The New York Times has lately been doing an admirable job wrestling with the impact of social media, mobile phones and the internet on democracy movements and activism around the world. Perhaps partly thanks to a certain ambivalence about social media among the paper’s top brass, the NYT has managed to avoid getting too caught up in the “Twitter Revolution!” zeitgeist, and has managed to present both the positive and the negative effects these new tools are having on the global prospects for democracy.
On Wednesday, Neil MacFarquhar had a piece on how activists in Saudi Arabia are taking to the public sphere of the internet for lack of the ability to convene in any real, physical space. Money quote:
Social media, which helped drive protests across the Arab world, seems tailor-made for Saudi Arabia, where public gatherings are illegal, women are strictly forbidden to mix with unrelated men and people seldom mingle outside their family.
Virtually any issue that contradicts official Saudi policy now pops up online, including the status of prisoners being held without trial or a call to boycott municipal elections this September.
Louai A. Koufiah, a Twitter enthusiast, quipped: “Saudis cannot go out to demonstrate, so they retweet!”
And last weekend, James Glanz and John Markoff covered the State Department’s growing and increasingly broad approach to supporting democracy activists using new technology, with a particular focus on constructing mobile networks in places like Afghanistan and North Africa that are entirely separate from the state-run apparatus and thus more (but, note, not entirely) secure. From that story:
The Obama administration’s initiative is in one sense a new front in a longstanding diplomatic push to defend free speech and nurture democracy. For decades, the United States has sent radio broadcasts into autocratic countries through Voice of America and other means. More recently, Washington has supported the development of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places like China, and training for citizens who want to pass information along the government-owned Internet without getting caught.
But the latest initiative depends on creating entirely separate pathways for communication. It has brought together an improbable alliance of diplomats and military engineers, young programmers and dissidents from at least a dozen countries, many of whom variously describe the new approach as more audacious and clever and, yes, cooler.
Particularly glad to see them put in that historical context. We’ve always supported democracy. The “internet freedom” push is simply an effort to defend our values in a modern context.