Snapshot of a World in Flux

Highlights from the 2013 Munk Graduate Student Conference "A World in Flux".
By: /
April 9, 2013
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Civil society movements, the erosion of traditional sovereignty norms, and the rise of social media and integration are changing the face of conflict, but our understanding of how and why is inadequate. The 2013 Munk School Graduate Student Conference, A World In Flux asked participants to think through the mobility of conflict in new ways.  The three interview clips below provide a snapshot of the day's discussions.

John Scott-Railton
Research Fellow at the Citizen Lab, University of Toronto

Matthew J. Walton
Adjunct professor in Political Science, George Washington University, Myanmar specialist

Kamala Visweswaran
Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas, expert on South Asian social movements

John Scott-Railton on the importance of the free flow of information to the success of opposition movements.

Commentators are frequently accused of overstating or understating the role of Twitter and other social media channels in the Arab uprisings. What’s a fair assessment of the role of social media in this phenomenon?

I think we’re still waiting for historians and others to provide us with the empirical data to really understand the role social media tools played in these events. Some people have overstated the role of these tools, while others have low-balled or dismissed them entirely. Both of those approaches are extreme. Now, people who have started doing careful science work on the role that these tools played and their analysis of the issues is more rigorous.  My own view is that because they served such key communications functions, you can say that they were essential for lots of communications activities. Beyond that, I am also still trying to understand their role better.

Many of the major activists in Egypt embraced the idea of diffuse leadership and rejected any leadership candidates who sought to emerge from the movement, leading some analysts to say such a model wouldn't hold up against better organized, hierarchical groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Is using social media to dilute the concept of leadership a smart political tactic?

How opposition movements have used social media to organize groups around shared affinities rather than a single leader is an interesting feature.  Opposition groups have been able to do a lot despite not really having a single unifying leader figure. This raises key questions about the drivers of social change—do movements always need one strong leader?

But the lack of cohesion among some liberal or opposition groups seems to be undermining their ability to challenge ruling parties, such the Ikhwan in Egypt.

Many Egyptians I know who were early catalysts of the movement in Tahrir have often complained about its inability to develop more mature forms of leadership and organization since the revolution. If you limit your view of Egypt’s transition to a short period, it’s hard to see this as a resolvable problem in that timeframe. But if you take a longer view, you see the generation who experienced this revolution are still thinking hard about what they want. This is a learning experience for them. Protest based movements make change an iterative process.

How important is the free flow of information essential for emerging democracies to sustain momentum, and how does this tie into the work of the Citizen Lab?

The way in which people who are part of the opposition movements in Egypt, Libya, and Syria have used technology as a platform for sharing their experiences and their criticisms, and highlighting the ways they’ve been abused, has done much to draw the world’s attention to their agenda. The free flow of information is central to how we now talk about these movements, and the images they evoke in our minds.

That said, it’s always dangerous to be a member of an opposition group and to challenge the status quo upheld by a regime with authoritarian tendencies or aspirations. What we’ve seen is that during short-term revolutions or transitions that begin and end quickly, the ruling regime is often unable to produce a very efficient media strategy during that period. But over the course of longer conflicts like Libya and Syria, regimes have figured out the ways that segments of the opposition movement connect and communicate, and the channels they try to keep free of noise. They have then systematically conducted operations to jam and to deny and compromise these groups.

So, part of the challenge that we face now is that while technology has reduced asymmetries in access to voice, it hasn’t reduced some of the asymmetries of risk. If I’m a dissident in Damascus using an alias to share my opinion, the fact that I can tell my story to the Internet is empowering. But if my identity is discovered, I’m just as vulnerable as I would have been in the pre-Internet age. Historians, anthropologists, and political scientists, will help us assess the causal role of social media. For those of us working in a more practical capacity, the focus should be more forward-looking. We have to concentrate on understanding the threats to the free flow of information because of the huge human cost to democracy movements.

Matthew J. Walton on the interactions of civil society actors and new media in Myanmar.

What can Myanmar’s political transition tell us about conflict and civil society?

As Myanmar emerges from decades of military rule, civil society organizations have gained greater freedom to operate. Some of these organizations are explicitly focused on regime change and democracy promotion, while others are using their increased freedom to work on human security and human welfare issues. The entire civil society sector is now operating in a transition period where social and legal norms are changing on a regular basis.

Figuring out what is and isn’t allowed is complicated by the fact that some of these civil society groups have involved themselves in the political situation in non-democratic, even violent ways. Scholars tend to assume that civil society organizations will all work to encourage an inclusive, democratic process, but in Myanmar, we see groups that have been very effective at promoting democracy and demanding political change, but that also have inflamed conflict, or at least have played a more nebulous role. For example, there are organizations whose members take a critical stance on the Muslim Rohingya group one week, and then travel the next week to an area where there are Buddhist-Muslim riots to promote peace. That’s a very problematic kind of action for the international community. So, groups and civil society organizations figuring out how to operate in this new, freer Myanmar are also trying to figure out how to navigate the expectations that the international community has for democracy-promoting civil society groups.

What role, if any, has social media played in Myanmar’s political transition?

Social media didn’t play much of a role in Myanmar’s transition­­­­–definitely not as much as we’ve heard it did in the Arab Spring, largely due to there being limited electricity, limited internet use, and limited access. But we are seeing social media organizations playing a stronger role in creating and expanding conflict in the country, and in rallying people towards a cause–a Buddhist nationalist cause. We see some Facebook groups promoting the 969 movement and a more xenophobic Buddhist-nationalist, anti-Muslim position. Social media organizations are inherently transnational–you have Buddhists in Myanmar talking about support from Burmese Buddhists around the world. And you have some supporting the Facebook groups of Buddhists from Thailand, Sri Lanka, and other countries. So, while social media might not have played a major role in Myanmar’s transition from military rule, it is definitely playing a role in internationalizing the conflict in Myanmar.

Kamala Visweswaran on social media, conflict, and rethinking traditional conceptions of sovereignty.

Is social media impacting the nature of conflicts over territory in South Asia?

One of the things that I see in South Asia is a condition of unresolved sovereignty. The condition is similar to when other large entities like the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, broke apart–if we look at the partition of the Indian subcontinent, we see that this gave us new nation-states and new struggles for self-determination. These struggles are ongoing. Social media is a means of voicing demands for self-determination, but it can also reshape those demands in powerful ways.

We can see this in South Asia, where many peoples feel they’re under some kind of occupation, even if it is one that is not declared or recognized formally by the UN. For these peoples, the highly mediatized Palestinian experience is felt very powerfully. As a result, the idea of popular uprising, of an "Intifada," has become part of the lexicon of struggles for self-determination in South Asia. Social media allows for a greater connection to the Palestinian occupation, which catalyzes a certain kind of response to occupation. At the same time, social media  encourages a transformation in how people think about occupation and how to respond to it, as it may make people  question their understanding of sovereignty. It can lead people to start thinking about things like ‘deterritorialized’ sovereignty; whether people who consider themselves to be nations can be recognized without resolving claims to land, which has consequences for resolving conflicts over sovereignty.