March 27th, 2011
12:15 PM ET

Fareed's Take: the role of social media in revolutions

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

It's important to remember how recent the entire information revolution is.

Fifteen years ago in Tunisia or Egypt all you could read, hear and see was government propaganda. State television - the main source of information for the vast majority - was a daily catalogue of the great deeds of Hosni Mubarak or President Ben Ali or whomever.

The first great revolution was the satellite TV revolution, which brought images and information and real reporting to the Arab people for the first time.

It was not just CNN. It became Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and all the other channels that broke the state's monopoly of information and let Arabs see the world around them.

The regime might not have wanted people to know of the 2005 protests for democracy in Egypt, for example, but people quickly learned of it anyway. Then came the internet revolution, which provided even more information and gave people the opportunity to post information and opinions anonymously.

There was a superb and hilarious website, for example, that would make daily fun of the turgid propaganda put out by Egypt's state newspaper, Al-Ahram.

Finally came the social networking revolution, which allowed people to share information, opinions and organizing ideas. It helped them rally.  They could do this not just using a computer, which is still a luxury product for the wealthy in the Arab world, but with a cell phone, which is a basic necessity that everyone owns.

So the combination of these three revolutions was to move information from what I call a "one-to-many" system to a "many-to-many" system.

It used to be that revolutions began by seizing the radio station or the TV station because that allowed the new regime to broadcast its message to the masses - control information from one to many.

But  today's technology is many to many, epitomized by the internet where everyone is connected but no one is in control. This system helps the individual; it breaks the regime's monopoly on information; it allows people to organize; and it allows people to refute the lies put out by a regime.

It's not a silver bullet, but clearly today's information technology has the effect of disintermediating - it breaks down hierarchies and monopolies.

That's got to be good for the individual, and it must be bad for dictatorships.

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Topics: Fareed's Take • GPS Show • Innovation • Technology

soundoff (59 Responses)
  1. NOrma Lee Mahdavi

    Why did you allow the absolutely worst wanna-be journalist to take over your program today.
    All she has ever don ,or is doing today is sproutng news as if she is telling us something "New".No comment,nor
    even an intelligent response . What is wrong with CNN? Just let Candy Crowley contiue for an hour..
    I'm listening now..and can't believe my ears at her non-comments.

    March 27, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • PBY Donn

      Thank you , well presented . I never miss GPS and was so disappointed with the show today . I would ahve preferred and rerun for the past shows then have someone like Gloria interview for such a crucial and serious isses. It felt like she has her opinion, so agree and support or it just will not work . There were some great comments from panelists but were left hanging !

      I also agree the Candy Crowley has a good show , demonstrates skills in interviewing and could assist in setting some benchmarks for CNN commentators as well of course as Fareed !

      March 27, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • melt

      I totally agree with you. The woman was simply chattering and desparately trying to engage in the conversation...but she failed miserably, and she is an embarrasment to the program. The guests were way above her league. As a result, I did not even watch the show....

      Please make your selections of a sub very carefully..

      March 28, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  2. ronald

    How might your guests define the role in media as it has neglected the plight of Ivory Coast while embracing audience coverage of war in libya and concerns about Japan.
    The American television audience is quite capable of listening to coverage regarding more than two large media covered events at one time.
    Compare the situations of Libya and that of Ivory Coast?
    Both nations should have their despots overthrown,BUT only Kaddafi gets the media appeal.
    Shall Ivory Coast as well as other nations lower on the continent of Africa become the next Rwanda which main stream media could care less to address?
    The year is 2011, reporters are known to be capable to travel to report the news elsewhere too.
    As for Libya news media campaign, how about yourselves getting over to the refugee camps established over the border in Tunisia. Go report the plight of those foreign workers whom fled Libya and are confronted by issues of hygiene and basic health concerns. The role of social media needs to place themselves elsewhere as well to project other neglected events like that of Ivory Coast, like that of Congo and other nations.
    Kaddafi coverage could easily be decreased by ten percent and your audience could be shown more around them

    March 27, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • james2

      That is a good comment. But I think the reason for the lack in coverage in Ivory Coast is due to the differences between North Africa and Sub Saharan Africa. I think it would be worth your while to refer to an earlier post on this website:

      1. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, ethnicity has more resonance than national identity.
      2. Militaries in sub-Saharan Africa are generally more loyal to their patron strongmen, not to the populations of nations.
      3. A large majority of people in sub-Saharan Africa don't have access to the same levels of education, information and technology as people in the Middle East.
      4. Impoverished people are less likely to risk losing what little they have by rising up.

      And in case nobody knew, Obama has already spoken against Laurent Gbagbo on youtube.

      March 27, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
  3. ronald

    Whom are the rebels and all the Arab nation upheaval??Could all this uprising have been created by returning fighters whom departed their nations of origin to fight US forces via Syria returning home and embracing revolt among their populace?
    The youth of the majority of these nations effected have been neglect with large portions of unemployment for a long time,what was the trigger? Was the trigger those fighters whom returned home to their origin from fighting in Iraq?

    March 27, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  4. ronald

    The Libya Operation, could we as Western nations look back upon ourselves and ponder, why USA,Israel,France,UK,Russia,Belarus,China continues to sell weapons to propped up regimes whom destroy their populations .You think some guy living in Libya is sitting in some factory somewhere creating all the weapons needed to wage war, or should we as a senseless society look back at ourselves arming these nations?

    March 27, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  5. ronald

    Define why Iran holds a double edged saber??
    Why does Iran whom welcomes armed conflict effecting these Arab nations call protesting among their own citizens as that of mutiny. One side of the sword Iran wants revolution,but for its citizens they call it mutiny.
    May Iran's citizens give their govt hell

    March 27, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  6. ronald

    We are saying all those arms are from Iran but how about all those weapons that have USA engraved upon them too?
    The greatest threat is from those whom arm society and not only Iran is selling weapons.

    March 27, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  7. Jeff Independence,Mo.

    social security number computers = mark of the beast. Is this good or bad?

    March 27, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  8. dee

    i hate it when fareed is gone. cnn usually rolls in a reporter who covers what is already being covered the other 23 hours on cnn. fareed may cover the same news story but he does not tell us the same information. if it is the same information he gives it more intelligent thought and his guests also give us a different view. i enjoy that fareed lets his guests finish a sentence. 2 weeks in a row now the rebroadcast at 1pm eastern has been hijacked by the 24 hour repeat cycle. i turned it off last week and this week cleaned until fareed came on late in the time slot. i think it was a repeat but it was a differnt way to cover the stories in the news.

    March 27, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • olivia

      Where is Fareed? Why isn't he hosting GPS?

      March 27, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  9. bruce

    Dear Farid, this was just matter of time, arab people got sick of their governments feeding them lies, and blaming everything on Israel and USA,enough is enough.

    March 27, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  10. abby

    Fareed still offers the most insightful commentary anywhere -

    March 27, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  11. glen

    malcolm gadwell doesn't really know what hes talking time magazine, cbs abc they are social media, social media has advance i can watch a news clip and send it to a firend who did not see it via facebook, cause they are at work or something more people now get to be aware of that news event. social media did not start the middle east revolts social make the movement of change more effective in the middle east.

    March 27, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  12. cydfan

    Why did you even give voice to the "journalist/self-styled social commentator" interviewed by Fareed today? I've seen articles by him and on him rating him as a pseudo-journalist and as a person who often doesn't take time to completely school himself on a topic or relies more on opinion and vague facts to make his points.I believe that it was right revolutions happened in the past without internets but he didn't seem to want to acknowledge that without some communication it wouldn't have occurred as quickly. For an alleged social-scientist and journalist he is sorely lacking in abilities to observe as a disinterested party vs, someone going in and looking for "facts" to supprt one's viewpoint. I have never written in before and am not an internet fan but this man's claims were so outrageous that I had to say something.

    March 27, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  13. Gil

    Zakaria's thesis is riddled with holes. No one's in control? The social media companies and the ISP's that provide access to the internet are the ones in control. In times of crisis, they generally side with the government. Also, computer equipment costs money – something the truly impoverished don't have.

    March 27, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  14. Ron C

    I've read a lot of misinformation about the Civil Rights Movement, but Zakaria's assertion the movement was "HIERARCHICAL" is the most pernicious and contemptuous I've ever seen. I was a civil rights organizer in Cleveland, in the north, and individual citizens like me organized the movement block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, night and day, in the most dangerous of circumstances, with no national leadership of ANY kind. CORE and the rest had nothing to do with it, and when they tried to interfere, they almost killed what we were doing. Zakaria's idea is pernicious because it eliminates grass-roots organization from the primary place it holds in American democracy. Zacharia should stick to the Middle East, where he may have a lot of insights.
    In the meantime, he owes a very public apology all of us who built the Civil Rights Movement and who continue to renew this democracy

    March 27, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  15. Dave T

    It is given, if you have two sides who do not agree on something, like our two major political parties, there ought to be a third way to get things done. We Americans are a creative bunch! According to business, out of 200 ideas, 2 may be doable. The political leaders ought to give all Americans a chance to give their opinions. The more ideas given, the more likely we may find a winning concept.
    Can ideas be shared and built upon through talk radio? Many hosts will talk and screen their callers. Many times people cannot get on the air due to their phones always busy. Can they add phone lines? Why not listen to their customers? They may be surprised how talented Americans are! As Winston Churchill once said, Courage is the ability to stand up and speak, courage is also the ability to sit down and listen.
    It is easier to complain about problems; however, it is harder to state the solution to every problem.
    I believe the main reason for the unrest in the Middle East are due to ever increasing food prices as well as the high unemployment. Many crops around the world have been destroyed due to major drought and flooding this year. So please talk radio hosts and political leaders, let us have the opportunity to share ideas that may solve problems.
    For example. talk radio hosts, please create new programs allowing people to give ideas to increase our food supply. Then please bank roll the winning idea with the large amount of money you make. Then let us move on to other problems this nation and the world are facing…Together we may strengthen this nation with lower food prices and fewer political unrest…Do you have any thoughts to add to this concept?

    March 27, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  16. jvcorazo

    There's a strong correlation between what's happening in the Middle East today (aka Arab Spring) and what has been happening to Information Technology revolution over the past 50 or so years. In the early '50's when IBM was the main IT powerhouse, everyone, governments and corporations alike, relied on the mainframe computer (or Server to Client topography) as The Source of all information and it was easier to control and manipulate what information people can access. Then the PC and Mac revolution happened in the '80's and that started a wider and less-controlled distribution of information ( peer-to -peer topography), both in governments and business enterprise. And it became much harder, though not impossible, for governments and corporations to control the type and amount of information the population had access to. Then in the late '90's the Internet exploded (peer-to-peer on steroids) and made it virtually impossible for any entity, government or corporation, to control or stop the free flow of information, globally. When human beings anywhere have access to unfiltered information, sooner or later, they will come to their senses and demand their universal right to live without fear of repression or violence (from their governments) in their daily lives. The rulers of China and Iran today better pay close attention to this "rolling revolutions" happening right now in the Middle East as they are not immune.

    March 27, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  17. Allen N Wollscheidt

    Money is STILL in control - Many of the commentators on the various Comment Boards are either paid to comment as they do by BigMoney OR they are insane - makes little difference which ! ! !

    March 27, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  18. Dr Chris Grant

    Joe Geobbels understood the power of radio quicker than most , which was why all radios were banned in occupied countries during WWII. That was the downside – in that he couldn't use radio to get the Nazi message out for fear of the BBC getting their message in, plus urgent and famous heralds to resistance heroism, such as: "My sock has a hole, darn it!"

    Any European under perhaps the age of 58 remembers Radio Luxemburg with great pleasure, My bedroom radio in suburban Surrey remained tuned to nothing else for many years as American rock stars got blasted across the entire European Continent at gigabigawatt levels of infinite free air-time. So long as the message was reasonably subtle, Radio Luxemburg could have got me to swallow anything they wished so long as it had a beat .... they may well have done as I now live in Sacramento.

    Not every story coming out of Egypt today is as ideal as I would wish to hear. Mubarak's thugs haven't just surrendered and melted away forever; the danger remains they may re-emerge as "The Peoples Party for a Liberated Egypt". Maybe the way we can best judge true progress of democracy in Egypt is to monitor Egyptian State Broadcasting. So long as a nations broadcasting system is not entirely free to publish that nations news, both good and bad, we can assume democracy remains out of practical reach. It is entirely sensible that any nation determined to head out on democracy's true path should be building competing bradcasting stations left and right.

    Just as the Spotted Owl is a sentinal species for the health of North-West forests – or the canary in the coal-mine – perhaps we can best judge the progress of democracy in any nation by the freedom of their national broadcasting., So, Egypt, what is going on these days with your State-run TV and radio? Same old ... same old .... perhaps? It may be truly difficult to put true democracy in place after half a century of totalitarian rule, but is not difficult to talk about it and to be seen doing so!


    March 27, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Claudia

      You must be older than 50 something. My generation remembers Television programming, not radio programs. I am 56 & was born with Television. Maybe if you had used the age 68 instead of 58.

      March 28, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  19. Dave

    Recent revolutions are somewhat understandable but as you show they could happen anywhere for sundry reasons. Mostly for the want of wealth redistribution in more advanced societies (see UK). The recently old economic models no longer work for the masses in developed countries, especially for those uneducated nor trained to compete. It is hard for many to accept and few answers exist.

    Even in the US adequate numbers (using your many-to many) exist to create enough chaos to disrupt society. There may be a few that has imagined honorable reason but many more who just want to join the possible feast and vent their self-inflicted, non-attributed, anger. It would be like planning a crime to rob the bank under the guise of a needed social change. It would be hard to control and no possible good could come from it.

    Many people that are left out, left themselves out. Just look at high school graduation rates in major cities, dropout rates, crime rates, married out of wedlock and locked into poverty. Then add the disgruntled unemployed, poor saving rates, primary dependence on social security, inflation, CEO pay packages (you know the list) and you have a soup ready to boil over with no means to clean up/fix the mess. Hence, reason would not exist and chaos could be a text, tweet, call, or an email away Let’s hope we never get there. But, does HS have a plan?

    March 27, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  20. Pam in Oregon

    I agree with the technological ability to openly provide information to many people who would not necessarily have access without propaganda. I really appreciate Mr. Zakaria's valuable viewpoints on many subjects - especially in the Middle East.

    Pam in Oregon

    March 27, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  21. polondia

    Fareed, it's always bad for those in power who want to stay in power, to use force. As it goes "power never seceds without a struggle," so will be the same for the West and America when the time comes. And it's coming. There are weapon systems developed and being developed in America, for anti-riot control against American citizens, for this very purpose. The same citizens who voted for these politians, will use those system against the common voter.

    Ironic, that the very people who are struggling to have so-called freedoms or to become like Western nations, with their liberal ideas on how best to exploit via capital gains by any means, those less fortunate, are now being called freedom fighters by the Western media. Prior, they were called unspeakable names, based on their color, culture or national origin, that being not European nor caucasian. Today, they're rebels or freedom fighters, until they turn away from the West and America's political policies. Then they'll be called those same horrible names, which part of our Western thought and behavior. This before war is commtted on them.

    They're being called rebels, perhaps without a cause. We'll have to wait and see. However, when they do realize the breadth and scope of European's and America's involvement with putting in and supporting the very dictators they're overthrowing, then the social media networks in a very big way, would serve the purpose of this struggle. I've lived long enough to remember the Shah of Iran, and American support for his brutal dictatorship. America is pissed from losing that fight. But Iran has nuclear activities, so it will not be touched by any coalition. If Saddam had waited two or three more years and progressed with his nuclear interests, he too, would never have been invaded. Never!

    Also, not for once did I believe the "Nofly zone" was for protecting the civilians. It was for Libyan oil. The West and America careless than anything of the same people the have had contempt and hatred for, for decades, before and after WWII. Frankly, there people in the US who hate you everytime they see your face, when 4 decades ago you would;ve never made it to prime time TV. The missed opportunities for CNN to tell the truth boggles the mind. State it clearly for the muddle headed, "we will go to war for oil." George Bush Sr. was at least clear on this point. I'll not be surprised if Gaddafi and sons will be killed like Saddam and his children were. Not surprise at all. America and the West will provide the rope and guns as usual.

    March 27, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • sonny orr

      At last someone has played the oil card.If one looks at the middle east oil question since the begining of WW1 it is easy to see.No oil the west just dont care .Yes you have gold and diamonds , you want help best find lots of oil

      March 28, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  22. Mark McCarty

    CNN promotes Racism. True Journalism dose not seek to manipulate history for Government or Gain. Peace

    March 27, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  23. notayesman

    The element so drastically needed is control. Everyone is connected and reconnected and so on and bullshytt! If no one controls anything mankind is running helter skelter and nothing in the way of work is accomplished. Nuttin but gabbin and gibberish on cellphones adds up to total chaos and BULLSHYTT all at the whims of madmen!!!

    March 27, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  24. Alexander

    Where is Fareed??? Is he ill? Is he coming back? Gloria is not Fareed and it is a waste of time to listen to non entities. Let her get her own show. Once more what happened to Faree? At this crucial and interesting time his comments are invaluable. I am sure he would not miss these shows if he was able.

    March 27, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  25. Wade Coye

    Technology is always a two way street in matters of government and power. It is always used as an instrument of influence by anyone who holds it. Currently the trend is toward the crowd (or I suppose you could say the mob) to benefit from social networking technology. However, there are many instances including in the United States where the effort is to concentrate power within a few individuals and entities. I suggest review of he recent congressional attempts to allow the President to "turn off" the internet in the interest of National Security. Wade Coye

    March 27, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Indeed, the IT is a blessing and a curse, a two-edged sword, that cuts both ways. It contributes to spreading news fast and stirring up the masses for a good or a bad reason. Neverthess the internet can be turned off. Human resources are then more reliable the technology.

      March 28, 2011 at 5:36 am |
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