Monday, February 21, 2011

Dictator Media Fail

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)?


  1. Hey, Katie! I know you're not establishing a school for autocrats, but I think the "secret to China's success" is pretty straightforward: hard power. In terms of geography, population, economy and military power, China is pretty well situated. And, as plenty of people have pointed out before, there is a link between hard and soft power.

    Consider Clinton's efforts to hold China accountable for its human rights violations in the 1990s. Those efforts were protested by US businesses that started losing money as a result, and were eventually dropped.

    It's like Biff Tannen. Everyone knows he's a bully, but he gets away with it because he's big and intimidating. That's right. I just made a Back to the Future reference.

  2. I agree that it is "hard power," I think it's also "sticky power" (which is related to hard power), in that other countries now are dependent on China's resources and products. So obviously, no one wants to make China mad for fear that it might cut off trade relations. I'll have to admit I don't remember Clinton's attempts to hold China accountable for human rights violations (I'm going with the "I was too young" excuse), but that does demonstrate its hard/sticky power.

    It seems that this is also why Gaddafi has been able to hold onto power for so long. Libya has Africa's largest oil reserves. I've already heard many complaints/mentions of the uprising's effects and potential effects on oil/gas prices. I understand that the economy is already tanking and people are worried about loosing money, jobs and businesses, and those things are important, but it just seems callous when hundreds of people are being brutally killed by their own government.

    PS Love the BTTF reference. I tried to think of my own equally awesome pop culture reference, but its too early for me. I'll have to come back to it.