History books vs YouTube: Democratization and the Arab Spring

Posted on 19 March 2012 by

Abandoned Fax Machine (cc) Abhisek Sarda

The official narrative’s toughest competitor is now YouTube.

Reports of horror have been coming in from Homs, Syria. Last year in Deraa (Syria also), a family was returned the horrifyingly mutilated body of their 13 year-old child. Children had playfully scribbled “the people desire the downfall of the regime” on a wall, and were immediately rounded up by the authorities. During their long disappearance, when parents asked news of their children, they were told to go “make some more [children]”. ‘Child Martyr’ Hamza Ali el-Khateeb’s body was eventually returned bruised, burnt, riddled with bullets, and other unmentionable atrocities. His parents posted a video of the horror on YouTube.

In the past, it was very much the case that history was written by the victors. The history books and official newspapers primarily reflected one point of view and the victims’ accounts disappeared. Today, YouTube and easily-duplicated digital records are standing neck-to-neck with these official narratives; multiple accounts will live on.

Governments clearly sense this. On January 28, 2011, the Egyptian government shut down the country’s internet access down to a single cable to keep the Cairo stock exchange running.  The whole country and its activists were disconnected. However a group of cyberactivists called Telecomix engineered a parallel access solution using analog fax machines and telephone landlines. 50 or so activists were hooked up this way, and information was once again able to flow out of Egypt. This information was able not only to help activists organize on the ground, but also to impact citizens and voters around the world.

If Tunisian author Tahir Ben Jelloun is correct, the Arab Spring is also seeing the emergence of ‘the individual’. He argues that whereas in the past, Arab society focused on the clan, the tribe, the family at the expense of the individual, that now the Arab individual is being born and will ultimately prevail in the social fabric. What is key is that the individual is the basis of democracy, where one individual is one vote, and one vote can determine an election’s outcome.

YouTube, as well as other digital activism tools, can influence faraway voters in a country’s election as they assess the candidates’ ability to respond to human rights crises and violations. Sadly, at the same time, we hear political analysts explain that world leaders turning a blind eye in Syria is directly tied to this being a big election year – in Russia, the US, France, Mexico, Venezuela and many others.

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