In my previous post for Idea Lab, I began examining how new media has and hasn’t proven effective in helping push political change in countries around the world. That was in advance of the “New Media: Alternative Politics” conference at the University of Cambridge. This post follows after my participation in the conference.

What qualifies as new media?

After all, what’s new today is old by tomorrow. And, as Firoze Manji, founder of Pambuzuka News, said at the New Media: Alternative Politics conference held recently at Cambridge, is it really new or is just old wine repackaged in new bottles?

For me, the definition that seems most appropriate for new media — and that seems to set it apart — is to call them connective, interactive technologies that are bidirectional, dialectic and conversational, such as web 2.0 applications and new mobile technologies. In comparison, traditional “older” forms of media primarily use linear and one-way communication.

The difference between new and old media has led to a lot of optimism for new media as a new, golden solution for activists. As evidenced by presentations at the conference, this requires a more sober assessment. The link between online and offline action is not always apparent and there are other challenges, including issues around authenticity and validity. On the other side of the coin, the benefits of new media for activism include virtual public platforms for alternative or on-the-ground voices and an enhanced ability to connect, organize and ideally implement collective action.

Redefining Citizenship

However, we need to separate the technologies from the content and information being communicated. Technologies are merely the medium for delivery. It’s the people behind the new media tools who drive change — their passion, commitment, intent and purpose. They create the message and how effectively the technologies are used to convey this information. A tool is just a tool, whether a pencil, newspaper or mobile phone. It can be used to amplify both positive and negative messages, both successfully and unsuccessfully.

For good or bad, perhaps one of the greatest impacts of new media is the re-defining of citizenship. There is a move towards citizens having dual citizenship in the virtual and the real world. In this new media space, leaders are selected rather than elected and citizens feel empowered to create change, particularly in subversive environments.

It’s no coincidence that web use is so important in countries with repressive political regimes, such as China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. As Manji said, “war has many terrains.” The ammunition for new media users is information. Historically, power and information have always been closely aligned. As researcher and conference presenter Paolo d’Urbano explained, Victorian England controlled India through information domination.

In today’s new media battle ground, state and non-state players battle it out. Controversial websites are under cyber-attack, hackers and spies spread misinformation or fake videos, airwaves and signals are jammed, government or advertisers place pressure on service providers to control content, services are banned, and/or licenses are required as a means of state control.

Middle East

This is particularly notable in the Middle East. Researcher Adi Kuntsman has traced the digital warfare between the Palestinian state and Israel. It has included heavy state and individual investment in new media by both sides. These tools are used to document events as they unfold, provide a critique of the war and offer a powerful alternative to both mirror and intensify the war on the ground. Fanar Haddad, who researched how the Iraq war was documented on YouTube, argued that, despite the challenges of contextualizing and authenticating the data, the combination of mobile phone camera and YouTube has provided a podium for minorities to offer “counter-narratives” from “everyday events in conflict stricken areas.”

Alexander Dunn researched the April 6th Youth Movement Group on Facebook. He found that the online group members created momentum, coordinated responses and satellite activities after the general strike in Egypt in 2008. For the 0.5 percent who were active members, the group was a means to communicate and get involved. Even though 99.5 percent of the members formed an inactive audience, just joining the group was an act of solidarity. Some would criticize this type of activism as “slacktivism,” as all that was required of the members was to click join. But change politics has never been about 100 percent participation. Despite the group being heavily skewed in terms of levels of participation, political action was successfully mobilized through new media.

Martin Gladwell in his recent article Small Change – Why the revolution will not be tweeted, argued that “if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy.” But despite this group’s loose ties and flat network-based structure, leadership naturally and successfully shifted when certain active members were involved with on the ground activity. Other previously non-active members stepped up to fill the leadership vacuum and the group continued “acting in concert with the intent of reforming the repressive offline political sphere in Egypt,” Dunnsaid. That helps explain why the Egyptian government seems threatened by new media. Recent legislation in the country requires licenses for organizations that send bulk text messages, and there is speculation that Facebook may be shut down temporarily during the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for this month.

Africa

In Africa, the power of new media is limited by access. Ten percent of Africans have access to the Internet, but when you remove countries like South Africa, Egypt and Algeria, the average Internet penetration rate is only two to three percent. The penetration rate of mobile technology is rapidly increasing, however. But penetration rates are very different to usage rates, as owning a mobile phone is very different from being able to afford to use it.

Despite these challenges, there are definitely some new media success stories in Africa. Mxit in South Africa has managed to overcome cost barriers by providing a free instant messaging service, and the results have included more messages sent per day on Mxit than there are global tweets.

In Nigeria, there are over two million people on Facebook, mainly via their mobile phones. Civilians report street stories to Sahara Reporters in an attempt to fight political corruption. Our project in Zimbabwe, Freedom Fone, is a mobile tool that bridges the digital divide. It has been developed to enable two-way audio information to be shared through mobile phone networks for people that do not have access to the Internet.

New media tools are not perfect. Tools are just tools, and when it comes down to it, motivated activists will use whatever they can get their hands on. But when citizens have access to these empowering new media tools, they are using them strategically, effectively and with discipline and success for the purpose of political change.