It has become fashionable for many Western journalists and academics to enthusiastically endorse the idea that digital media and the internet are facilitating a praiseworthy grassroots-driven activism across the globe. Mobile phones, social media and You Tube are deemed to be tools making possible the spontaneous upwelling of pro-democratic agitation. Within this logic, digital media inherently becomes an agent of positive social change. More importantly, within this logic, digital media become associated with spontaneous grassroots activism – wherein ordinary people are now empowered to change their world for the better. One example of such a boosterist endorsement of digital media was the narrative constructed by Western journalists to eulogize the Arab Spring.
The question is – should we not be more circumspect in our thinking? Should we not be asking some critical questions about who is using social media, mobile phones and other forms of digital media as political tools? Just because interactive digital media looks like it produces bottom-up grassroots communication does not mean this communication is actually as innocent as it looks.
With this in mind, I invite readers to view the list of YouTube videos posted here. These videos reveal that the so-called spontaneous use of digital media by grassroots activists during the Arab Spring may actually encode agendas that are not at first apparent. In particular, there is a need to recognize that as with all media platforms, interactive digital media forms are also susceptible to being used as weapons by large political actors who mobilize surrogate warfare as tools of their foreign policy.
Surrogate warfare Obama-style
The videos show that Obama’s State Department is displaying considerable creativity in developing and deploying a new variety of surrogate warfare – one that has incorporated the use of digital media, mobile phone technology, and social media as new weapons of warfare.
As with earlier (Cold War) US-surrogate actions, the Obama-administration still seeks out political players who can be adopted as allies and partners. These partners are then turned into political actors of value to US foreign policy goals by providing them with training and resources that makes them more politically effective.
A key moment in the development of Obama-era USA-surrogacy came in November 2008 when the US State Department announced at a Press Conference that it was launching a new partnership called the Alliance of Youth Movements. The State Department partnered with Google, Facebook, YouTube, MTV, Howcast, CNN, NBC, MTV and the Columbia Law School to ‘bring together global youth groups and tech experts to find the best ways to use digital media to promote freedom and justice, [and] counter violence, extremism and oppression’ (US Department of State, 2008). The resultant Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) brought leaders from 17 organizations based in 15 countries to New York in December 2008 where they were exposed to US technology experts, media players and Obama consultants who showed them how to use media as political tools.
Within this emergent Alliance the role of Howcast was especially important in generating the new wave of surrogacy driven from Washington because Howcast is an online company that makes and hosts “how to videos” (Bratich, 2011: 626). What AYM has been teaching America’s new youthful partners is how to use social media to build political organizations, mobilize crowds, and build insurgent movements. One of the outcomes of the 2008 summit was an online ‘How-to’ Hub which hosted a series of videos on How to create Grassroots Movement Using Social Networking Sites; How to Smart Mob; and How to Circumvent an Internet Proxy (Bratich, 2011: 627). Importantly, AYM also teaches its youthful activists how to make videos geared to stirring Western publics into a state of indignation (see examples below) – in effect to produce video material that global news media like CNN and BBC can use to help build a mood for action against those the USA deems to be tyrants. Such videos have become an important feature of the Syrian conflict.
Videos and social media as weapons in Syria
One example of an NGO that has learned to use videos, You Tube, Facebook and Twitter as weapons is the Syrian Free Press. The Syrian Free Press has clearly learned that if you make videos that Western journalists find newsworthy, and post them to the Web, your material is likely to get picked and used by news media around the world. Some of these videos have clearly been made using mobile phones. Effectively the Syrian Free Press have learned the art of Public Relations (PR) and spin doctoring, and have successfully deployed this understanding of PR to distribute anti-regime messages via You Tube, Facebook and Twitter. The way in which the Syrian Free Press has successfully used a range of digital media to distribute its media releases is instructive of how easy it has become for political activists with an understanding of both digital media and PR techniques to get their messages out to global news media.
And what we have witnessed during the Arab Spring in general and the Syrian conflict in particular is that many mainstream media organizations have been all too willing to use the material posted to the Web by political activists, NGOs and citizen journalists often without verifying its contents. Without doubt the easy availability of such material on the Web has impacted on how journalists now report conflicts. But it is changing more than the nature of global news, it is also changing how struggles can be conceptualized by both political activists and the large global powers who are seeking ways to overthrow regimes of which they disapprove.
Bratich, J. (2011) User-Generated Discontent, Cultural Studies, 25 (4-5)
US Department. of State (2008) Press Release on Alliance of Youth Movements Summit, December 3-5.
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