I was asked to serve as a guest speaker for the Movies that Matter on tour program. The program screens documentaries and films with a human rights theme.
On Thursday May 8th 2014, the documentary #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator was shown in Lumen, in the city of Delft. The documentary is about Ala’a Basatneh, a 19-year-old college freshman living in the suburbs of Chicago. She coordinates between protestors on the ground in Syria and social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, and provides footage to major news outlets.
To summarize my remarks:
I spoke first about the political communication system, and the three main actors in this system: political leaders, media, and citizens. This system is interesting to mention because it works over time and it applies to pretty much any political system around the world. How? The system allows for “forces of instability.” These include evolving technologies (like social media) and also the changing relationship between political leaders, the media and citizens.
#chicagoGirl is fascinating because it combines these two forces of instability. It talks about how technology is evolving, and it also shows how citizens like Ala’a Basatneh are speaking back. Let’s think about this. Traditional media used to be all about mass communication: one particular message sent to a large group of people. Now, the very structure of how we use media has changed. Ala’a is not only able to coordinate people in a global scale, but she can also make her own media, which is then picked up by traditional media and reaches a mass audience. There are many examples of this in the film regarding protest videos. The Syrian regime says this is an internal problem and they don’t want the rest of the world to know. Fortunately that is not possible anymore, and there are incredible activists working to get the story out so the world doesn’t forget.
There’s another interesting point to make here. We might think of social media as pretty much non-political: just a way to keep in touch with friends and family. Or maybe we see it as a commercial space, a place to attract us as consumers and also gather our data for marketing purposes. But these spaces have, like one speaker in the film put it, the “potential for democratic rebellion.” Like Ala’a says at the beginning of the film, “From my laptop I am running a revolution in Syria.”
Regular citizens are using social media in political ways, too. Just to give you all an idea, at least in the US context, a 2012 Pew Research survey found that those who use social media, especially Facebook, are more civically and politically active than non-users. Almost 40% of all Americans over the age of 18 have done at least one of eight civic or political activities with social media, such as “liking,” commenting on, or sharing materials relating to politics or social issues.
Now Ala’a is obviously doing much more than this, but it’s the willingness of other citizens to share her materials that creates a widespread impact. In the film they talk about how citizens are using social media instead of weapons, and I think that’s a great way to see it. They are making a difference without turning to violence.
The last thing I want to say also happens to be the final message of the film: The real social network is the person-to-person connection: it’s the people who bring the state down. Technology itself isn’t powerful. Rather, people are powerful if they are enabled. Technology is a neutral tool: it just helps citizens participate.
In conclusion, we have no excuse not to get politically active, now that we can see what can be accomplished with a mobile phone and a laptop.
Many political organizations, politicians and interest groups are anxious to learn how to best reach citizens online. I have researched how youth organizations (based in the United Kingdom) do so, both on their websites and then later on social media. It’s been interesting to gain insight into choices about web presence while keeping in mind how these organizations think about young people as citizens.
I looked at two types of organizations: both those connected to government, and those focused on single issues like the environment or animal rights. Whatever the focus, I found that all organizations subscribed to a similar web strategy. The overarching goal of web content was a wish to create engaged citizens. This was accomplished in two ways: First, web content was used to provide information to young visitors. Second, organizations pursued an “inform then involve” approach to get youth engaged and participating.