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PLAYING THE LONG GAME
Over the past year, an increasing number of commentators in the US have lined up to critique the role of technology in political activism with a sober, and sometimes cynical, analysis of Web 2.0’s impact on authoritarian regimes. So when the Tunisian government fell in January, followed by the popular uprising in Egypt, the response was much more muted than in the aftermath of the Iranian elections 18 months previously: technology was acknowledged to have played a part, in spreading news of the protests for example, but was given no starring role. Yet these unprecedented events were fuelled and facilitated by digital media. The invitation to the blogger Slim Amamou to join the interim government in Tunisia was one of the most remarkable acknowledgments of the role of digital activists in civil society, not to mention the symbolism of his appointment in a country that has stifled free speech for decades.
Technology continues to transform the culture of activism, but it’s now popular to view it more cautiously as part of a long game. In this issue of Index on the impact of digital media, the Chinese commentator Hu Yong considers it part of ‘a long-term revolution’. While new media brings unprecedented knowledge of closed societies – from the monitoring of the Egyptian parliamentary elections last November to the transparency of the secret services in Russia – there are no illusions about its limits. For a brilliant analysis of what can happen when there’s too much blind faith in technology, read Danny O’Brien’s account of the Haystack debacle (pp. 73-86).
What of the US’s part in the long game? Its influence in pushing for internet freedom continues to be critical – and much criticised. The government’s hot pursuit of WikiLeaks – from the subpoena on Twitter to the attempt to cut the whistleblowing website off from all financial support – has diminished its standing as a global champion for free speech (David L Sobel discusses the culture of secrecy in the US on pp. 29-35). Yet activists overseas were already extremely worried by the impact of Hillary Clinton’s
Demonstrators in downtown Tunis, 20 January 2011 Credit: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters