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The medium and its message: how new media is changing the dynamic of dissent

Nicholas van Praag's picture


    Grand old man of the medium Photo: Reckon, Chris Weige

The role of cell phones and new media in mobilizing people on the streets of Egypt and Tunisia has evinced as much interest in some quarters as the grievances that lie behind the unrest.

Some commentators dismiss this fascination as a cliché driven by the born-in America phenomena of Twitter and Facebook. But make no mistake: these new types of media are flattening the hierarchical media environments long held in the iron grip of governments and elite owners of the means of communication.

Their grip on these levers of control remains strong, as we have seen in Egypt these past few days, but the advent of new media threatens the continued dominance of top-down communication.

That’s a big change; one that empowers ordinary people in a potentially revolutionary way. According to Jason Liebman, co-founder of, “these technologies not only shrink the world by allowing us to communicate with more people than ever—but they enable every person to be an activist for peace and human rights”.

His organization provides a go-to site for movements around the world where they can find how-to guides, case studies, and blog posts about digital activism.

The proliferation of information and communications technologies (ICTs) has broadened public participation in the communications process and allows civil society to by-pass the obstacles that are often strewn in the path of change.

But, as we saw in Egypt last week, the authorities can overturn the digital applecart at the turn of the internet switch.

Further, more technically-sophisticated regimes can pursue their opponents along the digital highways and hunt down those deemed responsible for stirring things up.

Although new communications technologies do not spell the end of state censorship and control, they even-out the playing field and allow new participants to rally like-minded supporters.

In so doing, they offer a potentially game-changing opportunity to people and their networks who feel ignored, alienated or abused.

Marshal McLuhan, the late, great communications guru, would not be surprised. He was the one who famously said that ‘the medium is the message’. His coded comment from the 1960s expresses something that has become increasingly evident as citizens use Twitter and Facebook to push for change in places where their voices were rarely heard or considered.

Sure, the new media can be used for evil as well as good – as is true for traditional media. But in places stuck in the stasis of their anciens regimes, new media has showed its ability to create a new societal dynamic; one that goes well beyond a particular message.