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Unresolved Foreign Policy issues, twitter memes and the moderate majority.

“One thing we do know about the internet is that it ultimately amplifies the voices at the extremes.”

- Alec J Ross - Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -

Something about Alec J Ross’s statement irks me. After all, Jeff Jarvis did say:  “Technology is agnostic”, so why wouldn’t the Internet also amplify moderate voices? If the so-called silent majority were to be prompted to focus on one important issue and their opinions be echoed online, wouldn’t the sheer volume of those voices push back radicals to the fringes, thus moderating the narrative? Why would the resulting dialogue be sectarian? Wouldn’t it rather pull people together, comforted by the fact that their opinions can be publicly shared and rationally debated? Extrapolating on the stance of the U.S State Department Official, Social Media is for Al Qaeda and über-agnostics?

Internet doesn’t amplify the voices at the extremes. Neither does social media.


One could argue that it all began when political dissent pushed towards democracy during the Arab Spring uprisings . These movements were not solely led by veteran activists but also by ordinary citizens. The hitherto silent masses loosened their vocal chords, grabbed the www.mike and began their war-cry: "Ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām"  (the people want to bring down the regime) - and that's exactly what they did. 18 months later, academics such as David Faris put forward the argument that the revolutions were not "made" by social media or the Internet, but facilitated and accelerated by real-time networking and collaboration. Being interconnected to likeminded individuals conferred a certain sense of personal empowerment. Strength in numbers or a "Yes We Can" attitude which, thanks to a common victory, is now known to be shared by most.


Where M. Ross may be right though, is in that post-upheaval transition periods are tricky - before and after elections. Factors of division must be avoided. A transition period may be prone to infighting as power shifts to other groups. This generality, however, is true with or without the Internet. Again, technology is agnostic and the online voices are the same which lead or drown in general debate. Actually, the Internet may not even have played such a big part in these pre-democratic discussions. Conveyed by sources on the ground in Tunisia and Libya: Opinions were shaped in the real world, not online. Whatever "all things Internet" may be dividing the pre-vote country they didn't have a major impact on the outcome of the democratic process. Social Media did, however, contribute positively in fact-checking, organizing and problem solving during the campaign. In Libya for exemple, no process had been created concerning overseas national registration or campaigning. A group of activists came together on Facebook to connect with the diaspora and resolve the issue. Individuals on twitter also played a large part in broadcasting disruptions in polling stations as well as monitoring the ballot count - all in real-time. After the Libya elections, citizens proudly shared their blue digit or the triumphant smile of an elderly relative on Facebook.

Internet Amplifying extremes in the Muslim World?

In the course of the last months, Heads of State have been elected in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and nominally Yemen. Representatives kept more or less busy rebuilding economies, infrastructure, and navigating treacherous political landscapes. Then came the "Innocence of Muslims" debacle, probably the single largest incident to have rocked the Muslim world since the Arab Spring. In essence it is an obscure 14 minute trailer of a ghost movie posted on Youtube. The viscious brainchild of a right-wing extremist Egyptian Coptic Christian, produced in the United States, translated into Arabic and broadcast on the 9th of September in an audience grabbing stunt by Egyptian radical TV Host, Sheikh Khaled Abdullah who seems to bear a grudge against the Muslim Brotherhood. Yes, this could have been one of these "all things Internet" which "played a role in further dividing a country" by stirring up Copt/Muslim tensions. It wasn't though, because left online it remained unviral for months, discarded and ignored for what online voices of reason rightly saw in it: a piece of garbage. It didn't split up Egypt either. Actually, apart from bits of the the U.S. Embassy and some egos, the country still stands united, especially in the belief that this is all a very bad scenario. It did take a big swipe at U.S/Egyptian relations, revealing tensions especially after President Morsi received a blunt phone call from President Obama to finally condone the attacks on his State's mission. It also raised the question on whether the Salafi funded TV channels, whose mission it is to radicalise, were elbowing out a little too much of national air-waves for such an ultra group. They are certainly enjoying a new popularity in a Free Speech environment. Under the Mubarak regime, these channels were highly monitored by ERTU, even periodically shut down by NileSat. Happy to have jeopardised the $4.8Bn+ IMF loan they considered "would not gain God's blessing" and surfing the wave of international notoriety for instigating massive global protests, and even though they are being sued by Human Rights activist Amr Emam, Egyptian Salafi leaders of the Dawa and Nour parties are planning to produce a documentary on the life of the prophet.

It's an neatly packaged smokescreen to claim that the movie is the cause of the violence when in reality the underlying reason for storming US missions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Sudan and Yemen seems to be an amalgamation of some form of tirade between the masterminds of the Embassy attacks and their national leaders, all this exasperated by years of litigious U.S. policy. These aggressions, which in the past could pass as "Acts of War", were tailor-made to leverage so-called ideological purity for local power all the whilst "chasing" the "infidel crusaders" from their homelands. Two birds, one stone. The security breach in Sana'a's ultra fortified U.S. Embassy was allegedly facilitated by sympathetic Central Security Forces led by Saleh loyalists. In both countries where elections were won (in a nutshell) on a religious platform, Tunisia and Egypt, the rioters apparently targeted the Embassy to prove to the country and its leaders that their brand of faith is real - that they, and only they, are the true defenders of Islam. The most vicious attack on a diplomatic mission occurred in Libya killing the well regarded U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, along with 3 other diplomatic staff and eleven Libyan nationals. In the name of staying relevant in a democracy, similar (same?) radical groups had already RPGed hairdressers and illegally destroyed Sufi shrines. This time, what seemed to be a small, determined group, perhaps even related to AQIM, drew blood on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers. It must not be easy for these enlightened believers to roll into democracy, to play by the rules of the ignorant, silenced majority and put down their weapons when claiming to be at war with liberals. Clearly they got Freedom of Speech mixed up with impunity and anarchy.

Amplifying extremes in the United States

In the following days, Tunisia's Hamadi Jebali, Yemen's Hadi and Libya's newly elected Mustafa Abushagur, condoned the attacks firmly. Egypt's Mursi did not, prompting the U.S administration to label his government neither friend nor foe. Libyan social media groups were brimming with condolences and messages of sympathy. Whichever  english speaking TV channel you switched on, the screen panned from crazed protestors to baffled guests who explained time and time again: Yes, the movie was horrid and pushed the limits of Free Speech, but nothing justifies this senseless wrecking washing over Lebanon, Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen and others. "This is not Islam". But the cameras stayed focused on dwindling mobs.

After Fox News and the Washington Post, and in a similar trolling effort as Egypt's Khaled Abdullah, editor Tina Brown delivered what seems to be a last ditch effort to run with the story before it goes flat. The print edition of Newsweek featured what they believed to be "Muslim Rage", a contextless image of an angry group of two bearded (hence Arab) men. Baffled by the choice of this cover, Egyptian Ashraf Khalil explained: "The sheer rage on display was somewhat curious since half the protesters seemed to be busy explaining to the other half just what they were all so upset about." and Rob Crilly of the Telegraph: "It could be a picture of two men who have just watched their football team go behind."  Controversial former-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali penned the cover story, and the ensemble received a global booing. It could have ended there, if the person manning the Newsweek twitter account hadn't been oblivious of the already ongoing backlash. The tweet read: "Want to discuss our lates cover? Let's hear it with the hashtag: #MuslimRage"

"Talking about the relevance of magazine cover images feels comparable to mentioning that a newspaper story was “above the fold”

Clearly, Social Media played no part in amplifying the voice of the radical fringe. Purpose driven mainstream media did: In the west, a failing magazine pandered to ancient fears to troll for readers. In Egypt, a radical TV show host found his ticket to fame.

Today the french satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published new cartoons of the prophet. France immediately dispatched extra security to the magazine's headquarters and closed schools and cultural mission in Egypt and Tunisia. France knows the drill as this is not the first time the magazine has targeted radical Islam. Arun With A View blogged a collection of satirical covers and last year they even had the Prophet co-edit an edition, rebaptised "Sharia Hebdo". The magazine had their officies in Paris firebombed for it. So where are the global Muslim protestors now? Adam Baron and Iona Craig, both reporters in Sana'a tweeted about potential anti-cartoon protests, but nobody showed up.

Obviously these cartoons are offensive. Obviously this was a renewed gratuitous provocation in the middle of an already explosive environment. However, the reaction of the Muslim world seems remarkably more appropriate. Sure, Heads of State and the Arab League asked for a peaceful response to the french cartoons, but it seems that France might be less relevant in local powerplay than the United States.

Social media is people. A lot of them.

Having had to recruit for, organise and publicise cross border operations for decades the more radical groups of Islamists have been mastering the art of digital communications over two decades, giving them a significant head-start in usage, content and connectivity. This may be the reason why on the Internet, radical fringes seem louder than the majority of moderates, that and the fact that U.S. State Agencies are focusing very hard on that radical fringe. For the moment. The United States, and indeed any country which has unresolved foreign policy issues with the Middle East should be very, very afraid of social media. Voicing personal opinions online is a recent occurrence in these countries in transition, but as the Arab Spring has shown: their young demographics facilitate new media adoption. Internet is a neutral outlet for expressing views. It's not a reach to imagine these moderate masses mobilizing online to denounce injustices soon.

But for now, worried about the propagation of violence, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan implemented Web site blackouts for those hosting the "Innocence of Muslims" trailer, effectively amputating one of the rare channels of expression for moderates: Internet. Most articles featuring condemnation of the movie also feature a link to it, restricting acces to like-minded communities. Also, contrary to voicing opinions in the street, Interent allows moderates to stand up to religious terror without being physically harmed.

The fact is, violent U.S. Embassy protestors only made up a small subset of people offended by "The Innocence of Muslims" and the Newsweek tweet seemed to have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. After a week of disillusions and general sadness, enough was enough. Tired of being portrayed as an angry mob, they took to their keyboards and let the world know that they thought. Humor is a sign of humanity. In a general outpouring of ridicule, the english speaking Muslim community latched on to the twitter hashtag #MuslimRage and unleashed a flood of oneliners on anecdotic inconveniences of being Muslim. In an interview, the American Islamic Congress's Director of Civil Rights Outreach, Nasser Weddady, said when asked "how do you counter the influence of a small minority?": "What is lacking is the funding and the resources to allow these people (enlightened and liberal Arabs) to mouth responses."

The #MuslimRage epiphenomenon seemed a small thing but don't let the giggles fool you. In the Vancouver Observer, Massoud Hayoun speaks of "The Beginning of the North American Rennaissance". I'm going to take this statement as global as the twitter trend map proved it to be. #MuslimRage embodies the birth of a credible voice that is about to grow fast: That of the enlightened Muslim majority.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I don't know that this comment that (0+ / 0-)

    troubles you so is so off; certainly the internet amplifies voices at the extreme in direct opposition to the way that mass media tends to mute and down-right exclude them (or paraphrase and misshape them).

    Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

    by a gilas girl on Wed Sep 19, 2012 at 04:27:32 PM PDT

    •  erm (0+ / 0-)

      I think that I pretty much explained why Alec J Ross's comment bugs me in the rest of the post....
      I think in the case of the US Embassy attacks, the main stream media amplified voices of the extremes, and social media toned down the debate.

  •  the answer everyone's looking for... (0+ / 0-)

    .... but I haven't seen reported anywhere yet:


    Who are these violent mobs?  They're people who are basically uneducated, who are barely literate, and being whipped up into a violent frenzy by the Muslim equivalent of the rabid religious right preachers in the US.

    But educated Muslims the world around, including those who have completed high school, have condemned the bigoted video peacefully, with strong language rather than rocks and bombs and bullets.  

    It's the same everywhere.

    Look at who the violent bigots and violent racists are in the US:  typically people who are barely literate, perhaps just literate enough to get online and get their hatreds reinforced by cunning manipulators in our own society.  

    Education is the CURE for that shit.

    Whether in America or Libya or Egypt or wherever.  And whatever religion and whatever culture.  

    The answer to ALL of this is more and better education for the masses, globally.  

    "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

    by G2geek on Wed Sep 19, 2012 at 05:13:46 PM PDT

    •  I wish (0+ / 0-)

      .. that education were the cure for everything, but look, if in the US, college educated men and women can come up with BS like the Newsweek cover and article, then, no, education isn't the answer to everything.
      There will always be fanatics, and people on a mission.

      The point of this post is to highlight how a democratic tool such as Internet could play a larger part in moderating the debate....
      And unfortunately, US State Department thinks it does the opposite.

  •  we have to remember revolutions are not (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    linear.  The French Revolution took a detour on its path to democracy to establish the Napoleonic empire after overthrowing the Bourbons.  In the short term, they traded a king for an emperor but after a period of evolution, false starts and dead ends, they ultimately achieved a form of democracy or republic, albeit flawed versions in the application

    Revolutions are not neat and are messier than omelets so it is only reasonable to expect a lot of eggs will be broken on the way to a free society in many countries.  However, even with the bumpy road ahead, this is still preferable in the long run to trying to maintain the status quo

    •  Agreed (0+ / 0-)

      This is indeed a bump in the road, and a valuable situation we can learn from, not only in the MENA, but also in our "western" (hate the term) lands.
      I didn't have the energy to include a paragraphe on how more effort is put into eradicating radicalism in MENA than it is back home ... which is one of those quirks of policy making... but I do believe that we will need to address the issue of our homegrown loons.

      I'm French, and I know that democracy is a work in progress...

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