In a media landscape saturated with images of tweeting revolutionaries and blogging dissidents, it's easier than ever to assume a causal relationship between the spread of technology and political revolution. But take a closer look, and the issue begins to look a lot more complex.
An informative and timely new essay by Marc Lynch, an associate professor at George Washington University and prolific commentator on Arab media and political issues, deftly sums up the main arguments, contradictions and knowledge gaps surrounding the impact of information and communication technologies (ICT) on the phenomena collectively referred to as "the Arab Spring." Entitled "After Egypt: The Limits and Promise of Online Challenges to the Authoritarian Arab State," (subscription may be required), the piece implicitly argues for abandoning the usual "optimist/pessimist" trope that plagues such discussions, favoring instead a more nuanced and complex perspective on the impact of ICT in authoritarian states. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, I agree - see this previous post.)
The essay presents a thought-provoking breakdown of four ways in which ICT may challenge the power of authoritarian states (while he limits his discussion to Arab countries, I suspect this breakdown may make sense in other contexts as well): contentious collective action, the mechanics of repression, international attention and alliances, and the public sphere. Lynch emphasizes the potential importance of this last category: "The strongest case for the fundamentally transformative effects of the new media may lie in the general emergence of a public sphere capable of eroding the ability of states to monopolize information and argument, of pushing for transparency and accountability, and of facilitating new networks across society," he writes. (Brief program plug: CommGAP's newly published volume, Accountability through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action, elaborates on many of these themes.)
What I find particularly of value in this piece is its call for new data, new research methods, and new ways of thinking about the problem, all designed to add meat to many of the (still) too often anecdotal bases for claims about the impact of new media. "Is control over information and the flow of opinion and images essential to the capacities of the authoritarian state, or is losing such control something to which such regimes can adapt?" Lynch asks. I'm looking forward to reading the piece that seeks to answer.
Photo Credit: Flickr user rouelshimi