On Tuesday 5 April, the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law hosted a Q&A-style debate entitled “Will the Revolution be Tweeted? The Role of Social Media in Promoting and Protecting Human Rights”. The event was held at Monash University Law Chambers in Melbourne. Panellists included Professor Sarah Joseph, Director of the Castan Centre; Sam Maclean, Campaigns Director of GetUp!; Jonathan Green, Editor of ABC’s The Drum; and Alex Pagliaro, Refugee Campaign Coordinator of Amnesty International Australia.
Professor Joseph introduced the topic by exploring the role social media has played in the recent revolutions and uprisings in Northern Africa and the Middle East. She contrasted the ideas of Malcolm Gladwell, journalist for The New Yorker and critic of the credit social media has been given for the revolutions, with the views of Clay Shirky, a writer and NYU academic who believes in the unusual effectiveness of Twitter and Facebook as tools for revolution.
Professor Joseph introduced the topic by exploring the role social media has played in the recent revolutions and uprisings in Northern Africa and the Middle East.
Gladwell and Shirky’s conflicting views each hinge on differing understandings of the forces that drive a revolution. Gladwell focuses on group identity and high social cohesion (neither of which he believes to be strengthened by social media), while Shirky maintains that the most important factors are information and conversation, to which social media has plenty to contribute.
Sam Maclean went some way in integrating these views by outlining the steps in “old school revolutioning” as laid out in Rules for Radicals, the last book published by influential American community organiser and strategist, Saul Alinsky. He then suggested that the various social media are new tools that can be used within the old framework with successful results, eventually leading to the engagement and cohesion Gladwell emphasises.
From this theoretical basis, panellists moved to focus on Twitter and its potential to communicate eyewitness accounts to a wide, but possibly disengaged, audience. Further debate centred on whether Twitter is a neutral platform. Both “sides” of a revolution can use it to organise protests or instantly inform allies of danger, but to what extent should Twitter define its own role? It is a privately owned business after all. Although, as Professor Joseph pointed out: “it doesn’t make any money … yet”. So, what responsibility does or should it have?
For many, social media is largely a Western experience, allowing users to know, almost immediately, what is happening around the world. But, is it enough for us to witness or know about certain atrocities or acts? Should we be doing more? Does it “really matter” if many of us will do nothing with the knowledge Twitter provides? The panellists discussed these questions.
Is it enough for us to witness or know about certain atrocities or acts?
For the undersigned reviewers, the overall impression of the topic was that, when it comes to social media, so far there are many more questions than answers. Although only some of the questions posed in the Castan Centre debate directly concerned human rights, this is of course a theme that underlies all talk of revolution and democracy, privacy and corporate responsibility. It is no doubt a theme that will become more prominent as social media develops even further in the future.