Politics, the Internet and Adaptive Leadership

The Internet seems to be credited with creating quite a stir politically, across the world. President Obama’s tech team credits technology and the internet as the foundational platform for their back to back victories against Republican candidates. People point to the Arab Spring on one hand and Wikileaks on the other to highlight how powerful a role the internet seems to be playing in mobilizing people as well as de-centralizing of information and hence power. The examples of where the internet seems to be playing a central role in politics abound.

The underlying characteristic almost seems to be the power to communicate with each other without relying on traditional, state controlled media. As David Kirkpatrick and David Sanger point out in a NY Times article,  “young Egyptian and Tunisian activists brainstormed on the use of technology to evade surveillance, commiserated about torture and traded practical tips on how to stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades.” While Kirkpatrick and Sanger point to the communication between people with similar roles, Zeynep Tufekci essentially points to the same phenomenon except pointing to how social media can help transcend the multiple layers that might exist between the grassroots and the top. In her blog post, she explains how a small group of people were able to communicate with each other using twitter (bypassing traditional forms of mass media to get the message out) and were ultimately able to take the message directly to the people at the top.

In both cases, there is another common factor: the internet and social media is being used not just as a mode of communication but to very quickly and effectively share lessons from across boundaries. Whether it was the use of the “Pepsi, onion and vinegar” or Shahira Abouellail’s sharing of “the likely sequence of events”, social media is basically allowing its users to share knowledge and tips much more quickly than ever before. More importantly, help is now coming from unexpected quarters!

The dark side of course cannot be ignored, as Evgeny Morozov so convincingly argues in The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom:

“The Arab Spring is not just about brave activists toppling ruthless dictators. It is also about the complicity
of Western firms selling surveillance and censorship technology to the most heinous regimes in the world.
It is about the ability of authoritarian governments to completely tum off the Internet with a kill switch. It
is about the despicable and unnecessary legalistic policies of sites like Facebook that insisted that no
Egyptian or Tunisian dissidents could use their services unless they set up accounts using their real names
rather than pseudonyms. It is about the embarrassing stance of Western politicians who showed that
concerns about Internet freedom would always take second seat to broader concerns about “stability”even
if delivered by dictators-in a traditionally volatile region. What better example is there than Egypt, where
Washington has spent far more money training Mubarak’s police force than anti-Mubarak bloggers?”

But of course! It is utterly unrealistic to expect that a new medium of communication will suddenly completely transform not just the balance of power between the authorities and the citizens (or any such groups with disequilibrium of power) but also the interests of the different parties. The balance of power might very well shift a bit, but the interests of the groups remain fairly similar to the past (the past without the internet and social media). Acknowledging this reality is partly what Morozov is asking us to do, I think.

Of course, social media also does not automatically become an effective medium of communication and mobilization in all contexts. The Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement in India, for example, did not end up using technology all that effectively to really scale up support for the movement. As Hazare himself admitted recently: “I travelled to six states and have 50,000 people, but to stay connected with them, I want to video conference. If you really want to support, help me through technology.”

At the same time, as Prof. Ron Heifetz would argue, adaptive leadership doesn’t necessarily just mean that you adapt to the new tools at your disposal – rather, it is more important that the group (in this case, Arab youth) keep the work at the center while learning how to respond and act in a situation that they haven’t necessarily ever faced before. Keeping the work at the center is what movements – especially social and political movements – are not very good at. While the movements tend to start with a lot of enthusiasm and commitment, as did Anna Hazare’s movement, they also tend to lose steam soon and lose focus on the real work that they embarked on in the first place.

The question, then for me, is twin-fold: how will technology and social media really be leveraged to 1) sustain these movements and continue the emphasis on the work at the center (and not just the use of technology for the sake of it); and 2) to really  start to transform the interests of the different stakeholders in the system and not just mobilize those already in (implicit or explicit) support?



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