Monday, November 7, 2011

Hopes & Fears -London Conference on Cyberspace

I recently spoke at the London Conference on Cyberspace in a session entitled Hopes and Fears.  Here is a copy of the speech  I gave.

A while back, I stood in front of an armored vehicle and snapped a photo while my hand was shaking, and since then, I thought to myself, nothing will ever make me feel intimidated again.  But today, being part of this distinguished panel, I realize that is not true. 
As a blogger, researcher and activist I heavily rely on internet on a daily basis, especially since the start of the peaceful resistance movement.

I will try to summarize how social media has helped us in Yemen and in the region.
Breaking the fear & silence: living under constant fear of speaking out, there is something comforting about being behind a computer screen.  It gives a false sense of security, but enables more people to be vocal.  A professor of mine took the class once to a computer lab, and we had the same discussions we usually have inside the classroom, but in the computer lab, behind the computer screens, more people joined the discussion.  This is just one example of the psychology of being behind the computer screen.

Organizing: While the bulk of mobilization efforts in Yemen happens through word of mouth, radio, brochures and SMS services; sites such as facebook helped in organizing events on the ground.  The social and political listserves & the facebook groups on various topics, helped people meet each other from different parts of the country.  It connected people with similar interests that otherwise would have never met.  Groups were created based on different interests to discuss ways to solve many prevailing issues in the country.  During the revolution, these groups, some of which are closed groups were the hub of organizing for next day’s marches.
Spreading news: Due to lack of independent media in Yemen, where both political opposition and government media lack credibility, new media has become a valuable source of information for news.  Twitter has also become a very important source of information for spreading information to the world minute by minute.  This became even more importance since Yemen has few foreign journalists.  Twitter became a link to the outside world.  In addition, due to the lack of independent media, social media sites became valuable source of information for news.  Many bloggers felt that their role should be to provide an objective source of information for citizens and the world.

Documenting human rights violations: technology has enabled activists to better document violations and helped spread them instantaneously through live streaming, use of mobiles to photograph and videotape events, and then sending them to human rights organizations throughout the world.
Global solidarity: the online world has become an arena of global solidarity.  When I received an e-threat once on my youtube account, I took a screen shot of the threat, and posted it on twitter.  Two hours later, the person who threatened me had received numerous complaints on his/her youtube page, by people I didn’t even know.  Two days later, that person shut his/her youtube channel. 

The internet has also helped bridge the gap between the “east” and the “west”, making us all realize how close we are as human beings, and how much we have in common.
Learning and knowledge sharing: In the past, everything was controlled by government, with the introduction of internet, no one has control over what we can read, and watch.  Internet is a sea of information, that allows us to fish anything we want and at anytime.  No longer can governments block our right to access that information. 

In addition, the internet has transformed the way we do research.  How many of us open google or Wikipedia immediately when starting a research?   In countries with few libraries, the internet provides an opportunity for us to navigate mass information from our own home.  It also gives us the opportunity to visit worldwide art galleries from the comfort of our home.  Those who would like to study abroad but can not afford it, can no enroll in e-learning classrooms.
Now, I am not one to say that facebook or twitter created the revolutions that swept the Arab world.  We have been calling for change for a long time.  People are the agents of change, and the internet is one tool out of many tools such as radio and SMS that can help.  

To give you an example, if you need to go to work, you can walk, but it might take you a long time.  Now if you were given a fast car, a sports car, and also had some techno or fast music in the car, you would get there much faster, and people all around will hear the blasting music.  That is how social media and internet has helped, by accelerating the process, not by creating the change.

Of course there are many challenges to the internet.

  • The urban/rural digital divide, enhanced by the illiteracy rates means that those in the main cities have full advantage of what the internet has to offer, while those in rural areas do not receive all the benefits. 
  • Language barrier is also present.   Those who speak English have more access to what is online than others.
  • Security issues are of course of concern to those activists because many of these new technologies that help in spreading information, also help in tracking individuals.  For example, live streaming is great for documenting violations, but it also gives the exact location of the person recording the video.
  • There is a lack of infrastructure needed for fast internet in developing countries, which needs to be enhanced for citizens to be able to utilize the internet.
  • There is also a fear that internet would pushing activists from being solely on the ground grassroots activists to activists only behind computer screens.

Despite these fears and chanllegnes, I believe that the internet is a tremendous technology that has not yet been used to its fullest potential. I also believe that the benefits outweigh the challenges. Every new technology has challenges, but I have faith that our human race will continue to develop and improve this technology to the benefit of humanity and freedom everywhere.

Thank you.


clemen said...

Hello, I want to know if I can ask you some questions about the movement in Yemen... I'm doing a reseach about it, and your opinion could be very helpful... I´m from Mexico, if you can give a mail to explain you, I would appreciate it ...


Damian said...

Great talk, Atiaf! Well done. This Friday I am participating in a forum discussing internet and social media in Syria - I hope to blog about it and include a comparison between Syria and your comments about Yemen.