Interviewed Today on Al Jazeera: Social Media, Soft Power, and American Empire

Al Jazeera Arabic invited me to participate in its hour-long program, In Depth (19 April 2010; 3:00-4:00pm EST), and I was happy to do so via satellite earlier this evening. One of the main topics that I was asked to speak about concerned the use of social networking sites (and I focused mostly on Twitter) for the purposes of both surveillance of citizens at home and for exercising state power abroad.

The host of the program made specific reference to what he called my “famous article” on the so-called “Twitter revolution” in Iran (see: America’s Iranian Twitter Revolution), which was this site’s most read article for 2009, the English version exceeding 18,000 readers at last count. Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel had itself translated the article into Arabic and posted it on its site last year (see: ثورة تويتر.. أحلام أميركا في إيران) and others translated it into Farsi and posted it on an Iranian website (see: جوگيری اينترنتي/ انقلاب تويتري). The article also led to my being interviewed by Egypt’s Amira Howeidy for Al-Ahram Weekly, later reproduced in Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper. The article has since been translated by others in Spanish and posted on Cuba Debate. In the end, I have no idea how many times it has been read, or where it has been read the most.

The program itself was excellent for its discussion and coverage of the politics, economics, and ethics of social network sites in ways that one does not normally find in North American mainstream media. For example, examining the ways that Google search results favour articles that are most flattering and supportive of Israel, which is the contrary case for searches for Muslim and Arabic resources. The other guest on the program (name to follow) related his experiences editing in Wikipedia on the topic of Jerusalem, which still says that it is the capital of Israel…even though no country on earth recognizes it as that. When he tried to alter the entry to indicate that it is contested territory, he was told by Wikipedia editors that he was being disruptive and was eventually banned. The program host and the other guest spoke at length about Israeli use of social media to push Zionist propaganda, while also highlighting who sits the boards of the various social media companies and their allegiances to Israel. This was fascinating and very enlightening.

For my part, I focused on:

  • Israeli government uses of social media such as Twitter and YouTube during the January 2009 war in Gaza;
  • the ways that commercial imperatives, and labeling certain arenas as areas of concern for “national security,” impel data mining and the ultimate elimination of everyone’s privacy on the Web;
  • the manner in which social networking sites that allow for anonymity (such as Twitter) can be used by intelligence agencies and propaganda arms of the state to seed discussions with misinformation, while using the same sites for surveillance;
  • the utility of “crowd sourcing” as a foreign policy tool;
  • the concept of “soft power” and how it relates to the projection of an ideology of U.S. domination through texts and images via social media;
  • the U.S. support for the Iranian opposition and its allocation of $50 million to support the Iranian opposition’s use of social media, plus Farsi-language broadcasting into Iran by organs of the U.S. (see Subtitle D – Victims of Iranian Censorship Act or VOICE Act, of H.R. 2647: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010; also see, “U.S. changing focus of Iran policy,” Los Angeles Times, 09 March 2010; “Iran accuses U.S. of seeking to use Internet against it,” The Washington Post, 26 January 2010);
  • I also spoke of how entities such as Google, Twitter, and YouTube are aligned to the goals of the U.S. State Department and frequently participate in various foreign policy ventures with it (such as the Alliance of Youth Movements), in targeting governments which the U.S. opposes (more on this below, but see this for now: “Google honours Iranian women bloggers,” AFP, 11 March 2010);
  • Back to “soft power,” I alluded to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s initiatives — see “State Department on Civil Society 2.0 Initiative,” U.S. Department of State, 03 November 2009, and, “Secretary Clinton Announces ‘Civil Society 2.0’” — and attempts to create what can be called “genetically modified grassroots movements” (see: “The Fog Machine: Iran, Social Media and the Rise of Genetically Modified Grassroots Organizations,” CounterPunch, 22 June 2009, by Jack Z. Bratich). See also Hillary Clinton, “Remarks on Internet Freedom,” 21 January 2010; “Tweet About Democracy,” U.S. Department of State, 07 January 2010;
  • In particular, I emphasized for Al Jazeera viewers that they begin to familiarize themselves with the workings of the U.S. State Department’s organ, the Alliance of Youth Movements (more below), and examine how it uses social media to create groups in opposition to governments targeted by the U.S., followed by protest actions on the ground. This is conspiracy, as in factual conspiracy, and it is self-documenting.

At the end of the program, in the final minute in fact, I was asked a very large question. Luckily, thanks to my experience in Twitter, I have learned to produce sound bites (sometimes spelled bytes). Moreover, understanding that I was being simultaneously translated into Arabic (I could hear the translator speaking in my ear piece), I spoke slowly, often repeating the last few words before going forward, and keeping the overall number of words to the bare minimum. The final question I was asked by the host was whether I thought the West would be successful in dominating other societies through its use of social media. My response consisted entirely of the following points, almost verbatim now:

  • Ultimately, no;
  • Communication is not the same thing as understanding;
  • Information is not the same thing as meaning;
  • The best way to provoke a nationalist and localist backlash is for the U.S. to bombard other societies with its ideas, opinions, products, values, etc., and this has happened time and again.

This means that I am not a fan of the old “cultural imperialism” model in media studies, except as it applies to the actual economics of media dominance.

Finally, having promised three times so far to get to “more” about the Alliance of Youth Movements, I recommend to interested readers that they examine the following materials on their own:


About Maximilian C. Forte

I am a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. My areas of research and teaching interest are centered in Political Anthropology, with a focus on imperialism, neoliberalism and globalization, nationalism, democracy, and the international political economy of knowledge production.
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