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Faceless Movements

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The social media -- Facebook, Twitter, and other "miracles" of this so-called Age of Information -- added to their fame by helping gather the great crowds that toppled the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, shook the palace of Bahrain's despot, ignited the uprising that overthrew Gaddafi, carried Syria to the brink of civil war, and shouted inconvenient truths at Wall Street's bankers and the rest of the 1 percent. These "leaderless, consensus-driven" movements have proven effective in mobilizing the masses against regimes and social injustice. While effectively bringing the masses off-line and into the streets, they fall short in offering long-term solutions and champions who will continue to promote sustainable change and ongoing civic engagement.

Facebook and Twitter bathed in accolade. Television talking heads announced the beginning of the umpteenth new era of the past decade. Social scientists scrambled for fellowships and scampered off to do polling and statistics. The country of origin and User Names of Facebook and Twitter may differ, but the strength and weakness of social media is the same.

In the political realm, social media has so far failed to become a platform for affecting anything beyond street-driven regime change from Egypt to the US. No one has figured out how for instance, to wield Facebook or Twitter effectively to help bring forth an idea-based political movement capable of organizing people on a street-by-street, precinct-by-precinct, district-by-district, region-by-region, state-by-state, nation-by-nation basis, and bringing forth leaders or political parties capable of managing countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, or Libya, much less the United States or Russia.

The excited demonstrators in Egypt have tended to drift back into their homes and routines, turning back to Facebook and Twitter, like their American counterparts, by collecting friends and "Tweeting" the drivel of the day. Participatory democracy in the Age of Information has turned out to be no more participatory than it ever was in states undergoing the transition from dictatorship and repression. Recovery from dictatorship takes time. Decades.

This has left the field open to people with money: candidates backed by big corporations, existing parties, the 1 percent, Islamic radicals, secret police mafias such as Putin's in Russia, and military officers.

Tunisia has had elections for a constituent assembly. Voters largely driven by a hunger for leaders who are not corrupt, voted for Ennahda, a party inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, that, for now anyway, promotes no backsliding on women's rights, including equal pay for equal work. It is up to the Tunisians to create the constitutional framework to support the watchdogs that will keep an eye on their leaders and ensure that the revolution that toppled the tyrant won't give way to imprisonment, torture, and execution.

In Egypt, the military is racing to grab the levers of power before the Islamic extremists who seized the opportunity left open by downfall of Mubarak to kill and wound hundreds of Coptic Christians and have called for an end to equal treatment of women. Recently, the military felt sufficiently threatened to invade the offices of civil society and foreign nongovernmental organizations that wield the social media as if it were a sword.

Libya is only now beginning to wrestle with the beast that is tribalism, and the match will only grow worse when the struggle for shares of the country's oil revenues have to be divided up.

In Bahrain, the government shut down the internet and brought in the Saudi police to save the regime.

Occupy Wall Street has demonstrated that there is wide support for combating greed and reducing unemployment. But it -- if it really deserves a singular pronoun -- has yet to answer basics questions: Who, beyond the banks, corporations, and government institutions everyone needs, is Occupy Wall Street fighting and what is it fighting for? You won't find this on Facebook or Twitter.

How can Twitter, say, unify the tribal people of Libya? How can it overcome the evolving monopoly on power of Putin's KGB mafia in Russia? How can it overcome religious prejudice to allow the Shi'ites a political voice in the Gulf countries? This requires messages with more than TK characters. Who are Occupy Wall Street's candidates? What are their ideas? Where will they obtain money to mount political campaigns?

Unless aspiring leaders find a way to wield the social media and other tools to create an organized force demanding freedom of the press, human and political rights, a market economy, fair elections, transparent and accountable governance, and other fundamental elements of an open society, the vacuum will always be filled by extremists and opportunists who will use social media to blame a country's woes upon foreigners, conspirators, ethnic minorities and other scapegoats.

Facebook and Twitter are the poor man's response to the big corporate funders. With a click of the button on their iPhones people can now take over public squares, block traffic, attract television cameras, stare down the police, and shout out high sounding slogans ad nauseam. But unless they begin to put some names, faces, and a policy agenda to their movements their role will be limited to bulldozer democracy -- bringing down the system while leaving the rebuilding to others.