 2001). By allowing voices that would typically go unheard to be heard, blogs allow local issues to interact with transnational actors which eventually in some cases can result in political action. They "allow many online activists to make direct appeals to the global public sphere, bypassing editorial gatekeepers in traditional media outlets" (Drezner, D. 2010). For those outside of Iraq, the ability to see a view from the inside provided by such bloggers as Salam Pax, unfiltered by the imagined geographies of their own press corps, is essential to having a more accurate and a more critical geopolitical understanding of the war. These horizontal lines of communication enable transnational civil societies which can in turn effect geopolitical outcomes.
Others and Caveats
There are many cases of new media being effective in bringing about action. Whether it is the ultimate release of the imprisoned Iranian blogger Sina Motallebi through the "boomerang effect" (Drezner, D., & Farrell, H. 2004), or the planning, execution and Indymedia reporting of the Battle of Seattle (Juris, J. 2005), or the coordination of the "Orange Revolution" in the Ukraine in 2004 (Drezner, D, & Farrell, H. 2004), or the Zapatistas in Mexico jumping scale and eliciting international funding for their cause (Juris, J. 2005), or the organization of the Philippine EDSA Revolution in 2001 leading to the overthrow of then President Joseph Estrada, all these cases are enabled by social media.
There are also cases where the new media networks have helped the spread of information and "alternate" viewpoints and have influenced civil societies. These include the Iraqi bloggers attempts at changing public opinion in the western world and the spread of information about the Saffron Revolution in Burma in 2007 (Diamond, L. 2010) with the effect of bringing international attention, sanctions and international protest movements organized through Facebook. It may appear that social media is a power for "good" and that the further spread of these technologies will only benefit global society. However there are many caveats that are often overlooked. To date these technologies are still largely dominated by the developed world. Access remains a challenge in many parts of the globe. As with any technology, infrastructure needs to be built. What differentiates the internet from older media technologies is that it is decentralized and infrastructure can be built up in a somewhat piecemeal fashion. Censorship in repressive regimes is a bigger concern. China has one of the most well developed internet censorship infrastructures:
Fifty-thousand Internet police prowl cyberspace removing "harmful content"—usually within 24 to 48 hours. Students are recruited to spy on their fellows. And the regime pays a quarter of a million online hacks (called "50-centers" because of the low piece rate they get) to post favorable comments about the party- state and report negative comments. (Diamond, L. 2010, pg. 74)
This is in addition to limiting access, imposing regulations requiring the use of real names in blogs, and going so far as to, during times of crisis, simply shut off all access completely. In countries where internet access is mostly government controlled (such as in North Korea) this can certainly hinder coordination attempts during times of political upheaval. For instance, the Chinese government blocked local internet access during the 2008 Tibet protests (ibid). Access even to such a decentralized resource as the internet is uneven across the globe, however under any repression there will be attempts to circumvent access controls and censorship. In Iran, for instance, people used Tor, an open network relay to allow anonymous access to blog sites through a number of relay points.
Governments are also using social media for their own purposes and for the purposes of repressing the very freedoms of expression that social media is allowing in their citizens. In Iran the government used the same social networks to identify and arrest Green Revolution leaders. In Belarus in 2007 "smart mob" protests were thwarted by government monitoring of LiveJournal blog sites. As one Belarusian commentator wrote, "Social media created a digital panopticon that thwarted the revolution; [it was] infiltrated and hopelessly outgunned by the power of the state...The emergence of new digital spaces for dissent also lead to new ways of tracking it" (Drezner, D. 2010, pg 36). This of course works both ways in a virtual media race.
However, new media use is not limited to governments and "good" civil societies. Other non-state actors, such as terrorist organizations, can use these same technologies just as effectively. Cell phones were used during the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in the final stages of coordination, but other technologies are also employed for the purposes of terror. Mexican drug cartels post YouTube videos of killings as warnings (ibid). Hacktivism is closely related to cyber-terrorism and can be used by governments and non-humanitarian groups just as easily. In the Mumbai attacks of 2008 mobile phones, Google Earth and various other technologies were used to plan and coordinate the attacks (Kaplan, C. 2009)
As we can see, the interconnected and decentralized new media networks are powerful tools. There have been studies done of the effects of decentralized social networks in terms of geopolitics and global civil society, however not as much work has been done on the analysis of the content of the citizen media for the purposes of breaking through imagined geographies. As of 2010, BlogPulse reports that there are more than 144 million blog sites. Because the the interconnected nature of blogs (bloggers will often link to posts in other blogs) a hierarchy of blogs develops, with a trickle up effect of opinion from smaller blogs up toward bigger blogs with more readership (Drezner, D, & Farrell, H. 2004). The blog hierarchy aggregates public opinion (at least the opinion of the online public) and presents it to the rest of the world. The opinions may be biased, one-sided and ignorant, however, they are reflecting of a side of societies that before now has gone unheard or has been repressed. Individual issues have been analysed with the help of online media, such as a study of nationalism in Zambia reflected in an online community (Fergusun, J. 2003). However there do not appear to be any broad spectrum analyses of online public thoughts.
Mainstream media in the U.S. is starting to incorporate "Elite" blogs, Tweets, and some rudimentary opinion representation from social networks, however this is an unscientific endeavour and is tainted with selection bias. Aggregator sites allow people to submit links to articles and posts and to vote on them (Zuckerman, E. 2010). These sites have become quite popular and allow an easier navigation of the otherwise unnavigable chaos of online opinion.
What does not exist however is a visualization tool providing a global geopolitical opinion survey. There are some attempts at building tag clouds from the top topics being discussed, but usually these are limited to English language blogs only and do not provide an interesting metric. However a tool that allowed a geographic analysis of local voices has the potential of opening this world to a much broader audience. If it were possible to analyze the blogs and comments and social media of various areas, grouping them together and then geolocating them onto a map allowing for the browsing of issues and opinion. Additionally the ability to search for specific targets of opinion would be essential. For instance, searching for America would show the opinions related in the blogs from various geographic areas. This sort of visualization could be a useful tool in combating the imagined geographies that have continued to define and drive conflict throughout the world.
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