Journalist: Arab Spring fueled by electronic media warfare

Communications college dean visits WSUV students

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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Picture two television screens. One looks down on a chaotic city street and a car in flames — a scene of unrest, violence and danger.

Here’s another view from the same spot: A slightly upward-tilted lens reveals a calm, inviting cityscape on a gorgeous spring day. The burning car is the exception, not the rule. The whole scene serves as reassurance to a scared populace: things are really OK, and it’s time to get out there and march.

The first view of Cairo was broadcast by Egyptian government television one day during the recent revolution there, according to journalist and author Lawrence Pintak of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University in Pullman. He spoke at the Salmon Creek campus Wednesday.

The second view was broadcast by Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite news channel whose mission, simply put, is to “stir things up,” Pintak said. Al Jazeera even split its screen and displayed both pictures of reality — the tiny, scary one and the bigger, hopeful one — so viewers could get a taste of how easy it is to be fooled, and how their own government was trying to fool them.

The government was trying to intimidate people into cowering, Pintak said during a talk on the “Arab Spring” uprisings that began late last year in Tunisia and have so far toppled long-standing dictators there and in Egypt and Libya, and caused major unrest in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, Jordan, Syria and elsewhere.

But because of the existence of satellite-driven Al Jazeera, he said, there was no way the Egyptian government could block the flow of information to the people.

“The government didn’t understand that 18 years after Al Jazeera was created,” Pintak said, “you can’t pull the plug on satellite TV.”

It did try, he said, but sister broadcasters that also have satellites in orbit just lent Al Jazeera some of their own broadcasting bandwidth. There was no stopping the truth from emerging.

“The world is electronic Swiss cheese,” Pintak said.

He is the author, most recently, of a book called “The New Arab Journalist.”

Cellphone revolution

At the start of his talk, Pintak pulled a cell phone from his pocket and declared that, without this revolution in communications technologies, the Arab Spring revolutions never would have happened.

“Most Arab leaders were in power before you were born,” Pintak told the lecture hall full of college students. “Then you guys came along. People like you are the ones who drove this revolution.”

“People like you” means the educated, digitally literate young people who grew up frustrated and furious at the conditions where they live and their limited options for the future.

“It was a perfect storm,” Pintak said. “You have these young, angry people who are good with technology, and you’ve got a bunch of old farts who’ve been ruling the region for a long time.”

It set the stage for a new kind of warfare, Pintak said: electronic media warfare. The entrenched rulers had barely caught up with the idea of independent television news, he said — Al Jazeera being the exception in a landscape of government-media mouthpieces — while their young opponents were running rings around them, sharing strategy and organizing uprisings via the Internet and other electronic venues that are tough, if not impossible, to silence.

And it all began with a suicidal Tunisian fruit vendor and somebody’s cell phone camera, Pintak pointed out. Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest police corruption and ill treatment, and the pictures that were snapped went up on the Internet where they spread across Tunisia, all of North Africa and the whole globe in the wink of an eye.

“It was a cell phone revolution,” said Pintak.

Wary of manipulation

It was also a speedy revolution, he said. By the time the Egyptian government pulled down its entire Internet to block the dissident communications, plans for an April 6 “Day of Anger” were already laid and word about gatherings and strikes had spread. In public, Pintak said, the United States government was only lukewarm toward the Egyptian dissidents and the possible deposal of President Hosni Mubarak; but privately, he said, technology experts at the U.S. State Department were setting up secret toll-free phone numbers in Europe so Egyptian bloggers could dictate their messages and get them out.

The Egyptian government eventually caught on and started spreading its own disinformation via Twitter and Facebook. “But by then Twitter had done its job,” Pintak said. By the time Internet sources were flooded with government falsehoods, he said, Al Jazeera was on the job too, covering what was really going on — like the cityscape that didn’t look nearly as foreboding as government TV made it out to be.

What must look highly foreboding to African dicators, Pintak pointed out, are images of former Egyptian President Mubarak confined to a cage for his trial, and the body of former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi after his death at the hands of rebels in his country.

“It used to be, if you were an autocrat, you got overthrown, you could go live on the French Riviera, you could live out your life,” said Pintak. “What do these images do? If they know their fate is to end up like these guys, will it cause them to dig in?”

Pintak said he knows news directors in the Arab world who have become wary of media manipulations of all kinds. When they’re handed videos that purport to show unrest or danger, they check the shadows against the time of day and the streetscapes against Google Earth — to make sure the video is what it claims to be.

He said that electronic media will no doubt lead to more unrest among peoples held down by tyrants. But he pointed out that, for example, Iran crushed a similar “Twitter Revolution” uprising after its 2009 elections, which were widely seen as corrupt.

“These aren’t all 18-day revolutions,” Pintak said, referring to the quick pace of change in Egypt. “They can bog down and become bloody.”