The Geopolitics of Facebook

Posted December 31, 2009

Categories: Articles

Young people who want to receive phone calls but don’t want their teachers or parents to catch on can download high-frequency “mosquito” ringtones. After a certain age, the older set loses its ability to hear these higher frequency tones. In this way, older people literally become tone deaf to the way younger people communicate. Talk about resonant metaphors.

The world is a-twitter over the revolutionary implications of new technologies that young people almost instinctively understand and older people just don’t get. Several revolutions and half-revolutions have been ascribed to Twitter and Facebook, much as the Protestant Reformation has been linked to Gutenberg’s presses and the political ferment in the former Soviet bloc partly to mimeographs, copy machines, and faxes. Early adopters of these technologies tend to be on the younger side. So we are facing yet again a confluence of youth and technology heralding large-scale political and social change.

Few analysts, of course, argue that Twitter and Facebook cause social transformation. They’re only tools. But we would be foolish to ignore how these tools are shaping consciousness. Twitter both reflects our attention-deficit culture and reinforces our increasing preference for smaller and smaller niblets of information. Facebook, meanwhile, is the logical offspring of the Internet and reality television, since it facilitates communication among multiple “friends” and also allows users to expose their lives to an audience.

I think of Facebook only as a means to an end: a way to efficiently disseminate information to a targeted group of people (for instance: check out the Foreign Policy In Focus Facebook group). But Facebook is more than a tool that would-be revolutionaries use to announce an upcoming demonstration or a regime tries to suppress in an effort to preserve the status quo.Facebook represents a fundamentally different understanding of public/private space.

People over a certain age don’t quite hear the “frequency” of Facebook. They don’t understand why anyone would reveal so much private and often banal information, which in previous eras would have gone unrecorded or been relegated to a secret diary. Yet people under a certain age don’t think twice about posting information that could one day jeopardize a job application, deep-six a budding romance, or simply prove utterly embarrassing to one’s future family and friends. These everyday revelations are all part of a different set of social relationships that doesn’t so much eliminate the private as redefine it along a new continuum.

Goodbye “too much information.” Hello “status update.”

This public-private divide is a matter of social and academic interest in places like the United States. In a country like Iran, however, the changing consciousness of the younger generation will ultimately have explosive political impact. The Green Revolution was not really a response to the economic situation in the country (the economy rose nearly 7% over the previous year and poverty levels declined). It didn’t put forward radically new politicians (the reformers are or were members of the political elite).

Rather, the revolution was fueled by a desire for a more liberal society. The Iranian state has attempted to legislate what is often considered private morality: mandating the use of headscarves, determining what kind of music people can listen to, policing the Internet. Many Iranians, particularly younger Iranians, simply want to have more control over their private lives. They want what their Facebook friends in other countries have. Of course, older Iranians are probably deeply suspicious of these liberalizing trends, which is why so many voted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the recent elections.

“Iranian culture itself is such a mixture of European, American and an overarching Persian influence,” Iranian filmmaker Maryam Habibian tells FPIF contributor Noor Iqbal in Demystifying Iran. “You can see it everywhere. Young people show their Western-ness by smoking cigarettes and in their fashion as well. The girls will be covered up but they wear tight tunics and they have highlighted hair you can see through their scarves. This mixture has always been around.”

The regime can attempt to suppress these outer signs of rebellion through show trials and other measures. But it can do little to stop the shift in consciousness taking place among young people. Through Facebook, they are reclaiming public space. They are creating a global community that makes the ruling elite in Iran even more parochial. Much that is happening in Iran today among young people is taking place in the higher frequencies, in the mosquito range that only they can hear. By the time the authorities figure out the revolutionary implications of all this, they’ll be history.

More Fiesta!

Headscarves. Censorship. Disapproving imams.

The culture of the Islamic world is, of course, much richer than the stereotypes so often transmitted through popular culture in the United States. Indeed, Muslim culture is often presented as a contradiction in terms, as FPIF contributor Ethan Pack writes in Muslim Voices, “a suppression of expression rather than its celebration.” A recent festival in New York City showcased this diversity of Muslim culture just as President Obama was making an overture to the Muslim world.

“Fresh off Barack Obama’s landmark speech, Muslim Voices provided occasions to assess the opportunities and challenges presented by Obama’s diplomatic efforts,” Pack writes. “The festival underscored many of the president’s messages, such as understanding the diversity of the Muslim world and increasing efforts to refocus U.S. relations with Muslims on shared values and “cultural diplomacy,” while at the same time acknowledging obstacles of the past.”

We also have a great collection of poems this week as part of our Fiesta! feature on the intersection of art and foreign policy. The Split This Rock festival, which features an incredible array of poets from around the world, will take place in Washington, DC from March 10-13, 2010. Thanks to our poetry editor Melissa Tuckey, we’re publishing the prizewinning poems in this year’s Split This Rock contest: Teresa Scollon’s powerful evocation of rivers and refugees, Jenny Browne’s meditation on the many casualties of war, and Demetrice Anntía Worley’s wrenching account of the murdered and disappeared women of Ciudad Juárez, México.

And to bring us back to the situation in Iran, Majid Naficy offers a striking poem about a father’s gift and a regime’s theft.

Another Integration is Possible

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama pledged to renegotiate several free trade agreements. Many activists hoped that this commitment to change would lead to a rewriting of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as well. The leaders of the United States, Canada, and Mexico will be meeting in Guadalajara next week. FPIF contributors Manuel Pérez-Rocha and Stuart Trew recommend that Obama fulfill his pledge.

“In Guadalajara, make it clear that you will reverse the corporate coup d’etat that took over North American relations,” they write in Obama: Renegotiate NAFTA as You Promised. “Announce that you’re closing down the Security and Prosperity Partnership and push the reset button. Agree with Calderón and Harper to start renegotiating NAFTA. Give us hope that another North America is possible.”

FPIF contributor Steve McGiffen, meanwhile, hopes that another European Union is possible. Ireland is gearing up for another vote on the Lisbon Treaty, which the European Union bills as the next step in European integration. The Irish, like the French and the Dutch, initially voted down the treaty. McGiffen hopes that Ireland will stick to its guns. “At the behest of the European Commission, the EU’s powerful unelected executive, member state governments are busy dismantling welfare states, enhancing their military forces, enacting illiberal political measures and neoliberal economic policies, and expressing undisguised contempt for anyone who disagrees with them,” he writes in Against the Lisbon Treaty.

Finally, Noor Iqbal reviews a book by Todd Tucker and Lori Wallach on the “fast-track authority” that gave rise to many free-trade agreements in the United States.

More Effective Foreign Aid

President Obama met last week with the deeply unpopular Philippine leader Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The human rights situation in the Philippines has been getting worse. The U.S. president can and should address this human rights situation through our aid policy.

“Under pressure from U.S. and Philippine human rights advocates, the U.S. Congress imposed conditions on a symbolic amount of military assistance ($2 million) in last year’s budget, contingent on the human rights record of the Arroyo government,” FPIF contributor John Gershman writes in Obama and Arroyo: Time for a Reset. “The funds were released even though the U.S. government didn’t publicly report on the implementation of these conditions. Obama should publicly support transparent reporting on whether the Philippines has met those conditions.”

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the U.S. military has increasingly been involved in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Bad idea, says Gyan Bahadur Adhikari , country director for ActionAid Afghanistan, in an interview with FPIF contributor Daniel Atzmon.

“After 30 years of war, Afghanis are afraid and distrustful of military personnel, no matter their intention,” Adhikari says. “Blurring this distinction creates a lot of confusion for the people on the ground. When the military engages in development work, it makes it harder for Afghanis to differentiate between development workers and the soldiers, which leads to distrust and makes it harder for NGOs and civil society to do their work. Also, once we begin to be identified with the military, our job becomes much more dangerous. The military compromises our humanitarian mission.”

We should also rethink our foreign aid policy toward South Asia. For years, the United States has been supplying both India and Pakistan with generous dollops of military assistance. “The first principle of U.S. policy in the region should be to do no more harm,” writes FPIF columnist Zia Mian in Pushing South Asia Toward the Brink. “This means it has to stop feeding the fire between India and Pakistan. Only an end to the South Asian arms race can begin to undo the structures of fear, hostility, and violence that have sustained the conflict in the subcontinent for so long.”

Finally, there is the question of the foreign aid relationship between North Korea and Burma. Are we seeing a new axis of evil developing in Asia, with Pyongyang supplying Rangoon with nuclear technology?

“Nuclear cooperation between the two pariahs is unlikely,” I write in Asia’s Axis of Evil? “However, as long as the United States and other countries pursue the blunt instrument of sanctions and no other strategies, we will push North Korea and Burma closer together. There is no axis of evil in Asia. But, with our unsophisticated policies, we are doing our best to create one.”

FPIF, August 4, 2009

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