Jan 11

Tunisian repercussions and perspective

The capacity of new media to spread ideas at speed retains the power to astound me still. But, of course, people leap to conclusions equally fast and ideas get warped.

There’s been an on-the-margins discussion triggered by events in Tunisia about whether the toppling of the President was a “Twitter revolution” or a “Wikileaks revolt”. On the latter, here is a savage and funny riposte to the idea that Tunisians needed Julian Assange’s help to realise that their government was sclerotic and bent.

On the Twitter issue, Marc Lynch has a wise new post correcting the perspective by placing Twitter in the context of all the media changes of Arab societies, including the proliferation of cable and satellite channels led by Al-Jazeera.

Having made a minor contribution to all this by suggesting that the Wikileaks cables may have influenced the Tunisian situation and by stressing that newer media power in Arab countries, can I just go back to the ideas which I hope will survive the passions of the moment to be investigated in tranquility?

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Dec 10

Wikileaks and the cables: what changes, what doesn’t

The release of a quarter of a million American diplomatic cables has generated some fascinating discussions about diplomacy, government, truth and journalism. The ones about journalism have been some of the least important.

That’s because the three Wikileaks releases of huge document caches (Afghanistan and Iraqi warlogs and diplomatic cables) are essentially about a new form of contest between computer hackers and government, in this case the American government. News media are bystanders to the main event. That’s by way of explaining that the questions, anwers and links below here are only partly about journalism.

1. Do the cables change geopolitics? It’s hard to see that any international configuration or balance of power is significantly altered by what has been revealed. Or likely to be.

2. Do they change anything? Definitely. American diplomacy on the ground gets harder, at least for a few months. (See this delightful post on the “Tobermory Effect” from the fine Crooked Timber blog). I drew attention the other day to Marc Lynch’s insight on the longer-term political effect of this in the less democratic regimes of the Middle East. The pendulum effect will now be visible in information-sharing policy inside the US government. The fiascos of failures to share intelligence information in advance of 9/11 probably contributed to more data being available lower down in the system. That might well now reverse (£). If the Wikileaks release pushes the US and other governments to reconsider how they classify documents, that would be a good outcome. The biggest beneficiaries of all are historians, who gain most from being able to use a written record to check against competing versions of the truth.

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Nov 10

Wikileaks, Arab governments and new media

One early thought about the Wikileaks release of the US diplomatic cables. There’s been debate for years about the effect of new media on authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Would satellite television, the internet or Facebook break the monopoly of power held by the Chinese communist party? Could bloggers laugh Hugo Chavez out of power?

The answers which slowly emerged to these questions showed a variety of effects. China’s rulers mounted a colossal effort, mostly successful so far, to restrict the political effects of peer-to-peer communication. In relatively open democracies, social media will make changes to political discourse but they don’t look drastic or sudden so far.

But the countries in which the effects of new media are going to be most dramatic and visible are those with traditional oligarchic media and limited democratic mechanisms. The rules which govern the political space in Arab societies are being put under severe strain.

Mainstream Arab media are now faced with a bulk load of awkward stories they might prefer to ignore or play down while the same material races round the developing Arab blogosphere. This is all explained with helpful links by Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy (I’m new to this blog and so cannot yet explain its mysterious subtitle: Abu Aardvark’s Middle East Blog). I think Lynch is exactly right, not least in focussing on the test for Al-Jazeera, based as it is Qatar, whose ruling family are likely to feature when the whole document dump has been fully searched.

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