Last month, I attended the Media, Power & Revolution: Making the 21st Century which took place on 2, 3, 4 April 2012 at the Senate House in London.The event was organised by the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre (Programme).
In the opening address on Day 1, James Curran gave some interesting statistics about the role of the internet in politics. For instance, he noted how people still largely rely on television for news information – 79% of UK readers have never read a blog and only 24% of Egyptian population actually have internet connection. Therefore the “transformative and regenerative myths” about the internet as he called them don’t correspond to what actually happens – that is, myths about the surge of innovation and growth that e-commerce was expected to bring about between 1995 and 2000. Curran argued that actually the internet did not prove to be a fountain of wealth, despite the new vocabulary (e.g. “data warehousing”) that was invented at the time, precisely because news conglomerates continue to dominate the market. I liked the parallel Curran drew between the use of capital “I” for the “internet” with the use of capital “P” for “press” by the Victorians (and subsequent decline of capitalisation).
In the panel Subversive Power of the Internet, Anne Alexander (CRASSH, University of Cambridge) talked about How the Egyptian Workers’ Movement Liberated the Internet, presenting some case studies from the 2011 Revolution. She emphasised how the Egyptian revolution has its roots in the organised workers’ movement – which had previously manifested its collective agency during the 2006 generalised strikes in the country (and led to the strikes ban). Alexander argued against adopting tech deterministic approaches to the internet and the Egyptian revolution. In the case of doctors participating in the 2011 mobilisation across the country, she suggested that YouTube clips, Facebook groups and other use of social media can rather be understood as counter-narratives of the events and as ways to establish an authoritative voice.
Annabelle Sreberny (SOAS) gave a Brief history of Iranian activism, as evidence towards the theorisation of internet politics and particularly as a project of de-westernisation of internet studies. She argued that we need rich studies for that; studies which are both optimistic and pessimistic about the role of the internet in political engagement; and studies which span both online and offline. Her focus was on political ephemera (cassettes, leaflets, stencils and posters) which served as key revolutionary tools in the 1979 Iranian revolution. She stressed that today the Iranian diaspora plays a central role in Iranian politics of dissent (see my previous blog on Iranian bloggers).
Gholam Khiabany (University of Sussex) in Comparing Arab Revolutions and the Iranian Uprising drew an important distinction between revolution and coup, in relation to Farouk’s overthrow and the Iranian revolution in 1979. The major similarities between the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Iran for Khiabany were that, primarily all three targeted dictatorships and secondly, that all three involved the use of network media.I found interesting Khiabany’s explanation of how the Arab revolutions today and the 1979 Iranian revolution also implicate the role of the US in the rise and fall of dictatorships in the region – particularly in the context of oil resources, tourism and the Cold war – but also the role of Islamic groups.