The spring of Arab discontent

Written by | January 10, 2012

Washington State dean discusses the role of media in Middle East uprisings
Info wars: Lawrence Pintak cuts through the hype of social media’s role in the Arab Spring.

Info wars: Lawrence Pintak cuts through the hype of social media’s role in the Arab Spring.

Let’s say you are a young person between the ages of 15 and 29 living in Egypt, Tunisia or Algeria: There is a 27, 31 and 43 percent chance, respectively, that you hold a job.

“Take that view, that reality, and then layer on the idea that the government is an autocratic government. You have no voice in politics, you have essentially no right to vote and you have no control over the direction of the country,” said Lawrence Pintak, founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. “You end up with not just frustration but anger that moves into activism.”

In December 2010, this nascent activism found a symbol and martyr in Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian food merchant whose self-immolation precipitated the initial protests in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia—protests that built momentum and connected with kindred activists across the Middle East, becoming what is now known as the Arab Spring.

In countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, leaders have been ousted, in large part, because of the growing dissatisfaction among what Pintak calls the “Arab’s world youth bubble”—the bloc of 15– to 29-year-olds who comprise a third of the Middle East’s population. These disenfranchised youth play an integral role in giving voice to “long-simmering resentments of entrenched autocratic regime[s],” Pintak wrote recently in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Pintak, who spent many years as an award-winning CBS News Middle East correspondent, will deliver a lecture discussing the Arab Spring, the role of traditional media and social media in its coverage, and the future of media control in the Middle East this evening at 7 p.m. in Smith Memorial Student Union. Pintak’s lecture—“Media Wars: Journalists, Generals and Jihadis”—is the first event of winter term in Portland State’s Middle East Studies Center’s lecture series.

Since Bouazizi’s death triggered the initial protests in December 2010, the Arab Spring has been followed and detailed intensely by traditional news media outlets, citizen bloggers and social media users alike. Social media’s ability to both disseminate information and organize protests between otherwise disparate groups has been instrumental in the blossoming of the Arab Spring movement.

“There is a new discourse in the region and people are expecting their voices to be heard,” said Elisheva Cohen, outreach coordinator for the MESC. “Part of that is the power of the Internet and of social media.”

Although social media has emboldened citizens to unite and given voice to millions, the traditional news media still plays an instrumental role in shaping the story of the Arab Spring.

“Social media allowed the activists to organize but it would have never spread to the masses without satellite television,” Pintak said. “Both played a critical role. It was very much a digital one-two punch.”

Pintak’s recent work has focused on the ever-shifting dynamics between the traditional news media, social media and the attempts to control or suppress the flow of information by both the region’s governments and its more radical factions. This “information war,” as Pintak calls it, is a crucial point in his forthcoming lecture.

“I’ll be talking about the Arab Spring in general and more critically the role of media in driving the Arab Spring,” Pintak said. “And cutting through all the hype of the ‘Facebook Revolution’ and the ‘Al-Jazeera Revolution.’”

There is certainly ample hype to cut through: Millions of words have been devoted to the Arab Spring’s use of social media, with phrases like “Twitter Revolution” or “Facebook Revolution” garnering 150 million-plus Google hits and countless journalists attempting to outdo each other with increasing hyperbolic pronouncements.

And, of course, the rise of journalism touting the “Facebook Revolution” spawned numerous counterarguments, perhaps most prominently from The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell. “We now believe that the ‘how’ of a communicative act is of huge importance,” Gladwell wrote in the midst of widespread Egyptian protests. “People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.”

Yes, social media’s impact on the Arab Spring is often overstated. But its role in galvanizing so many citizens to become both reporters and witnesses has dramatically altered the flow of information in the Middle East. In 2012, “competing versions of reality seep in—and out—through every electronic pore,” as Pintak wrote in his CJR article. The deluge of information circulating 24 hours a day has leveled the playing field between the formerly weak and those in power.

“Political leaders cannot control the Internet the way they want to and, therefore, ideas are able to spread,” Cohen said. “Now that people have seen how citizens can have a voice, can lead to the exile or overthrow of a leader, they’re not likely to settle for less. The Arab Spring has totally changed the paradigm of the region.”

PSU’s Middle East Studies Center presents
“Media Wars: Journalists, Generals and Jihadis,” a lecture by Lawrence Pintak
Tuesday, Jan. 107 p.m.Smith Memorial Student Union, room 328/9
Free and open to the public
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