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Katherine Marshall


Rehearsing the arguments and     questions

The role of social media in the Arab Spring has focused attention on their potential as a force of transformation, but also on the risks. Six questions emerge in debates about how social media are bringing real change, their potential for the future, and why it matters.

•    Is the social media revolution a cacophony of meaningless noise and an invitation to populism, or is it the prelude to the new, true democracy? 
•    Does it encourage anarchy and lack of social purpose, or does it offer a path to a true people’s authority?
•    Do new media and social networks encourage people and institutions to be shallow (in a sound-byte culture), or do they instead allow them to be more profound because they have more knowledge and can interact with a wider circle of ideas and people?
•    Are the social media about social interactions only or do they offer new ways to learn, to have dialogue on substance, and to organize society?
•    Is this new world the playground of the wealthy and privileged, or the new path to an egalitarian, inclusive society?
•    And what does it all have to do with religion, and what does religion have to do with social media?

The phenomenon: a modern miracle

Andrea Riccardi has urged us to acknowledge and celebrate “modern miracles”. In the internet revolution, which so influences much of our daily lives, in the explosion of social media, and transformation of communications at a global scale, surely we are truly witnessing a modern miracle.

•    Facebook, Twitter, and other social media have revolutionized peoples’ lives in less than a decade. Facebook, which began only in 2004, today has over 750 active users (half log in on any given day). Twitter has 100 million users, and they count 230 million tweets a day. Over 80,000 websites are linked to these sites.
•    Cell phone use has skyrocketed: Over 70 percent of the world’s population now has a mobile phone, with over 5 billion mobile subscribers; in some places like the United States, 9 in 10 people have cell phones. Children are now more likely to own a mobile phone than a book (85% own a phone, 73% books). Americans spend 2.7 hours a day on mobile phones. It is interesting that studies suggest that women in the 35-54 age group are most active. 200 trillion text messages are received in US every day. One study says 42 percent of teenagers can text blindfold, an indication of their intimate familiarity with this medium.
•    The social media revolution is linked to the broader transformation of media for communications today, including the sharp shift to online news and explosion of news sources. One dimension is the rapid growth of the blogosphere: one estimate gives perhaps133 million blogs, but no one really knows.
•    These transformations challenge traditional media in many ways, with special concern that it undercuts “good journalism”. Are we in an era where we can truly look to the democratization of media, what one called the “Citoyen mediatique?”
•    This revolution is greeted by many with joy and wonder, but there is also plenty of unease about it. To some, it seems shallow, interferes with face to face, human contact. There are many bytes of reflection and information about the implications of this revolution, but perhaps not enough wisdom.

The new force of revolution?Are we ready for “Users of the world unite”?

Social media were a major factor in the unexpected, some say miraculous mobilization of people that brought about the Arab spring. Were they a real force for change, an explanation for the events, or simply a too? The part that Facebook, Twitter, and the like played in Iran, Burma, and other political upheavals raises similar questions. There are more questions than answers here but the new power of communications has patently changed the face and pace of political mobilization.

•    The social media tend to be largely secular, and linked to youth, but they are also used by parts of religious establishments in similar contexts. As just one example: Amr Khaled, Egyptian televangelist with enormous appeal to youth, has 3.4 million “friends” on Facebook.
•    The potential for interference and repression are serious concerns. A debate is underway now about this issue for North Korea and it arises also in Libya and other situations.

The underlying question: new faces of democratization

We are moving from a world focused on a few formal leaders; a defined group of recognized, credentialed intellectuals had significant authority. In today’s world, traditional leadership in all categories sits alongside a world and culture where far more voices can reach vast audiences, instantaneously. The “24/7” world increases the tempo of life and change. The hoped for potential is that we can see a synergy of leadership from above, transmission of positive and exciting ideas, with broad-based engagement of people who can lead  positive and enriched lives and in a caring global community. The dangers? Cacophony, superficial and dangerous ideas gaining the day, slick and shallow politicians and preachers (lay and religious) gaining swift followings and undercutting the painstaking work that so many do for peace and justice, work that takes time and reflection.

•    The new styles of leadership carry a potential for demagogy and populism. Neither is new, of course, but the potential for the rapid rise of cult heroes seems greater. In contrast, the social media/Wikileaks era also sees the puncturing of images of leaders and heroes..
•    In the international development profession, my own world, where our focus is on poor communities and the marginalized, this paradigm shift from authoritative approaches and technical fixes to a far deeper appreciation for peoples’ voices and action runs in parallel. The focus and vocabulary have changed markedly: from “consultation”, meaning simply asking people about their views and desires, to participation, where people engage within an implicitly clear framework, to empowerment, where their decision right and power are recognized .
•    The term “glocal” (awkward as it is) reflects the challenge of combining global goals and awareness (epitomized in human rights and standards) with respect for local and personal realities.
•    We should recognize that we face contrasting philosophies and ethics that color how one views these forces: from one perspective the approach is that people know best what is right for them and have the right to determine their future. However, many are uneasy simply to leave it to local determination, for example because often patriarchy marginalizes many voices, and communities are captured by the powerful and rich. Local communities may not have the knowledge of the best of global standards. We are thus looking for ways to define the core common values that can and should apply universally with systems that respect and appreciate diversity and local knowledge. This is no mean challenge.
•    We need to unpack and examine what we mean by empowerment. A clear example is the role of women. We know that when women lack genuine political voice, their concerns and their priorities simply are not even on the agenda. When women are part of true engagement, the agenda is different. As a practical example, in village surveys that include women in meaningful ways the importance of water and sanitation and the welfare of children often emerge as the priority.
•    There is a saying that “if you are not at the table, you end up on the menu”. So who is and who can be at this table?
•    What is relevant here is the potential to use the new technologies and the new social media to advance this agenda of empowerment, which is an agenda to advance democracy.

And communication and religion?

•    There are vast differences in the approaches of religious leaders, communities, and believers to new media. Some have adopted and transformed, others resisted. We know too little about the patterns. But there is no clear and certainly no simple narrative.
•    The core change is linked to the broader contemporary approach to authority, including religious authority. The new communications world is about choice, and about a variety of views. It carries the potential for giving rich information but also the potential for distortion.
•    Another area of great and largely undertapped potential is for interfaith understanding. The challenge is to carry this understanding of others at a level that goes beyond the surface (though the surface is important also). We have yet to see how far intelligent and wise use of new media for communication can help. How far can it help to transmit exciting ideas, bring people to put themselves in the shoes of others, recognize and reinforce a sense of shared values?
•    In short can we build with these new media a far greater and deeper commitment to peace, to a world of justice where we are committed to act to end poverty and work to ensure that every person is treated with respect and can develop their God-given potential?

Ethics, wisdom, and power in this world of information

•    The decentralized, fast paced world of social media carries risks and many present special ethical challenges. The power of information and knowledge is great but the potential for misinformation, deliberate or otherwise, is of great concern. While the internet and social media revolutions allow us to have access to information and ideas as never before, there are few reliable guides, or moderators to this information.
•    The evidence of prejudice and misinformation are starkly revealed in attitudes towards people of other religions and beliefs, and in attitudes towards immigrants in some societies. The question is whether these biases are in fact reinforced and spread by social media, or are they simply revealed and visible in new ways.

Some ideas and questions for discussion:

•    The new social media call us to redefine and rethink two notions that are central and precious to the Community of Sant’Egidio: community and friendship. The meanings of both obviously are different in our classic sense, and true human friendship and a tight knit community of friends are not the same as a Facebook friendship or community. Yet for many of us the world of cell phones, Skype,  Facebook, and other social media have indeed transformed lives.  In many respects they are indeed the modern miracle that Andrea Riccardi describes.
•    Is this confined to a global elite? Technology including new social media offers exciting potential to bridge divides of distance, time, and wealth. Just this week, a colleague from South Sudan in Washington was able to ensure that his father who was ill in a remote village reached the hospital quickly and received care; he know how he was doing and was able to give him comfort with his voice. This would have been impossible five years ago. We have far more tools that allow us to keep in touch with family and friends from different eras and places. We have the gift of keen awareness of what is happening in other parts of the world, different parts of one’s life
•    The contrasting view and concern is that the very scale and speed of contact with other people, termed “friends”, debases the very meaning of community and friendship. Links by computer and cell phone can be impersonal, and can cut into time with family and “living” friends.
•    We also sometimes see a generational divide, though that is changing fast with shifts in demographics of social media use. One in four people over 65 are now using social media
•    The divide may be more between “media faithful” and the nonbelievers..
•    The greatest concern for many of us is time… the most precious commodity.

Foxes and cats

•    The new media debates call to mind Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Cat, and Isaiah Berlin’s reframing as the contrast between the hedgehog and the fox. The fox and the cat argue: the fox boasts of many strategies and ideas, the cat retorts that he has one that works. When the hounds come the cat climbs the tree, the fox reflects and is captured by the hounds. The social media world is a world of foxes, multiple sectors, disciplines, places, and ideas. There are clear virtues, nonetheless, in sharper focus and a sense of purpose, versus openness to new ideas, a radar that looks to a broad range of developments. But the balance is a positive and exciting one, where we can see and come to know the world and human nature in their endless variety. 

The responsibility to Act

•    Domestic violence is not new. It has probably existed through human history. But new studies reveal starkly how widespread it is. With this information now available to one and all, surely there is an imperative to act on what all value systems (religious and secular) should agree is a great evil and wrong.
•    The reality of poverty and inequality presents a similar challenge. As Mario Giro has said often, we have no excuses of ignorance today. We know what suffering is, and can see and feel it, keep abreast of it day to day.
•    So we live in an era where so much is possible, and where we know what can be done. We no longer have the excuse of ignorance.