As revolutions sweep across the Middle East and traditional diplomacy seems to be turned upside-down, what have we learned about the power of Wikileaks, Twitter, and Facebook?
That question was taken up by Anne-Maire Slaughter, star Princeton University professor and former State Department Director of Policy Planning, and NYU professor and new media guru Clay Shirky at a discussion held at the Council on Foreign Relations this week.
Slaughter and Shirky began by debating the power and legitimacy of one game-changing technology, Wikileaks. Slaughter was highly critical of Wikileaks; she emphasized the importance of confidentiality in high-level policymaking and expressed her belief that not all government dealings should be completely transparent, an argument also articulated in depth by PolicyMic Contributing Writer Ben Byron, a defense consultant in Washington, D.C. Shirky honed in on the legal issues associated with Wikileaks, vehemently and convincingly critiquing the attempt by some governments and powerful non-state actors to prosecute and undermine the organization (i.e. Amazon, Visa, and Mastercard) as extra-legal harassment of a press agency without due process.
Interestingly, neither speaker seemed to fully recognize the central role that Wikileaks has played in helping to spark the recent revolutions in the Middle East. What do you think, was the release of Wikileaks documents detailing America’s dealings with Arab governments a factor in the outbreak of protests across the region? If so, how important of a factor?
Next up, Slaughter and Shirky debated the much-discussed topic of the role of social networks in the recent revolutions in the Arab World. Both seemed to agree that Facebook and Twitter did not cause the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, but facilitated the spread of the Tunisian and Egyptian people’s expressions of deep discontent with their corrupt and authoritarian governments. Shirky, the leading academic expert on social media, clearly articulated media’s incredible ability to help organize and mobilize populations. This argument that was also explained by PolicyMic Writer Heba Taha, an Egyptian studying international relations at GWU in Washington, D.C.
When questioned about the ideology behind the revolutions across the region, Slaughter suggested that a common theme lies behind these movements: “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Reminding the audience of the heroic actions of the Tunisian university-educated fruit vendor who sparked protests in that country, Slaughter summarized recent events as the expression of the Arab people’s yearning for freedom and democracy.
This is not PolicyMic Writer David Dietz’s view. Dietz, who was living and working in Tunisia at the time of the revolution and has since reported from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, made the argument that the revolutions can be explained by primarily economic factors, including the inability of young, educated Arabs to find jobs after graduating from college.
What do you think, who’s argument is more credible and convincing?
Stay tuned for more analysis and coverage from Foreign Affairs’ next event on PolicyMic.
PolicyMic Co-Founder Chris Altchek recently attended a discussion in New York City hosted by Foreign Affairs entitled, “Digitial Power: Social Media & Political Change.” This article represents his reflections on the event.