Ethan Zuckerman the Internet’s Global Impact

On the Media’s Feb. 18 show was recorded before a live audience using a talk show debate format in which the hosts represented two Manichean perspectives on an oversimplified question about the Internet’s role in society. In the show’s second segment, after his name was invoked as the media guru on the Net’s global impact,  Ethan Zuckerman walked on stage like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall to quip, “I think you just completely misunderstand my work.” Nice gag.

Here is the audio embed, and below are several takeaway points from the transcript:

On the role of social media in Egypt’s #Jan25 revolution:

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I don’t think anyone reasonable is arguing that Facebook is the causal factor in a revolution like Tunisia. But when you actually look at the situation, there’s a pretty good case that Facebook was pretty important. The protest that started in Tunisia started in a tiny little town, Sidi Bouzid, about 40,000 people.

There’s no media that was able to cover the protest. Tunisian media didn’t cover it. Al-Jazeera was blocked from coming there. And so the way that people were able to get that footage was via Facebook.

Now, that said, the reason people actually saw that footage was that Al-Jazeera, which has a vaster reach than Facebook, was able to spread it out. And so, what’s gonna happen over time is we’re gonna get off of this “Twitter did this, Facebook did that, Twitter can’t do this, Facebook can’t do that” and we’ll have people actually trying to analyze what happened and how certain stories made it into the media dialogue and then led to mobilization of large numbers of people in the streets.

On the Global Network Initiative:

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Well, let me first back up and say I think the smartest part of Secretary Clinton’s speech today was making the point that the Internet isn’t just a two-sided tool. It’s not just a tool that you can use for creative purposes and dreadful purposes, as you were discussing in the first chunk of the show. It’s inherently a mix between the two.

The same tool that you use to stay in touch with old friends over Facebook turns out to be a great tool to organize a protest. And if you as the dictator try to block one function, you end up blocking the innocuous function, as well, and you really don’t want to do that.

What the Secretary didn’t talk about today is the fact that almost all of these tools that we’re praising are digital public spaces that are being run by corporations, for profit, within their own rules. And these companies aren’t necessarily in the business of empowering revolutionaries.

So Facebook, which is getting a ton of praise around, you know, the Egyptian protests and, and praise, including from me, in, in the role that it had bringing the Tunisia story to light – Facebook actually has a real problem with activist users. Activists often go onto Facebook, they start groups and they do so under a pseudonym because they’re scared of getting arrested.

Facebook has this very, very strict real name policy. And so, Wael Ghonim, this organizer who everybody has been praising and is now emerging as a major opposition figure in Egypt, lost his Facebook group because he signed up under a pseudonym.

So people are now asking companies like Facebook, like Twitter, to step up and take these human rights issues seriously. And there’s a group, Global Network Initiative, that is trying to get people to agree on commons standards of how do you deal with human rights issues within these platforms.

The trick is human rights aren’t necessarily great business. If you’re trying to get traction for Facebook in, say, Vietnam, announcing that Facebook is the best platform on which to hold your revolution probably isn’t going to go over real well with the government.

On  the Dictator’s Dilemma

BOB GARFIELD: Before I turn the witness back over to you, you mentioned earlier the notion of the state being stuck in what I think is called the dictator’s dilemma, that in order to repress the public by shutting off the Internet they would have to simultaneously close off the corridors for running an economy, for example. Can you talk about that, particularly as it played out in Egypt?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: So the dictator’s dilemma basically stipulates that if you run a repressive government, the last thing you want is a communications medium that people can use to organize themselves. So you really don’t want SMS on mobile phones because we know from the Philippines that people use it to organize and get people out to a public square. You really don’t want Facebook. You don’t want any of these tools that people could use to mobilize a mass of people.

The problem is if you turn these tools off you crash your economy because these tools are dual use, and it’s very, very hard for a government to withdraw itself from the Internet entirely without suffering severe economic consequences.

One of the things that I’ve been advising to activists for years is to try to use these tools for completely trivial purposes, as well as for serious purposes. That is something that I’ve called the cute cat theory, which is to say that it’s a real expensive thing for governments to shut down Facebook if people are using it mostly to share cute pictures of cats.

If they’re only using it for political revolution, then it’s actually pretty easy for a dictator to shut it down. But anything that is a dual-use technology, whether it’s dual use in keeping your economy running or dual use in allowing people to have sort of silly and fun uses for it, that’s a much harder technology to take offline in the case of an activist movement.

Final words on Internet Utopia vs. Dystopia

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: It could be dystopian, it could be utopian. The point isn’t whether it’s one thing or another. We only really invented the consumer Internet that we’re all talkin’ about in the last 15 or 20 years. There are people in this room who probably were involved with inventing it very early on. We’ve had less than two decades to wire this thing to be the way it is. The question we should be asking is how to make it less dystopian and more utopian. That’s a worthwhile question.
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