Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Will Revolutionary Geeks and User Generated Content Topple the Ayatollah?

During the 2008 United States presidential election we experienced the first indication of a previously unknown political media ecology. Driven by social media such as YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter and propagated via computer, cellphone and MP3 player, these elements of what Fordham University professor Paul Levinson has called the “New New Media,” changed our national political landscape and are now working globally to transform political balances around the world. At home, grassroots organizers for Barack Obama were able to bypass the mainstream media and speak directly to potential voters and to orchestrate small-cap fund raising drives on an unprecedented scale. Off-the-cuff comments from candidates captured by portable devices drove news cycles for weeks at a time and changed political fortunes. For example, one instance of George Allen’s career ending “macaca” video has currently been viewed on YouTube almost 400,000 times. As Levinson notes in his upcoming book, The New New Media: “the true or fully empowered new new media user also has the option of producing content, and consuming content produced by hundreds of millions of other new new media consumer-producers.”

Now, with the current election fiasco in Iran, we are seeing the true potential of the new new media. The obviously fraudulent Iranian election outcome might have gone unnoticed and unchallenged in previous political media environments. At the very least, the Iranian ruling powers would have been able to clamp down on information flow by shutting down media outlets and controlling reporters’ access to the events.

Not anymore. Cell phone videos and snapshots of demonstrations and reprisals, “Tweets” with tactical and other organizing information and other new new media reporting have completely trumped Iranian efforts to control the public perception of their election. As Richard Engel noted on the Rachel Maddow Show last night, to control the user generated content of civil protest the Iranian rulers would have to shut down the entire country:

“What the Iranian crackdown is, it’s very old fashioned. They want to control the media so they’re cutting off phones and they’re kicking out established reporters and harassing reporters. That’s very 1980’s, 1990’s way of a media crackdown. It has not helped them control the information war.”

In the 1980’s Neil Postman argued that any new technology disseminated to the populace by our electronic conglomerates constituted an uncontrolled social experiment on society. Every new medium or device presents a Faustian bargain, creating winners and losers within the population based solely on the characteristics of the technology. The new new media change the flow of information from the one-to-many of traditional media outlets to the many-to-many of the internet. Without single chokepoints to block the flow of information, would-be tyrants are finding it difficult to control the narrative of their national political events and the word gets out from multiple sources, with pictures!

The upside of the new new media is that democratic inclinations gain new traction against entrenched despotic institutions. The downside is that turmoil is inevitable as current power holders seek to retain their positions. In our own country this turmoil is played out by the decline and fall of the Republican Party and the not coincidental individual incidents of right-wing violence that accompany that collapse. Overseas, the chaos and destruction may be more pronounced as entire societies react to the potentialities of the new new media and the violence spills out into the streets.

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