Posted by Joseph

You may well remember the fascination with which we watched the Barack Obama election campaign gather strength.  Much of it, especially its fundraising was attributed to the power of social media.  For once, American democracy chose a president who was not in the thrall of the military-industrial complex, and with massive debts to repay to ‘big money’ through presidential favours.

With almost equal fascination, we followed ‘Persian Kiwi’s’ twitter stream as events unfolded in the Iran failed uprising for democracy.

Now China and other monolithic governments regard with concern the domino effect of democracy fuelled by social media as it progresses to a nasty halt in Libya.  Will that be an end to it?  Have tanks and planes outgunned Web 2.0?

Since inflation and other irritants brought the growing educated middle-classes to Tiananmen Square to protest, the Chinese government has had sentries posted on the internet to detect and neutralise threats of a social network revolution. It seems they have every reason to be alert.  The people of Tunisia and then Egypt toppled despotic governments and rebels in Libya are being slaughtered – all possible due in part to the democratising impact of social media. 

When we set up the Centre for Social Media here at AUT, we did so with meagre resources but an idealistic vision of the democracy of the internet as its founders had planned.  We saw again the power of crowds in January 2010 when comedian commentator Conan O’Brien nearly toppled late night talk-show emperor, Jay Leno, from his swivel chair.

In brief, O’Brien left NBC in a huff and wrote a very public email to “People of the Earth” explaining his reasons.  As he did so, an unknown graphic artist was creating an image of O’Brien nicknamed “Coco”, as coined by Tom Hanks.  He published the image on a Facebook fan page he created, and via numerous tweets.

Meanwhile, the unsuspecting and unemployed O’Brien was persuaded by his team to use Twitter to promote a comedy tour he’d planned.  The show sold 120,000 tickets on its first day.  O’Brien now has his own show on TBS, watched by roughly 1.5 million viewers a night. His fan club ‘Team Coco’ delivers 8.7 million video streams a month.  There are over a million ‘I’m with Coco’ Facebook fans.  He has 2.3 million followers on Twitter and 2.7 video views per month on Youtube.

If that is what social media can do in support of an individual entertainer’s stand against a giant television company, we will watch with horrified interest to see what it can do in Libya.  Right now the ‘little guys’ there are being crushed, but you can be sure that other repressive governments in places like Myanmar and North Korea are also watching Colonel Gadaffi.  They will be especially interested to see if he is successful in turning social media into a propaganda weapon against those who sought to use it to assassinate his regime. 

Apparently, after the fall of Zuwarah, a Gadaffi functionary or supporter sent text and Twitter messages suggesting that other rebel towns give up.  News reports say those messages undermined the revolutionary movement, in the same way as social media had earlier bolstered the morale of the rebels.  Let’s wait and see, or follow #libya.

3/22/2011 07:22:36 pm

There is no rose without a thorn.

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