There’s a lot of really interesting discussion going on at the moment about the role that social media and online/offline networks have played and are continuing to play in the revolutions which have swept across Tunisia and Egypt and are emerging in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Iran.
Manuel Castells, the Catalan sociologist most famous for his writings on the Network Society, the Information Age and Communication Power is interviewed on the subject by Jordi Rovira for the Open University of Catalonia
The spontaneous social movements in Tunisia and Egypt have caught political analysts on the hop. As a sociologist and communication expert, were you surprised by the ability of the network society in these two countries to mobilise itself?
No, not really. In my book Communication Power, I devote a large part to explaining, on an empirical basis, how changes to communication technologies create new possibilities for the self-organisation and self-mobilisation of society, by-passing the barriers of censorship and repression imposed by the state. The issue clearly isn’t dependent on technology. Internet is a necessary but not sufficient condition. The roots of rebellion lie in exploitation, oppression and humiliation. However, the possibility of rebelling without being quashed immediately depends on the density and speed of mobilisation and that depends on the ability created by the technologies which I have classified as mass self-communication.
Could we consider these popular uprisings as a new turning point in the history and evolution of the internet or should we analyse them as a logical, albeit extremely important, consequence of the implementation of the Net in the world?
These popular insurrections in the Arab world constitute a turning point in the social and political history of humanity. And perhaps the most important of the internet-led and facilitated changes in all aspects of life, society, the economy and culture. And this is just the start. The movement is picking up speed, despite Internet being an old technology, and deployed for the first time in 1969.
Young Egyptians have played a key role in the popular uprisings, thanks to the use of new technology. However, according to the calculations of Issandr El Amrani, an independent political analyst in Cairo, only a quarter of Egyptians have internet access. Do you feel that this situation may – in his words, create a divide in these countries between those with access and those without access – one that is even greater than that in developed countries?
This figure is already out-of-date. Around 40% of Egyptians over 16 have internet access, if we consider not just private homes but also cybercafés and places of study, according to a recent 2010 study by the information company Ovum. And this figure rises to around 70% among young urban dwellers. Also, according to recent figures, 80% of the urban adult population has internet access via their mobile. And, in any case, in a country of some 80 million, even a quarter, which is double among young city dwellers, according to the oldest sources, this means millions of people on the streets. Not all of Egypt has demonstrated, but enough have to create a sense of unity and bring down the dictator. The story of the digital divide regarding access is old, untrue today and boring because it’s based on an ideological predisposition, among intellectuals, of minimising the importance of the internet. There are 2,000 million internet users on the planet and 4,800 million mobile subscribers. Poor people also have mobiles and, although fewer, they have forms of internet access. The real difference lies in broadband and connection quality, and not in access which is spreading faster than any other technology in history.
It would be naive to think that, given the events of recent weeks, those unlawfully holding the reins of power will just stand by with their arms crossed. Nicholas Thompson, social media expert, wrote in The New Yorker that “in Iran, the government was clearly successful to a certain point in using the internet to slow the passage of the green revolution. In Tunisia, the government hacked into the password of almost all the country’s Facebook users. If Ben Ali had not fallen so quickly, that information would have been very useful”. To what extent does power have the necessary tools to quash uprisings started on the Net?
It doesn’t. In Egypt, they even tried to disconnect the whole net but they couldn’t manage it. There were thousands of ways, including telephone land line connections to numbers abroad which automatically converted the messages into twitters and fax messages in Egypt. And the financial cost and functional effort involved in disconnecting the internet is so much that the connection had to be restored extremely quickly. A power cut on the net is like an electricity power cut today. Ben Ali didn’t go that quickly, there was a month of demonstrations and massacres. And in Iran, the internet couldn’t be shut down, with information about the demonstrations and videos of them on You Tube. The difference is that over there, politically speaking, the regime had the power to brutally repress things without causing divisions in the army. However, the seeds of rebellion are there and young Iranians (70% of the population) are now massively against the regime. It’s a question of time.
In Egypt, popular mobilisation via the digital media has created cyber heroes such as Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive. Leaders of uprisings historically led political and social movements from the grass roots, which would then play a key role in the political future, such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit in France or Lech Walesa in Poland, just to give a couple of examples. However, we now have people with important technological knowledge, but often little political baggage. What role do you think these new leaders will play in the future of these countries?
The important thing to remember about wiki-revolutions (self-generating and self-organising ones), is that leadership doesn’t count, they are just symbols. However, these symbols don’t have any power, nobody obeys them and neither would they try. Perhaps later on, when the revolution has become institutionalised, some of these people may be co-opted to be a symbol for change, although I very much doubt that Ghonim wants to be a politician. Cohn-Bendit was just the same, a symbol, not a leader. He was a student and friend of mine in ’68 and was a true anarchist, rejecting leaders’ decisions and using his charisma (the first to be repressed) to help spontaneous mobilisation. Walesa was different, a union Vaticanist, which is why he became a politician so quickly. Cohn-Bendit took a lot longer and even so is still a green at heart who although now elderly, maintains values of respect towards the origins of social movements.
For some years now, Islamic fundamentalist movements have used new technology to promote their causes. The Muslim Brotherhood, which launched its own Wikipedia (Ikhwan Wiki) last year, reasserted that Islamists of all kinds “have exploited the internet to the full, despite the efforts of their adversaries.” This organisation, which could become the main beneficiary of a future election and which links together a great number of people committed to the total application of Islamic law, arouses suspicion among many trained young people who have led this uprising via new technology. How does this paradox make you feel?
Anyone who doesn’t use the internet now for their projects is backwards, with the exception of respectable eco-fundamentalists who write by the light of a candle (generally on a solar-powered computer). Consequently, both Islamists and even terrorists, also use it. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll win elections. To start with, they have been on the margins of recent social movements. And their election predictions in free elections do not get over 20% in any survey. Their organisation and tradition may lend them certain weight, but they do not represent the vast majority of an essentially young movement favouring freedom. They have been used by the regime to shock the world and the United States. It reminds me a little of when Franco used the fear of communism when everyone thought that the communists would secure a high return and then the PCE didn’t get over 10%, although in Catalonia the PSUC enjoyed significantly more support for a short time. Be that as it may, if the military does not keep its promises, if there are no free elections, if the demands of the fundamental working-class struggles unfolding in Egypt are not met, if there is violence against the population, then in that radicalised situation there may be Islamic armed resistance, but not by the middle-class Muslim Brotherhood.
The international media ? which the Egyptian regime tried to censor and even physically attacked ? together with Egyptian citizens who used the digital media, have enabled the shackles of information censorship to be shaken off. Months ago, Wikileaks achieved maximum return on its leaks in uniting the leading presses which published the vast amount of information that it held on its website. Is this alliance between conventional media and new technology the path we should be following in the future if we wish to successfully fight these huge challenges?
Large media corporations have no choice. They either ally with the internet and people’s journalism or they will become marginalised and financially unsustainable. However, that alliance plays a decisive role for social change. Without Al Jazeera there would have been no revolution in Tunisia.
In your article in La Vanguardia entitled Comunicación y revolución from 5 February, you ended by reminding readers that China had prohibited the word Egypt on the internet. Do you think the conditions are right for a popular movement similar to the one sweeping the Arab world to happen in the Asian giant?
No, because 72% of the Chinese support their government, because the urban middle class and mainly young people are extremely busy getting rich and the problems of the peasants and working class, China’s real social problems, are not on their radar. The government is taking excessive precautions, because censoring by system antagonises a lot of people who are not really against it. Democracy in China is not a problem for most people right now, unlike Tunisia and Egypt.
Events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt are yet another example of the inclusion into our daily lives of new forms of communication, such as SMS, blogs, podcasts, RSS, wikis, Twitter and Facebook, which have led to what you term “mass self-communication”, the upshot of developing the web. Can this new type of globalised and atomised communication, fed by the contributions of millions of users, change our way of understanding interpersonal communication or is it just another powerful tool available to us?
It has already changed it. Nobody who is on social networks everyday (and this is true for some 700 million of the 1,200 million social network users) is still the same person. It’s an online/offline interaction, not an esoteric virtual world. How it has changed, how this new type of communication changes it each day is a question to be answered through academic research, not by sitting around gossiping. And that’s where we are now and that’s why we have conducted the Project Internet Catalonia at the UOC.
In December, the German Ministry of the Interior announced the creation of a cybernetic war defence centre to repel spying attacks, while in Tallin (Estonia), in an ultra secret NATO laboratory, leading IT specialists are working to prevent the evolution of conflicts in a world increasingly dependent on the internet. Bearing this in mind and having seen what is happening in the Arab world at the moment, could it be said that cyber attacks will be the war of the future?
They are in fact the war of the present. The United States considers cyber war a priority and has allocated it a budget ten times larger than that of all other countries put together. And in Spain, the armed forces are preparing themselves quickly for the same thing. The internet is the space of power and happiness, of peace and war. It’s the social space of our world, a hybrid space built on the interface between direct experience and experience mediated by communication and, above all, by internet communication.