17 February 2011

OPINION: Information, Power and Discontent

Why Tunisia could become a model replicated throughout the world

Arab countries are beginning to shake. Following in the wake of the revolution in Tunisia, the world has witnessed a massive uprising in Egypt leading to the ousting of Mubarak by the army and the rumblings of protest in Yemen, Libya and Bahrain have also begun to be heard. What is fascinating about this unrest is its prolific spread and the manner in which the spread is occurring, all with very little leadership from opposition political parties. The nature of this unrest is not unique, bearing symmetry to how unrest has occurred in Eastern Europe in recent times, and is testimony to the rise of the new information age and how the value of information will become increasingly significant to future struggles.

This is not just about the role of social media in revolution. It is about the role of information itself - and how the changing shape of information and information-sharing performs a multi-faceted role in unrest. As has been said by Colin Darch and Peter Underwood: "[f]reedom of information...is fundamentally a change process". Change and revolution: words that every unjust regime feels queasy to hear (I can already hear the internet power switches being flicked off).

The role of information has benefits to a revolution on multiple fronts. An important effect of the sharing of ideas (especially through social media) is its ability to increase a sentiment of solidarity amongst people who are dissatisfied. As Youssef Cherif, an interviewee on Al Jazeera stated: "Many people lost their fear through Twitter and Facebook". Not only did they lose their fear of acting alone, but their own dissent was strengthened through solidarity with their comrades. There is no greater indicator of this than how the sharing of photographs of Mohamed Bouaziz's self-immolation in response to his harassment in Tunisia served as the key event that triggered a rush of protests that quickly spread from his hometown of Sidi Bouzid.

Not only does shared information create solidarity, it makes more transparent and communicable the very ills that fuel discontent. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have both been against regimes notorious for their flagrant spending and accumulation of capital amongst family members. If violence and unrest are results of relative deprivation (as many believe they to be), footage, images, articles etc. shared amongst communities that highlight deprivation are a powerful instigator. In South Africa, a country with the most significant Gini index in the world, how will the widely spread picture of Kenny Kunene's indulgent sushi-eating feed into the already clear pictures of disparity that are the South African visual landscape? In Tunisia, the flashy life-style of those with links to political power was noted to have been primary to demands for change. The Wikileaks cables that revealed the extent of corruption in Tunisia were also a motivation (though Tunisians were obviously already aware of the broad-scale corruption, having it blared transparently across mainstream media was still enough to reignite ire).

As the trite saying goes: information is power. And its capacity to empower is a noteworthy aspect of the various forms of unrest we are witnessing. As noted, the uprisings have been marked by their lack of leadership from opposition political parties. Emboldened in solidarity and knowledge, the uprisings have been people-led in the truest sense of the phrase. This empowerment of individuals along similar ‘needs' strata (as opposed to the religious lines that were synonymous with much of Tunisia's official opposition) also has the effect of encouraging the universality of the protests. As one blogger noted the "people's revolution in Tunisia was based on the will of the people for change with a minimum of ideological coloring". This need over ideology is no doubt the reason Egyptian unrest is being said to contribute to rumblings in Zimbabwe as well. Again, South African leaders should be taking note.

What has been quoted most often has been the involvement of social media as a tool for helping to organise many of the demonstrations. The use of technology in mass mobilisation is a connection most social movements are beginning to explore. And, in a country like South Africa, where the majority of South Africans regardless of income have access to cell phones, sms technology is becoming one of the most powerful social tools of our generation. Information can circulate within communities, even when states are limiting information flow to areas outside their borders.

Mubarak of Egypt (and many other leaders throughout the world) was not oblivious to the power of information. Assault on information access in that country had begun even before the uprisings - including the attempts to block Al Jazeera access and use of Twitter. This action identifies another interesting role of information in the current age; not only is information a mechanism that may fuel and assist uprisings, but issues around information can in fact be the spark for the flame. The suppression of freedom of expression and access to information is a precursor to uprising not just as a pre-emptory response by the state, but the deprivation itself is a clear signal to a population of the state's attempts to depose them of the rights as citizens.

Am I saying that problems within those states are uniformly experienced throughout the world? No. Am I saying that these revolutions were the result of technology rather than the people themselves? Definitely not. The revolution in Tunisia was a people's revolution; the victims of violence and the instigators of change in Egypt are human too. However, information and threats to information seem set to underscore the manner in which uprisings will occur and how they will be initiated. What is of importance is the changing nature of the value and commodification of of information in the lives of citizens.