The international affairs scholar Walter Laqueur (left) has been asking himself why so many commentators – who might in his view have known better – were proved wrong in assuming that the Egyptian revolutionaries of Tahrir Square would usher in age in Arab countries of democratic tolerance and European rights. Whether or not you accept his view of Egypt, his speculation about why these mistake are made has something interesting to say about crowdsourcing and collective judgement.
Laqueur begins by going back to another glaring example of over-optimism (which happens to have long fascinated me): inflating the prospects for the integration of Europe and the imminent triumph of the continent’s superior economic and social model. He gives a few examples of overblown hyperbole about how the 21st century would be Europe’s era and asks why the evidence that this might not happen was so often overlooked. This resonated with me since I’ve had experience in the past of trying to persuade American audiences that uniting Europe might not turn out to be as straightforward as many politicians in Europe claimed. I can still remember lecturing at a college in Vermont in 1989 (just weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall as it happened) and telling a sceptical-looking audience that the unification of Europe wasn’t going to be like assembling the united states in America. My audience looked very grumpy and disappointed.
Then Laqueur looks at rosy-eyed predictions about what future elections would bring in Egypt, noting that very few journalists reporting the revolution in Egypt went beyond Cairo (and some never beyond Tahrir Square). A trip outside the capital might have revealed that support for a secular revolution was very limited and that while there might be competition between different variations of Islamic politics, the new Egypt was going not going to be secular and more “western”. The odds, he says, were stacked against a tolerant, plural, secular outcome from the start.
I’m less interested in whether Laqueur’s Egyptian pessimism is correct than in the conclusions he draws about punditry: Continue reading →
This post just carries links to one or two pieces worth reading that I’ve missed or put to one side in the past few weeks.
- I’ve been waiting for some time for a systematic, measured study of new media’s role in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. This looks like the first such one (if you know of others I’ve missed, please tell me). It’s only about Twitter and really only about the networking aspects, when the real study needs to link and compare the use and consumption of every thing from satellite TV to Facebook and Twitter. But it’s a start and a fascinating one.
- Second up is a piece by Clay Shirky about news institutions and the “crisis”. Above all this is a plea for experiments in news and a strongly made argument that, important as newspapers are as institutions, their adaptive capabilities really aren’t keeping up with what’s happening. Shirky’s piece also contains a link to an essay by Jonathan Stray on the digital public sphere which also looks excellent.
- Last is the New York Times picture essay on 2011: a vivid way to recall what has been a truly unusual twelve months.
Wadah Khanfar can claim to be one of the world’s most significant journalists in 2011. He doesn’t make that claim himself, but he ran the Middle East’s most outspoken satellite broadcaster, Al-Jazeera, as the revolutions erupted in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and as they spluttered in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.
Last night he came to City University to give the James Cameron Memorial Lecture and most of his audience wondered if he would shed any light on his abrupt departure from Al-Jazeera’s director-generalship a few weeks ago. He shed no new light directly. But a few hints were dropped, and they illuminate both the power and the limits of the Arab Spring.
When people suddenly announce they are going to “move on”, that decision can be assumed to be not entirely voluntary. The deal to depart is sealed with a payment, conditional on neither party saying more than a very limited amount in public about the rupture. Khanfar was not replaced by a journalist or broadcasting executive but by a member of the Qatari royal family from one of the state’s oil and gas outfits. Khanfar is a charming and plausible speaker, but I doubt that many in his audience quite bought his explanation that after eight years at the top of Al-Jazeera, he had decided to quit while he was ahead. The indicators point to Qatar’s ruling family wanting someone a little “safer” in charge.
Al-Jazeera’s foundation in 1996 was a remarkably bold act by the Emir of Qatar. Even if Al-Jazeera did not report quite as vigorously on Qatar itself, it was allowed to report without inhibition on other states in the region. The Emir in effect tore up the convention among Gulf ruling families that news media from their own state try to avoid embarassing rulers of neighbouring states. Or at least that appeared to be the case until the Arab revolutions began this year. And Al-Jazeera’s own journalists rapidly built the station’s own editorial identity and strength, probably becoming more famous, influential and controversial than its cautious founders anticipated (backgrounder here). Qatar, Khanfar said in answer to a question last night, did not start Al-Jazeera “for charitable reasons”. The state had “expectations”, he said; but then, he added, so did Al-Jazeera’s journalists have their own expectations, aims and agenda. The channels, Khanfar said, found their “mission” and created a “solid identity”. This identity, he implied, was not quite what Qatar’s rulers had in mind.
Yesterday saw a significant moment in the rolling changes brought about by digital communications. An entire country, which until that moment had cheerfully embraced satellite TV, mobile phones and the world wide web, was cut off from the internet by the authorities in Egypt. Today, they followed that by shutting mobile phone networks.
It isn’t possible to predict what will happen: the state may get the streets and opposition under control, it may lose its nerve or the army may tip the balance for or against change. As I write, hackers all over the planet are sending advice to Egypt about how to get round the shutdown.
But one forecast can be made. The autocrats in charge in Cairo may buy themselves some breathing space by shutting communications networks, but they cannot turn the clock back to the pre-digital age. They will eventually discover that they have to deal with a wired society as it is. That wiring offers them plenty of opportunities for manipulation and control, but no way back to the era of terrestrial television, typewriters and printed news.
It’s worth underlining again why this issue is so particularly important in the Arab world. What is cracking apart is the paternalist assumption that governments should shape what people know. This belief runs across both monarchies and republics and is put in practice in varied ways in different states. But what it has produced in almost every country in the Middle East and Maghreb (bar Israel) is a two-tier knowledge system.
Evgeny Morozov, author of the recently-published The Net Delusion, tweeted the other day that he felt sick having to restart discussions for Egypt about whether the country was starting a Twitter or Facebook revolt.
I know how he feels and social networks aren’t the same as the courage required to get onto the streets in these countries. So I just mention quietly that Twitter stopped working in Egypt yesterday; both Twitter and Facebook seem to be blocked today. It’s worth noting what the authorities think is a threat: the enhanced ability to connect and mobilise. (Readers new to this theme start here or here).
While on the subject of Morozov, if you are looking for a single piece which sums up his contra-suggestive thinking, I’d recommend this. Coming from a quite different, and more constructive, direction on the same theme are two pieces which both examine how journalism needs to adapt to verify the information that flies at us on the web. The first is from the Online Journalism Blog of my City University colleague Paul Bradshaw and lays out basic methods of verification on the web. The second is by the BBC journalist Matthew Eltringham (via Charlie Beckett) and reflects on the practical problems of sifting the truth in new circumstances and something called the “line of validation”. These are both creative ways of extending the idea of “verification” which I listed when trying to pin down the definition of journalism in the digital age.
I’m in Cairo and my breakfastime reading is either the Daily News or the Egyptian Gazette. The Daily News front page today carries the following headline, which passes the most basic test for a headline in making you want to read the story:
King Tut’s dad’s toe returned to Egypt
The toe, belonging to King Akhenaton, was stolen in 1907 and clearly much delicate cultural diplomacy has been conducted to return it from Switzerland to the rest of the skeleton. Stolen toes of Pharaohs are serious stuff here. The story intones, without the slightest irony: “The toe’s movements since 1907 were not disclosed.” Some secrets are too big for people to handle.