by Roy Revie
Don’t worry, this isn’t another article about “Social Media and the Arab Spring”. Not that it’s unimportant, but it strikes me that those involved in the revolutions are better placed to examine these questions. In any case, I’m sure the booming industry in Arab Spring conferences, books, and special journal issues will sufficiently suck out any revolutionary joy and furnish us with reports on the minutiae of what they think is important. I’ll leave them to it. Besides, the revolutionary potential of communication technologies which can sometimes allow you to talk to each other and broadcast information that would otherwise be repressed seems kind of self evident. While Western leaders implore foreign autocrats (with a vigour which varies proportionally to some ‘tipping point’ calculus of self-interest) to ‘tear down this firewall!’, and op-ed after op-ed is written about the impact of technology on autocracies I want to reverse the lens: how is social media changing the way liberal Western governments operate? What are the implications of the American embrace of ‘internet freedom’ for US Government foreign policy and military practice?
The key focus of US government communication efforts is influence on publics, both foreign and domestic, as a means to winning legitimacy. This element of state activity is seen as all the more important in the post-9/11 ‘battle of ideas’ in which Robert Gates has said success “will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behaviour – of friends, adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between”. Militarily, contemporary conflict has seen, one theorist suggests, a “shift in the classical centres of gravity away from the will of governments and armies to the perceptions of populations”. In these circumstances, it is not difficult to see why the rise of Web 2.0 has forced widespread and serious consideration of communication policy. As Ali Fisher has written, “the internet provides a unique environment for the ideological clashes that have occurred” since 9/11, as new communication platforms produce a situation where “the hegemonic group is unable to use the organs of the State for coercion”. A cursory look at the most memorable events of the Iraq war support this: while early on the system of ‘embedding’ journalists seemed a massive PR coup for the Coalition, providing a largely compliant media with heart-of-the-action footage, what history will remember will be the unofficial ‘emergent’ images from Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, and Saddam Hussein’s execution chamber. Influence and communication has had to be re-thought.