This paper aims to discuss the role and significance of information technology (the Internet, media, etc.) as far as leveraging popular protest and demands is concerned. First of all, the term “information technology” (IT) will be identified, with regard to its application and advancement in the mass media at present. Next, the paper will explore an increasing role of the Internet and other varieties of mass media which deploy Information Technologies, using the Arab Spring uprising as an example. While discussing the Arab revolution, the debate will seek to reveal the essence of IT: has it become a driving force in the society, or is it just an integral part of the historical pattern where it blends? Overall, with reference to the Arab Spring events, the analysis will focus on an extensive debate about the role that the information technologies play today, so as to answer the controversial question of whether IT serves towards the destabilizing or liberating processes in the society.
The Role and Significance of the IT
Definition of IT
Information technology is the field of engineering technology and communication that deploys the application of computer and telecommunication technology for storing, processing, and communicating of information. It has emerged within cybernetics development around the second half of the 20th century. In a broad sense, information technology assumes application of computers with relevant software in order to manage an increasing flow of information and communication; therefore, IT is often referred to as information and communication technology (ICT).
At present, IT has emerged to become one of the basic building blocks in the modern society. Nobody can deny that IT has profoundly changed the way people live and do business, since the IT serves in all spheres of life such as business and politics, social welfare and education, industry and mass media, among many others.
Sense of the Technology
The information technologies’ application touched all spheres of human activity while its rapid advancement has lasted for about six decades only. Some experts claim that the evolvement of the IT was bold to the point which marked the start of what is known as “the information age”, alternatively called the “computer age” or “digital age”.
According to calculations of Dr. Hilbert of the University of South California, the accelerated increase in the use of the Internet, cell phones, and 24-hour-a-day satellite television, has evolved to the point that an average person receives a fivefold volume of information if compared to 1986. This is a minor increase compared to information that one produces on the daily basis, using e-mails, social networks, twitters, or text messages; this equals the amount of information worth of six newspapers. To compare, those were some 2,5 pages only just 24 years ago. So the increase is almost 200-fold. All this information needs to be stored, and each consumer has the equivalent of average of 600,000 books, which are stored in the memories of his personal computers, microchips and the magnetic strip of the credit card.
The question arises quite naturally: has the IT rapid development brought about mere benefits or disadvantages to the human society? Do the upsides of its wide span application outweigh its downsides, or vice versa?
Advantages and Disadvantages of the IT Application
Imagine a world without the Internet at present. For example, from the academic perspective, a student does not have to attend a class physically. The IT has made it possible for him to attend online classes. Is this an advantage or disadvantage? Today, a teacher does not have to toil his or her assignments with chalk in class. The teacher needs just to project some items on a wall and hold a laser pen to direct students. If this is not a revolution, what other revolution could one expect?
The IT has revolutionized the world economy at large. There is sound evidence to prove this. The enhanced competitiveness accompanied by the technological advancement serves a good example. It is easy to advertise any product across the globe using the Internet today. IT fosters international trade, which is an indispensable precondition for the global development. This is just a small area to mention.
Apart from the benefits, are there any disadvantages of using the information technologies? Opponents argue that it leads to an increased level of unemployment and poverty, blaming it for being the principal cause of destabilizing the world economy, like in case of massive protests hitting oil producing countries.
A good illustration of the power of IT is the recent Arab uprising, commonly referred to as the Arab spring, Arab awakening or Arab uprising. However, before examining this subject in detail, it would be beneficial to discuss the ITC role in terms of its application in the mass media, as one of the areas of human activities.
The Role of IT in Mass Media
At of the end of 1980s, the Internet, the use of computers, cell phones and other technological aids of communication has started to gain an ever-increasing weight on the political arena.
Today, for example, governments can communicate or formulate policies as fast as they are required. In addition, it is easy to make government procedures and policies more accurate. This is because governments formulate such policies after a remarkably accurate evaluation of information pertaining to the existing environment. For instance, by evaluating the level of national income, the government can accurately formulate a suitable taxation policy. Citizens can access Information like national inflow or outflow. Also, information on the government spending is available on the Internet. This greatly increases the level of confidence of the citizens in the government.
The most obvious role of the ICT application can be observed in the area of communication and exchange of information, direction of information flows, as well as organization of political and ideological activities.
The mass media have an advantage of utilizing a web-site as a modern tool of presenting articles and posters, leaflets and flyers, or any other means of information, which was previously spread through the printed media. In the pre-internet era, political activists would need to find physical ways for distributing flyers, putting up posters, communicating word-of-the-mouth messages or deploying any other media for dissemination of information to the target audience; this was a difficult, costly and time-consuming task to accomplish. Alternatively, the use of contemporary e-mails and cell phones with their capabilities of text, voice and video messages, the use of mobile phones deploying the Internet access, taking part in an interactive communications forum via the Internet (Indymedia) are examples of communication means that are considerably cheap and easy. Moreover, they can reach diverse and numerous audiences at an incredibly fast speed.
Another integral feature of the contemporary communication tools which deploy information technologies is their mutual direction or interactivity. Political activists from the pre-internet generations were deploying ICT means, such as radio or telephone, fax or or newspapers. Their use, however, was restricted in terms of one-directional mainstream flow of communication, since a small group of people controlled the content which was spread out to a relatively large audience of consumers. Contemporary networking communication tools, as the name suggest, allows for face-to-face communication, through deployment of the web tools such as Skype conversation, blogs or Facebook, wikis or forums, or other interactive communication means.
Political activists are known to make use of ICT in two different applications: firstly, as a tool for communication and information dissemination; secondly, as a medium of struggle. The Arab Spring serves as one of the prominent examples of the ITC features in the mass media application.
IT and the Arab Uprising
While examining the events of the Arab Spring it is difficult to oversee the significance of the use of networks and social media tools, since ICT has a significant impact on how political activists collaborate, communicate and organize political actions, including demonstrations and uprisings.
The Arab Spring is one of the largest uprisings experienced in recent decades which swept the Middle East and North Africa, in the early 2011. During this revolution, long serving leaders like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddaffi had to exit their offices, although these leaders had held their presidential offices for 30 and 42 years respectively. In some countries, leaders resigned, still in others leaders declared not to engage in politics any more. Democracy reached a plenty of countries where it did not exist before. President Obama claimed that the digital media served the key variable which raised and enabled average Egyptians to demonstrate. The IT tools themselves did not oust Mubarak; however, the IT-supported media served to spread the calls for freedom, which rolled like an avalanche, through North Africa, to the Middle East continents. It all started off by a desperate shopkeeper in Tunisia setting himself on fire, in a protest against citizens and businesses suppression. This event led to myriad civic uprisings, protests, riots, rallies, demonstrations, and regime changes known as the Arab Spring. This event raised a network of people who were exhausted by the authoritarian government and tossed out their dictator, within a few weeks. Network and social communication of families and friends, such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and text messaging allowed spread the news to other countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, and Algeria. The news inspired the protests in Egypt and gathered the largest demonstrations in decades, resulting in the second dictator losing his power.
There is a lot of evidence demonstrating that social media had a significant influence upon the event in the Arab Spring. However, the question is whether the IT- supported mass media were a driving force in the events, or just a part of a more consistent historical pattern?
IT Role in the Arab Spring: a Driving Force or Part of Historical Pattern Where it Blends?
Social networking represented by Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, etc. has significantly contributed to political opposition in organizing rallies and protests. Moreover, it was supplemented with information which was previously considered hidden, such as suppression of citizens and businesses by acting regimes. The information became available through the interactive means of communication.
Cyber activism during the Egyptian revolution, for example, triggered the involvement of public. Internet protesters used Twitter and Facebook to mobilize people. YouTube was also a significant venue to spread videos and photographs. Protesters communicated through Twitter for planning as to where and when to meet. Opposition could also seek lawyers through the social networks. In a protest against torture, corruption and poverty, a Facebook page came in use. More than ninety thousand people signed it up within just one day. Another example is how the protesters in the streets used Twitter for announcements of new undertakings, such as marching on to the parliament building.
Although the government had attempted to halt the messages exchange and block some websites, political opposition were capable of finding ways to communicate their ideas to public, via a new website. Ultimately, opposition was faster than the government in communicating their ideas to the public, which significantly contributed to the success of their initiatives.
Myers in his research “Media, Communication Technology, and Protest Waves” notes that it is difficult to overstate the role of information and communication technology when examining the role of ICT networks in terms of social protest actions. The author’s argument is that if a protest takes its way in spreading from one individual to another, from one group of people to another, and from one location to another, the communication tools will need to follow the same channels.
From this perspective, it is apparent that the media; both the mass media and the internet information networks were a catalyst to the Arab Spring events in terms of information passage from one individual to another, one group of people to another, and ultimately, from one country to another. Furthermore, there is enough evidence to show that information communication and social media took a center position in fuelling the Arab Spring protests, in spreading its location from Tunisia to Egypt with consequences of overthrowing the dictators in these countries, with further consequences of protest waves marching on through other countries, particularly in North Africa and Middle East.
However, once the government were overthrown or resigned, the new governments found themselves in need to address the problem issues in their countries and find solutions to the turbulent problems which triggered the massive protests and uprisings. From this perspective, in my opinion, the argument is that despite the pivotal role of ITC in the social unrest and massive revolutions, ICT still serves as the medium or a tool of communication, which is directed by processes in the societies.Thus, it blends into the pattern of the social development of its times.So its role should not be overestimated, either.
Does IT Serve Towards the Destabilizing or Liberating Processes in the Society?
Among the hot debates in the press about the role and significance of the use of IT for the society, the question about its underlying meaning arises: does it serve towards the liberating processes, or, on the contrary, brings out the destabilizing forces, if used in application to popular protest movements and demands?
Although the role of ICT in the social protests cannot be underestimated, as discussed above in this paper, its implications seem to be controversial. The opponents suggest that ICT and social media did not pursue the underlying economic and political processes behind the protest movement, while the proponents argue that ICT served to spread democracy in the Arab countries.
In my opinion, the whole issue of the debate does not assume a clear answer in terms of liberating or destabilizing the role of the IT in leveraging out the popular protests, like in case of the Arab Spring. Although it has been analyzed by scholars, journalists and the public, nobody still can claim to have fully analyzed and understood its role and its implications. It is clear that, at present, the IT plays a pivotal role in the underlying processes in the societies, especially in their critical dimensions, like massive protests and rallies. However, ICT combines controversial features, since it acts both as a driving force in the Arab Spring events. At the same time, it blends well in societal and historical context of its time.