Social Media Upsetting Traditional Lines of Communication and Culture – Sunday, 6.2.2011

The Mirror, Vol. 15, No. 702

Never before has the Internet as the carrier of the so called “Social Media” received so much public attention than during the last couple of weeks. This attention is not focused on the technological and economic role the Internet is playing, but on the social and political role of the social media. What is fundamentally different when one compares the traditional and the new media? Newspapers, radio, and television are one-way means of communication: an institution collects information and publishes it. Even the facilities of Letters-to-the-Editor, or call-back programs on the radio, do not change this much. It is only a small number of media institutions that do the selection and distribution of information – and the masses who receive it cannot easily comment of communicate back. Basically, the traditional media are few-to-many one-way media. These few media organizations define what goes to the public, and they can self-censor themselves or be censored – either by persuasion, maybe backed up by economic pressure, or by legal action.

With the social media – the best know are Facebook and Twitter, and SMS, the “short-message-service” which works on mobile phones, and blogging, which facilitates longer, more elaborate messaging. Everybody who has an Internet account can participate in publishing their own information and opinion, and do it in a many-to-many back-and-forth procedure of communication. To use these media for broad social awareness building, and even for public mobilization, is easy. When every Internet user can communicate with everybody, censorship is much more difficult to enforce. The government of Tunisia – before the change – tried to maintain control on the flow of information by blocking Facebook and Twitter. The government of Egypt – temporarily – shut down the Internet completely and disabled SMS services. This did not pacify those who, day after day, went to demonstrate for a change of the political system; but it inconvenienced the whole communicating population in general, including the business community relying on the Internet for their regular activities.

These experiences now give rise to some basic questions.

Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [in English, 8 pages as a PDF file of 116 KiB here, and in Khmer, 11 pages as a PDF file of 340 KiB here] have a bearing on the rights to electronic communication? Its Article 19 says:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless frontiers.”

UNESCO promotes freedom of expression and freedom of the press as basic human rights. While legal opinions about Internet publications as part of, or not part of the press are wide apart, Article 19 is to protect freedom of expression not only in the press.

Michael Gurstein, the Director of the Center for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training, in Vancouver/Canada – “The Center undertakes research, development and training in support of the range of Community Informatics initiatives undertaken both in Canada, South Africa, and elsewhere internationally. The Center works with communities, ICT practitioners, researchers, governments, and agencies as a resource for enabling and empowering communities with Information and Communications Technologies” – took the question straight to the level of academic discussion in his 4 February 2011 publication (only excerpts here):

Is Facebook a Human Right? Egypt and Tunisia Transform Social Media

Many are writing about the role of cell phones and Twitter, Facebook and other social media in enabling/precipitating the events in Tunisia and now in Egypt and possibly beyond…

But perhaps the most significant long term impact of social media use in the events is only now starting to emerge as the wondrous surprise of what we have been watching on CNN and Al Jazeera wears off, if only slightly, and we begin to reflect on how the world has changed.

That there will be many impacts some profound, many geo-political, even more unanticipated may be taken as a given. However, perhaps we received a signal of what may be one of the most important of all as it will potentially impact the way in which our world creates values and works towards an implementation of our highest aspirations. If such an impact is occurring then the effect will not simply change how we do and can behave but also how our technologies are defined and determined and perhaps most importantly how our relationship to our technologies acts so as to reinforce our humanity.

As an evident response to the events in Egypt the following statement has been issued by a group of United Nations associated independent human rights experts through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:

Governments must pay more attention to people’s voices – UN experts [previously in The Mirror here]

Underneath the rather predictable headline to this press release, what is particularly interesting is the way in which the human rights notion of “freedom of assembly” – or as they phrase it in the above — “people’s voices” — appears by inference to be applied to freedom of assembly on the Internet, that is in this instance of course, referring to the freedom to express and assemble (and collaborate) by means of Facebook and to the freedom of expression via Twitter and YouTube.

The apparent extension and application of these human rights notions into the virtual sphere is an implicit acknowledgment of the equivalence and equivalent validity of those relations, activities and processes which are taking place in the virtual sphere; that is, is there any reason to see virtual connections and relationships as for example, via Facebook, Twitter, or Facebook groups, as being any different from the similar (or parallel) connections and relationships that individuals have in physical space? The implicit answer here seems to be no!

If these virtual manifestations of assembly and expression do have the same value and legitimacy as their physical manifestations then the implicit connection made by the UN’s Human Rights experts on the actions of the Egyptian governments in cutting off the Internet and thus disrupting the opportunity for assembly and expression via Facebook and Twitter would appear to be a clear violation of human rights (Egypt of course being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

The “association” that Egyptian (and of course Tunisian) young people were carrying out via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube can be understood as a counterpart to the similar association that might have taken place on a university campus, in a coffee shop or in a community hall or mosque. Thus in this context, the closing down of the Internet so as to disrupt Facebook and Twitter was not simply a political (and evidently failed) act of desperation but was also a violation of the human rights of these Egyptian young people and particularly their right of association and assembly and specifically Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”…

Social media are not just new technological gadgets, but – as their name say – they open new social opportunities. When in August 2007, a Cambodian Blogger Summit was held for two days in Phnom Penh, an Associated Press report was published under the heading Blogs open communication in Cambodia, and I was quoted with what I saw beginning:

“This is a kind of cultural revolution now happening here in terms of self-expression,” said Norbert Klein, a longtime resident from Germany who is considered the person who introduced e-mail to Cambodia, through a dial-up connection in 1994. “It is completely a new era in Cambodian life.”

That this challenge has been taken up widely ever since and developed further if evident from the expectation towards the first TED event held on 5 February 2011 in Phnom Penh. – TED is “a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design.

Cheng Lyta, a Media and Communications student wrote:

The first TEDx event is going to happen in Phnom Penh on 5 February 2011. It will be awesome I think. Top leadership people, IT professionals, important figures together in ten people will speak in the event, sharing knowledge and experiences. More surprisingly, TEDx has a unique topic about the idea to build a bright future of Cambodia… At the first TEDx PhnomPenh will appear my favorite idol blogger Keo Kounila, the IT woman Channe Suy, who I find one of the leading remarkable women in Cambodia… And to make a mark in Cambodia is to get through to young people. As one of the young people, what I want to hear from this event is the points to make changes in Cambodia…

Keo Kounila, speaking at the TED event, on “Blogging: The New Generation of Cambodia” – shows that Cambodia is part of the new worldwide awareness of the role of social media. In an interview with her at the TED event, this line was drawn out also for Cambodia:

Keo Kounila, a young Cambodian women whom I admire a lot and who helped me, was talking about the future and the social development I am demanding. “Blogging gives us a way to express our thoughts and feelings and make it public”, she said. And she is right. Blogging can have political or social impacts, but it has impacts. Since Cambodia is still a bit more relaxed compared to their neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, she calls for taking the chance and participate in a civil dialogue.

Norbert KLEIN

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