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.

Events like the Wikileaks disclosure give powerful drives to accelerate changes of influence between established and insurgent, informal media. The Middle East, with a huge young educated population impatient with formal hypocrisy of politics as run by their elders, is poised to feel this change more than most places. The initial stories about the US cables have concentrated on the Gulf kingdoms and their views of Iran. But don’t forget that there’s also just been an election in a country whose media is also ripe (very ripe) for change: Egypt.

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