Social Media and Social Movements: Al Jazeera English Comes to Columbia

Current students do a good job of sending along blog content for posting, but I fell a little behind in the past month or so due to all of the updates related to admission decisions.  Erisha Suwal sent along the following post in February. Has it really been that long since the last snow on our campus?  (see the 50 second mark in the intro to the video below).  Thank you Erisha.


Social media especially Youtube, Facebook and twitter and mobile network (SMS) have been instrumental in organizing successful protests for regime change first in Tunisia and then in Egypt so much so that governments in those countries shut down the Internet during the height of the protest.  About 5.3 billion people have mobile subscriptions worldwide. Seventy percent of this population resides in the developing world.  SMS has become a major means of organizing. According to the Foreign Policy, during the June 2009 uprising of the Green Movement in Iran, activists used every possible “technological coordinating tool” to protest the miscount of votes for Mir Hossein Mousavi but were ultimately brought to heel by a violent crackdown. In January 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined how the United States would promote Internet freedom abroad. She emphasized several kinds of freedom, including the freedom to access information (such as the ability to use Wikipedia and Google inside Iran).

Events in Tunisia and Egypt illustrate that censorship to limit information flow and maintain authoritarian control is difficult if not impossible in present time. A fundamental way in which social media has changed the landscape of communication and organizing is by making people the source of information and not the conventional institutions.

However, Internet and social media is a double-edged sword.  While it facilitates freedom of speech it can also be used by authoritarian regimes for surveillance. For example: members of the youth groups and individuals like Wael Ghonim, who set up Facebook pages calling for protests, were arrested and jailed. Similarly, the Chinese government continues to harass bloggers, the famous one being Hu Jia. Security is a major concern Also, In Tunisia, reports that the government had phished user passwords for Facebook and Gmail emerged in December, while in the United States, Facebook has been used by creditors to track down people with outstanding debt.

Taking this cutting edge topic of social media and social movement, a panel titled “Information Wars” was organized by Columbia Journalism School and Al Jazeera English (AJE) on Friday February 11th when everyone was tuned into news channels about the celebrations following Mubarak’s fall. AJE host Marwan Bishara moderated the panel that featured Emily Bell, director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism; Carl Bernstein, of Woodward and Bernstein fame; Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman; Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom; and Clay Shirky, author of author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  It was aired on AJE’s show Empire. Many SIPA students attended the event to get the latest on the impacts of new trends in journalism on international relations and policymaking.  It was a lively discussion that not only analyzed what was going on, but also predicted social media’s new role and influence.