Week 14 (Late)

In this week’s readings, our 5 authors posit questions about the role of social media and technology in recent movements in the Arab Spring. Taking them together as a whole, I’ve reached the conclusion that while social media may be effective tools in organizing, they are not going to spread democracy or solve problems on their own.

Cohn’s article cites a growing number of young people and a higher rate of Internet use online to explain the State Department’s shift away from the America.gov website to a new focus on social media. With officials now focused on shortening articles to make content more tweetable and better translating existing material, they point to the revolution in Egypt as a validation for their new strategy because it highlighted the government’s need to frequently check the pulse of the people. In Abdo’s and Springborg’s pieces, however, the point is made that America’s influence in revolutions abroad is already highly significant, and likely will not be made any more so by the State Department’s Twitter account.

Gladwell, in his short but sharply written piece in the New Yorker, contests that social media is more or less irrelevant in these new protest movements. He argues that “how” a country was driven to revolution (and what tools they employed in the process) is significantly less important than “why” they sought reform, and thinks that much of the original message gets lost in these new outlets. He asserts that people have revolted in the past without social media, the Internet, or even cell phones by using “that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice.”

Morozov nicely sums up this week’s readings with his discussion of technological fixes. He argues that society has long favored technological solutions (medicine, science, etc.) to solve societal problems, but that in many cases, the problem could be solved more fully with a cultural solution. He says since technology can be difficult to understand, it’s difficult to evaluate their success and they have the potential to create future problems that cannot be foreseen by their creators. His argument is that when searching for solutions, one must consider the magnitude of the problem before assuming that technology provides the most appropriate response, as seen by his Cedric Price joke, “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?”

Question: With this in mind, what is the best way for America to promote its interest in democracy overseas? If revamping our Internet efforts are merely a technological fix to a social issue, then what would be an appropriate social response? Does technology or direct communication with the people of these countries play any role?

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