A US Naval Academy professor claimed that “media tools are as powerful as a fully-loaded gun” in creating social and political change.
Deborah Wheeler, author of Digital Resistance and New Media Activism in the Middle East, stated during a lecture at the Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) that digital connectivity has encouraged new “forms of resistance against the norm.”
Wheeler spoke at the annual lecture hosted by the Media and Politics minor programme, jointly conducted with Georgetown University in Qatar, to enable students to better understand how politicians, governments, and citizens influence, and are themselves influenced by, the media in its myriad forms and formats.
During her lecture, Wheeler discussed her empirical research on the impact of the internet and new forms of communication on societal and political change across the Mena region from 1996 – 2014.
Digital Resistance and New Media Activism in the Middle East explores the role of interconnectivity and the rise of the internet on empowering citizens’ voices and promoting activism, reform, and resistance.
The book portrays how social media and other forms of digital communication have enabled citizens to route around the state and other forms of power in their lives, and suggests that this could lead to the reconfiguration of power and societal structures in the Middle East.
In 1996, Wheeler travelled to Kuwait to study the aftermath of the Gulf War, as it recovered from having its entire communication infrastructure destroyed by the Iraqi occupation.
“The only reason Kuwait survived, in terms of the resistance on the ground, was because of a few fax machines, and the one mobile phone that one member of the resistance had,” Wheeler said.
The Kuwaiti government’s response to the war was to “rebuild its communications infrastructure ensuring that every student has access and can use the Internet; their satellite footprint is wide and diversified; and that there was a fax machine in every home,” she noted.
Continuing her research on people’s behaviours and media patterns in the Arabian Gulf as well as Jordan, Syria, and Egypt, Wheeler concluded that there were four “phases of transition” that were felt across the region as it shifted to an internet society.
The first, she said, was fear and “entering a new world of unknowns, while being concerned about the potential threats (that the Internet) might have on Islamic values and conservative cultures.” Secondly, the countries moved to a phase of needing to remain competitive and stay on top of economic innovations so that they would be able to contribute to the nation’s social and economic development.
The third phase was resistance.
The Internet was “giving people the power to make better-informed decisions and gather information freely,” Wheeler said.
Finally, the countries moved into a phase she called revolution.
Wheeler concluded by saying that she thinks the next phase in this evolution will be repression.
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