In this week's Social Power reading, "Media and Globalization," van Ham says media can be used to create social power in two ways. The first is governments attempting to manage their own information space and the second is the media's ability to shape policy discussions and affect other actors' media space.
We have seen this occur quite often in the past few weeks. In the uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Iran and Libya, the governments attempted to shut off communication with the outside world by turning off the internet, television and cell phone services. They also attempted to reshape the discussion in their favor through state broadcasts reasserting their power and/or blaming outside actors for the uprisings. In the past this may have been successful as the avenues for communication were much fewer than they are now, radio, land line phones and television. However with the telecommunications explosion it has been nearly impossible to do this. In the case of Egypt and Bahrain foreign journalists were able to broadcast from those countries and therefore provided a counter voice to the governments' messages. These sources, such as CNN, the BBC and others were particularly influential as they have established credibility, which van Ham says is vital for building social power. In countries journalists have had a difficult time gaining entry into, people have still managed to find ways to get to the dissenters. Al Jazeera has been calling protesters in Libya on their land lines and asking them to give reports of what is happening around them. These reports are posted online and shared by millions around the world.
In addition, the governments themselves, or rather the autocratic rulers in particular, did themselves no favors with their messages. Mubarak's much anticipated speech on February 10, was deemed "The Worst Speech Ever," by Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch (aka abu aardvark). Mubarak had been expected to announce his resignation and when he did not, offering only self-praise and vague promises of change, it further ignited protesters' anger and led to his eventual ouster.
Unfortunately, it seems Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, may have staked a new claim on "worst speech ever," when on Monday he warned that his father's government would "fight to the last minute, until the last bullet," and said that if protests did not stop the country would descend into civil war and "rivers of blood will run through Libya." Gaddafi himself, appeared on state TV for a whole 24 seconds to refute claims that he had fled for Venezuela, insisting he was still in Tripoli, but could not address the protesters in person due to rain (right....).
While these leaders have been trying to shape the international discussion regarding the protests, their efforts have clearly failed. They have lost all credibility, in part due to years of reports of their brutal rules and now strengthened by the serious conflicting stories told by the protesters. Egypt and Libya's dictators have not kept up with the technological revolution and public diplomacy practices, which could have (before the abuses, torture and massacres of their own people) reshaped the public discourse in their favor.
China on the other hand, seems to be doing a great job in its technological and public diplomacy campaigns. It has managed to block potentially "dangerous" sites like Facebook and YouTube, shut down dissenters' networks and re-frame it self in a more favorable light. How this is, I'm not sure, as they prevented Liu Xiaobo from receiving his Nobel Peace Prize in person, continue to forcefully occupy Tibet, still won't acknowledge the massacre of possibly thousands of protesters in Tiananmen Square and abuse human rights in general. Of course there are many who are openly critical of China throughout the world, however, China's leadership scarcely seems to come under they same kind of scrutiny in the public eye as similar regimes elsewhere in the world. So what is the secret to China's success and what can other autocratic governments learn from them (this sentence sounds much more sarcastic in my head)?