Staying Ahead of the Digital Curve: U.S. Global Engagement in the New Media Era

The recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are sending shockwaves across the Middle East and demonstrating the power of social media to connect citizens striving for democratic reform.  During a packed briefing at the U.S. Capitol this morning, new media experts and journalists from U.S. international broadcasters discussed this digital revolution and how the U.S. is taking advantage of its potential for change.

“Without Facebook, nothing is possible these days,” said Kambiz Hosseini, the host of Voice of America’s (VOA) popular Persian satire “Parazit.” He went on to describe how difficult it is for repressive regimes to shut off social media completely. Hosseini’s program has more than a quarter of a million Facebook fans.

Mohamed Al-Yahyai, the host of Alhurra TV’s “Eye on Democracy,” said the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions would not have been possible without social media tools. Al-Yahyai noted that Tunisian protesters expertly employed Facebook and other social media to aid in organizing and reporting on the events of the revolution.

Asked about the role of new media in the uprising in Egypt, Rebecca MacKinnon, founder of Global Voices and a new media scholar at the New America Foundation, said that “the Internet didn’t cause the revolution in Egypt, just as the printing press didn’t cause the American Revolution.”

“Nevertheless, it was the main tool which allowed communities of conversations to evolve,” she said. “Digital tools are allowing people to hold uncensored, unmanipulated conversations.”

In the hopes of fostering these conversations in regions of critical importance, the BBG announced a pilot collaboration between the VOA and the social media platform Citizen Global.

Calling the technology suite provided by Citizen Global a type of “iMovie in the cloud,” BBG Senior Strategist Paul Marszalek demonstrated how the collaboration will provide multiple avenues for women living in the conflict zones of Central Africa to share their stories, and will be a central site for VOA’s award-winning coverage of the region.

“This is an exact template of what I think the future of international broadcasting will look like,” said BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson of the initiative, which will eventually populate multiple sites on a variety of topics. “It’s crowd-sourcing, mixed with great journalism, mixed with social networking so that people are empowered by accurate information.”

In light of the democratizing promise of new media, authoritarian governments are dedicating an enormous amount of resources to disrupt the free flow of news and information. Ken Berman, who heads the International Broadcasting Bureau’s anti-censorship efforts, detailed the BBG’s extensive efforts to break through the firewalls erected by closed societies.

“In order to get independent information to people in authoritarian countries, we use circumvention, anonymity, anti-span, and proxy technology,” he said. Berman described the agency’s recent breakthrough with Feed over E-mail (FoE), which encrypts and compresses data so that normal filtering programs cannot detect or censor information.

Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA), ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, underscored the importance of the BBG’s efforts, especially in the face of deep cuts across the federal budget. Berman took issue with those who propound the notion “that we are going to exempt what is vital to our national security from drastic cuts, and then don’t include public diplomacy generally … I think that is something we have to fight and resist.”

The BBG-sponsored event also featured a conversation about the repressive media environments of Iran, North Korea, and Cuba, with Korea expert Andrei Lankov, Christopher Walker of FreedomHouse.org, Carlos García-Pérez, director of Radio and TV Martí. For a full program, list of participants, and link to the on-demand webcast, click here.

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