The New Revolution: Habermas’ Public Sphere & Social Networking in the Middle East

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

Gil Scott-Heron wrote those lyrics over forty years ago. Things have changed. The revolution is being televised.

It has been fascinating to watch the events in the Middle East unfold over the past week. Of particular interest to me is the revolution within the revolution. Up to now, with the exception of this blog, I have done my best to ignore the social networking phenomenon. I have a number of reasons, which I may go into in some future post, but this week I found myself somewhat in awe of it.

Social media has been one of the driving forces behind the uprisings, so much so that it’s prompted many commentators, such as former Mideast negotiator and Ambassador to Israel for President Clinton, Martin Indyk, to make statements such as, “You are witnessing here a 21st century revolution.” Speaking on this week’s Meet The Press, Indyk, now director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, added,  “And this has changed the whole nature of communication and organization and made it now impossible for autocratic authoritarian leaders in the Arab world to suppress the views of their people.”

I don’t know if that is overstating things or not. But this new revolution is certainly changing the face of revolution.

Some years ago, German sociologist and philosopher, Jurgen Habermas developed the concept of the “public sphere,” a space in which groups and individuals could come together to engage in discussions over matters of mutual interest.  This space within social life is separate from, yet not unconnected to, the private sphere and the “Sphere of Public Authority” or the state. Habermas maintains that one of the main functions of the public sphere is to support discourses critical of the Public Authority.

However, Habermas predicted the demise of this public sphere, and I can’t help but wonder if in considering the rise of the internet and social media whether or not he has revised his thinking. Habermas said that the demise of the public sphere is inevitable because eventually advertising replaces news and media becomes a tool of the state, thus the public sphere ceases to function in the manner originally intended. It’s true that in capitalist societies nearly everything becomes a commodity to be packaged and sold, and that in dictatorships, everything becomes a tool for totalitarian rule. However, what we have seen this week suggests that the public sphere which is social networking may be inherently resistant to any attempt to co-op or destroy it.

Is this, then, an indestructible public sphere? Consider this: On Tuesday the Twitter ‘hashtag’ #jan25 went viral, thousands of Tweets coming from the Cairo protest itself as well as observers around the world. Mubarak’s government then reacted by shutting down access to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Internet access from the country’s four major internet providers was blocked. And yet, Egyptians have been finding ways to break through.

We Rebuild” is a group that has been using landline phones, fax machines and ham radio to get messages out of the country. They’ve also been breaking the blockade by calling numbers that connect to modems available in other countries which provide access to the outside world. The “We Rebuild” group established a connection in Sweden through dial-up and an activist in the group wrote on Twitter: “When countries block, we evolve.”

Some people have used services like Tor, which reroutes a user’s traffic through a network of volunteers’ computers around the world, making it impossible to trace. Others are using Hotspot Shield, software that secures Web surfing sessions. And there have been reports of satellite modems and phones entering Egypt in order to circumvent government controlled telecommunication companies.

The rise of social media is hardly news. However, I haven’t given it much credence until now. Naturally, a debate has already begun about the actual role social media is playing. I tend to think it is significant. Mathew Ingram writes about this debate over at Gigacom, and I agree with his point that “In the end, it’s not about Twitter or Facebook: it’s about the power of real-time networked communication.”

Of course, there is no question that the real fuel for this week’s events is a suppressed peoples desire to have freedom.  Here, too, I think we are seeing the impact of social media. For the first time, people around the world can get a taste of what real freedom is like, freedom of expression, as social networking opens up avenues for them to express themselves without the need to go into a physical public square, and as we have seen, it is a powerful tool for pulling people into that physical space when the time comes.

Once people get a taste of freedom, they often become insatiable.

One final note, as much as I would love for the US government to denounce Mubarak as a dictator and get out of the dictator-supporting business once and for all, I know it is not that simple or easy. I remember very well supporting the uprising in Iran against the Shah in 1979 and we all know how that turned out. There are many reasons why the US needs to tread carefully, not the least is that who governs Egypt is a matter for Egyptians to decide for themselves. Middle East peace has many underpinnings and they are all interconnected. Please resist the temptation to look at the situation in black and white and try to see the deep complexity underneath.

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