Social networks a deadly political tool

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"I\’m not a big fan of young kids having Facebook. It\’s not something they need", so says Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States, explaining why her world-famous daughters will not be getting social networking accounts any time soon.

Mrs Obama\’s remarks were quoted in the Perspectives Scope section in a recent edition of Newsweek magazine that had as its cover story an essay on the Egyptian uprising headlined, "Egypt: How Obama Blew It."

Both Mrs Obama\’s and Newsweek\’s remarks on diverse aspects of the social networking phenomenon raised eyebrows around the world. Many a parent received her words with a rueful shake of the head, for it takes a resourceful teenager barely 10 minutes to open a Facebook account and then keep quiet about it in perpetuity.

In other words, there are millions of unsuspecting parents around the world who have no idea that even their pre-teen children maintain Facebook and other networking accounts and are in touch with all manner of characters, including shady and dangerous ones.

The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East were relayed virtually live to the rest of the world by people posting mobile phone pictures via Twitter, the US-based microblogging service, Facebook, Skype, email and such search engines as Google.

As for President Obama having blown it over the recent and still unravelling Egyptian crisis, Newsweek\’s new special writer, Dr Niall Ferguson, author of Empires on the Edge of Chaos, among many other books, thundered: "There is no more damning indictment of the administration\’s strategic thinking than this: it never once considered a scenario in which Mubarak faced a popular revolt. … Yet no president can be expected to be omniscient. That is what advisers are for".

The ongoing wave of popular uprisings that have brought down some of the most entrenched regimes to be found anywhere on the face of the earth is characterised by two usually unrelated factors – the fact that hand-held ICTs are to be found everywhere and the element of surprise.

The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East were totally unexpected, even by the world\’s top and best-equipped intelligence agencies. Like the nasty little surprises Mrs Obama is trying to avoid by policing her girls\’ ICT use, the huge shockwaves detonated by the uprisings in the Arab nations gave little or no notice of their eruptions.

Dr Ferguson compares the diplomacy of the Obama Administration unfavourably with that of the Richard Nixon\’s, in which the famed Dr Henry Kissinger was the Secretary of State.  Says he: "The crucial thing about Kissinger as national-security adviser was not the speed with which he learned the dark arts of inter-departmental turf warfare. It was the skill with which he, in partnership with Richard Nixon, forged a grand strategy for the United States at a time of alarming geopolitical instability".

Dr Ferguson is convinced that Obama\’s America lacks a grand strategy in a new age of geopolitical instability and that the President is incapable of crafting it.

However, not many people are blaming Obama. The thoroughly interconnected world of everyday ICTs is still a brave new frontier for most people, entities, organisations and governments. The world has only recently emerged from a context in which the state had a near-monopoly control on all means of communications, the age of analogue, and into the Age of Digital. Today, even police – and other radio-call communications with their quaint code of Alfa, Bravo, Charlie (ABC), are surrounded by populations that are much better equipped with ICTs.

Among other things, this has come to mean that, not only are large segments of the population now better able to communicate with one another and to conduct online research on all manner of subjects and issues, but also that political movements are finally able to proceed without apparent leadership.

Neither the Tunisian nor the Egyptian and Libyan leadership actually had an icon, a Nelson Mandela or a Che Guevara. They are leaderless movements, a factor that is allowing the issues full play without being diverted or kidnapped by the selfish narratives of middle-men and figureheads. The closest thing that the Egyptian eruption had to a figurehead was Mr Wael Ghonim, who works for Google.

Ghonim\’s Facebook page was the online epicentre of the Egyptian uprising. This is how Newsweek described Ghonim\’s Facebook page: It "…quickly became a forceful campaign against police brutality in Egypt, with a constant stream of photos, videos, and news. Ghonim\’s interactive style, combined with the page\’s carefully calibrated posts – emotional, apolitical, and broad in their appeal – quickly turned it into one of Egypt\’s largest activist sites".

All sorts of experts – intelligence, communications, psychological, crowd control – are aghast at the power of social networking ICTs at the service of uprisings. Suddenly, governments and organisations the world over are asking themselves how far social media networks can challenge them. They are also asking the all-important question: "Who\’s next?"

Throughout North Africa and into the Middle East, the upheaval is being driven by poverty, high prices (particularly of food commodities), massive unemployment and undemocratic systems of government.

In bringing change to North Africa and the Middle East, the digital age and its social networking ICTs have proved that it can and will be key to bringing change to the rest of the world. ICTs are both creators of wealth and generators of prosperity – and now they are harbingers and accelerants of democracy, too.

The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenya email:emutua @information.go.ke

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