Citizen Movements Are Making An Impact on Human and Civil Rights World-Wide
It is a sad fact about our world that it is most often through conflict and disaster that we discover the most about ourselves and our connections to others. I have felt this palpably in recent months and years as I’ve watched the ebb and flow of so many conversations, about things both mundane and monumental. The voices on the ground that we all now have access to bypass traditional methods of information proliferation. They subvert authoritarian media machines and establishment media and propaganda world-wide. This is a powerful shift in the power asymmetry in our world and people-powered phenomena we are only just beginning to understand.
The hardest and most compelling things we now see are the desperation and shock of people in peril and the loved ones that worry about them. In the eye of these storms, social media emerges as a kind of curiosity: look at what people do! Tools like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Periscope are launched and then find their unique purpose. If the founders are lucky, maybe a global phenomenon. Anyone can take on the role of citizen journalist and have a voice (whether anyone listens is another matter). We can connect to people in many places. That’s our power of now. It’s not about the much lauded Internet of Things (IoT), it’s about the Internet of People. It’s people who have realized that social media might be the most powerful tool we have in the fight against tyranny, intolerance, and injustice.
As a culture, are we missing the point regarding social media?
Social media is real-time. It’s raw. It’s usually unedited and unflltered. It asks us to make our own decisions about which news to follow, about which voices to promote, and which to marginalize. The editors of these new media are mostly individuals, each deciding what is relevant or meaningful depending on their point of view. Too frequently they forget to think about the audiences they might draw, and instead create from their own passions and inspirations. This is what makes social media special in a culture so inundated with well-crafted brand messages from corporations and governments alike. Social media can allow the authenticity and connection that we sometimes feel are missing from our heavy-duty lives. Perhaps even more importantly, social media allows us to connect for a huge variety of reasons, in sometimes quite unexpected ways. But what most people tend to think is that social media is merely about people sharing trivial news about their lives.
Sure these things happen — there is plenty of banality all over our glorious Internet. But this is not a judgment on technology, nor a denial of its potential… I would lump these problems into the category of ‘unintended consequences’. Social media is ‘sandbox’ software, a category that includes a range of experiences that are highly emergent in nature. There are connections and reconnections, supportive ideas, and divisive ones. There are echo chambers of the self-selecting and selected-for-you varieties. Like a city, the Internet has good neighborhoods and bad ones, vandals and gadflies and crazies, and the most beautiful examples of community that many of us have seen.
Is the world getting worse, or are our voices just louder?
It’s very common in difficult times to for people to start believing that we are soon going somewhere very bad, perhaps to hell in someone’s handbasket, perhaps down the slippery slope of simulated realities, or other grim possibilities our physical, material lives afford. Social media has enabled an epic transparency that makes us more aware of tragedies, travesties, and controversies in our world. We mourn together, because we have become one global consciousness. Or perhaps we always were, although lacking the communication options that now make these interactions so easy and simultaneous. Movements of all sorts have been organized and amplified using social media. Activist communities like Anonymous, NoDAPL, Black Lives Matter, Indivisible, and Occupy could only exist because of social media. I sometimes think, how would Dr. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, or Caesar Chavez have reacted to social media on smartphones in the hands of citizens world-wide?
Information as a Mechanism for Social Transformation
There is a long history of using information as a mechanism for social transformation. In the 1920s, Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood, fought epic battles with the American postal service for the crime of distributing information pamphlets helping women understand birth control options, particularly the newfangled French diaphragms. She later married a mega millionaire and hired a scientist to make her the magic ‘pill’ that we now take so for granted.
A bit later on, World War II was a major information war, before we had memes to understand it at all. Telegraph, radio and telephone services had been flourishing for some time. The Nazis perfected the dark art of propaganda and targeted intellectuals, artists, and dissenters of many persuasions. The Japanese had their own radio station blasting the South Pacific (Tokyo Rose) with their distorted claims and barely disguised imperialist agenda. Voice of America responded with its own conversations, and continues to be a major force in communicating democratic possibilities (at least our variety), even now. The Soviet Union fell because of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, which included a more benign approach to information. Glasnost (open-ness) and perestroika (transformation) edicts were issued as a way to pull the Soviet Union our from behind the iron curtain that kept it economically and culturally stultified for so long. The burden of knowledge and ramifications of transparency were too much for the early 20th century has-beens who were unable to see that a happy, informed, and prosperous populace is the key to a healthy civilization.
When we look back at this time in history, will social media emerge as the set of factors that changed everything?
To those of us who have worked to utilize these magical tools, social media revolutions are beautiful and amazing. The voices we now have access to offer transformational potential for societies, cultures, and governments world-wide. Movements transcend geo-political boundaries and we find we are more similar than we are different, at least about the things that matter most. However there is no hope for such capability in countries in which the powers-that-be limit access, deny education, and have access to the backbones that enable connectivity across our globe. Sometimes a tweet from a cell phone is a small whimper that leads to action. Sometimes our news media draws attention to these events. But too often voices reach out to nothing but windows and doors shut, and denial in every whisper. The voices are there, but are we listening?
The greatest social media revolution will be when we discover how fundamentally we are already linked as human beings, and when we have the tools that allow for the forging and maintenance of such connections. We also need to ensure that a world-wide communication grid exists, one that is not only controlled by corporate and government interests. Certainly we can’t allow the kind of nepotism for Internet traffic that the Net Neutrality folks propose. We’re also in the midst of an information war as various factions accuse opponents of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts. We don’t know who to trust. At one point, then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton took the previously-unheard-of position that American news sucks, and Al Jazeera is ‘real news’. I applauded her courage to shine such a light of truth into the dismal, unimaginative universe of control, brainwash, sell to, and conquer. Not a value judgement as such… it’s just very limiting of our potential. We need our news outlets to editorialize that which we need to acknowledge and fix.
Human Rights are a Journey of Continuous Improvement in Information Proliferation
Despite these continued challenges, achieving human rights is a journey of continuous improvement. Things are getting better, despite the less-than-cheery news we sometimes hear. News about the Libyan government turning off the Internet, about our own political parties using rhetoric and information as weapons against their own people, about hackers and trolls who ignore geopolitical boundaries. About misinformation in a million and one guises, and an evolving survival mechanism that involves being able to separate fact from fiction, wheat from chaff, reality vs BS, information that might kill me (think bad medical advice), vs information that might aid me in a crisis (how to build a portable toilet when your city is liquefacted).
Information Revolutions Require the Right Tools and Training
But the thing that is most important in all of this is that information revolutions require the knowledge to use those tools effectively. Information literacy has become the digital divide presaged a decade or more ago. It’s not about access to hardware or networks… it’s about knowing what to do with it. About understanding the voice it can give us, and the connections and possibilities we can find as a result. Miraculously, despite incredible oppression in some places, a huge generation of people have internalized digital capability so fully that it has become THE tool for peaceful change. This is a very good thing. So much better to resolve our conflicts in the worlds of words and ideas than through conflict and aggression. We must be patient, though, because changing minds and hearts takes time.
What’s the way forward?
It occurs to me that in our discussions about social media we need to be more aware of a few things.
- These technologies are still in their infancies in current incarnations, though we have reached a certain temperamental pre-pubescence with other possibilities like e-mail and forums. We probably can’t even begin to imagine the possibilities that will be available even just five years from now.
- Even if we did know exactly what technologies will be available to us, it is impossible to predict exactly what people might do with it. This is the beauty and difficulty of emergent effects and unintended consequences, when humans do things more wonderful and caring than we can possibly anticipate. That means we’re evolving, and that’s a good thing.
- One can be simultaneously technophilial and skeptical about efforts to throw all of our eggs in one or two baskets. Let’s imagine the future we want and work backwards from there. Sure, take some inspiration from Facebook or Twitter, but don’t feel like you have to replicate them, or even use them, if you feel like your social and information needs are otherwise met. There will be more and better options coming soon enough. We should be crafting some collective visions, and keeping those commitments, recession economics or not.
- We are reaching a point in our technological evolution where we need to make a massive shift. We need to start designing the future we all want. For many years passionate people have imagined and created incredible technologies that delight us and show promise of easing and expanding our lives. However there is a fundamental problem with this approach. Conceiving technologies and then trying to find audiences for them (build it and they will come) is slowly but surely falling away to approaches that understand people first, then build technologies that adapt to people, rather than demanding that we adapt to them. Because what happens is that in the technology-centric world, we develop dysfunctions to handle our dysfunctions, and that becomes a big mess of complexity very quickly.
- Attention and clout are currencies of interaction. These things have not changed in several centuries. We will give attention to get attention (online or otherwise). In a data-driven world, our attention will be gathered willingly or otherwise, and we might even be able to monetize some of it, in an expert filtering type way. Information literacy will allow us to quickly scan for clout (what your social media stats or search engine rankings say about you) separate useful and not-useful, instead of floundering in information chaos. We do favors (building, writing, connecting, linking) with the fuzzy expectation that some kind of karma might pay it back or forward. We slightly don’t care as we feel our cause (sometimes just growing the Internet) gaining momentum, and can tangibly see cause and effect in beautiful collective action.
We always overestimate technologies in the short term and underestimate them in the long term.
What’s been happening these last years is that we have shifted from centralized and top down to decentralized, emergent, grassroots, and bottom up. As means of media production democratize, the technological and economic power so miserly held by institutional behemoths moves bit-by-bit to those who leverage it most effectively. Social capital is digital karma, sustainability, and holistic economic strength, though currencies in exchange have shifted from the financial to the collectively conscious, from investments in today to investments in tomorrow.
In the meantime, technological revolutions in big data, cloud computing (I used to refer to this dream as the ‘big database in the sky’) and virtualization technologies make these platforms more and more possible, more and more ubiquitous, and more transparent. Yes, someday we will take all of this for granted, but for now we can cast our eyes heavenward with some heady wonder at what we’re accomplishing. Together. But let’s not forget to recognize we now have the tools and proximity to work as a global collective consciousness and actually solve some problems for once and for all. We have the reasons. Imagine what we could do.
William Shakespeare said that if anyone could look at the seeds of today and accurately predict the future, they should ‘speak unto’ him. I have a prediction: there will be unintended consequences related to our information revolution that we can’t even begin to imagine. Some technologies will stick, some will not. We just have to listen and watch. What is clear is that something world-changing is happening and we are now seeing the impacts far and wide. The current president of the U.S. has been implicating himself in 140 character tweets. New democracies are being unfurled on the backs of those who know that words are their best weapons. Words that can reach audiences all over our world. Who could have imagined? Where will this take us? We might not know for a while yet.
In the meantime, perhaps our far-flung social media friends will get some peaceful sleep sometime soon, bolstered by the lullaby that is global love and solidarity.
We connect because we can, we can because we connect. This is how we resist, non-violently, compelling with evidence and revealing the darkness so it can be transformed into light.