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Technology has been at the center of social movements that shaped major world events during the past several years, from Tahrir Square in Cairo to Ferguson, Missouri. Kojo chats with former Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli, the chair of a conference focusing on such issues, about the intersection of media, technology and social change.
- Marcus Brauchli Chair, RiseUp; Managing Partner, North Base Media; Former Executive Editor, The Washington Post; Former Managing Editor, The Wall Street Journal
- Shanthi Kalathil International Development, Freedom of Expression and Technology Policy Consultant; Professor, Georgetown University
MR. KOJO NNAMDIDuring the past decade, technological leaps have changed the ways we interact and how ideas are shared. Few people have had a better vantage point to study how these advances affected social movements than Marcus Brauchli who, as a top editor at both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, had the chance to observe the intersection of technology and media and social change and how those forces intersected in the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the movements that have taken root in Russia, Venezuela and here in the U.S.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBrauchli is the chair of a conference taking place in Washington this week that will ponder the future of this evolving relationship between digital and social movements. He joins us in studio. Marcus Brauchli is the chair of the Fusion Rise-up Conference taking place here this week. He's the managing partner of North Base Media which invests in emerging markets, media and technology companies, former executive director of the Washington Post, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal. Marcus, thank you for joining us.
MR. MARCUS BRAUCHLIGreat to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Shanthi Kalathil. She is a consultant on international development, freedom of expression and technology policy. She teaches at Georgetown University's communication and culture technology program. Shanthi Kalathil, thank you for joining us.
MS. SHANTHI KALATHILThank you. Happy to be here.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, give us a call at 800-433-8850. How would you describe the relationship between technology and social movements that have taken root during the past several years, 800-433-8850? Marcus, during the time you were leading these newsrooms at the Post and the Wall Street Journal, technology had a profound effect on how your newspapers delivered its content, how people consumed the work and ultimately whether they were willing to pay for it.
NNAMDIBut during that time, technology also fundamentally changed the nature of many of the stories you were trying to tell in those papers. The conference you're chairing this week will bring together people involved in protest movements throughout the world, many of whom deploy technology to fuel their movements. Why do you feel this conference, that is, is a necessary exercise?
BRAUCHLIWe've brought together people from all over the world who have been involved in protest movements that have been in many cases accelerated by new technologies, social media in particular, that have allowed them to organize large groups of people on the streets very quickly to give voice to movements and to causes that previously might've taken much longer to get organized.
BRAUCHLIIt's a sort of fascinating phenomenon that if you look over the last several years, the pace at which these kind of protests have been taking place has been accelerating. Just as technology seemed to accelerate everything else, it accelerates the pace at which people are able to organize themselves and the number of protests that we're seeing in the world against various sorts of oppressive government or in favor of causes people find important and worthy.
BRAUCHLILooking at the Middle East, for example, obviously it started with Tahrir Square. It spread very rapidly across the region into Libya, eventually into Syria. And in all of these cases it was driven, it was fueled by social media and by technology. What we're looking at at this conference is how do you go about making the changes that you want to see stick? How do you make them permanent? It's easy to get lots of people to turn out in the streets using social media or using technology. It's much harder to actually achieve something.
BRAUCHLIAnd we see this today in Hong Kong, for example, where it's possible to draw hundreds of thousands of young people into the streets of Hong Kong to clog the business district, to force the government to pay attention to you. But if you're the government of Hong Kong and you're looking out at this crowd, weirdly there's no leader. It's very -- there's nobody to negotiate with.
BRAUCHLIAnd so one of the challenges we want to address at this conference this week is, how do you use technology -- how do you use organizing skills? What are the platforms and what are the methods that people involved in protests can use to make their accomplishments real?
NNAMDII'm glad you talked about Hong Kong because Shanthi Kalathil, you've written a great deal about the other side of this coin, the potential for technological changes to work the other way. A decade ago you were writing about authoritarianism 2.0 and how power can be directly related to how information is controlled. What do you make of the moment that we are now in that Marcus just described, for instance in Hong Kong?
KALATHILI think what's striking to me is that, you know, in the intervening decade since my co-author and I originally published this book that looked at that topic, we see many of the same themes recurring, albeit through different forms of media now. So obviously at that time we were talking about mobilizing through email. And now we have social media and Twitter and so many new tools.
KALATHILBut at the same time, the types of challenges that face protest movements or activists are still current. You do have authoritarian regimes that are very capable of not only using these new tools but innovating and, you know, really providing a counterweight to a lot of the protests.
KALATHILAnd it's also not so simple as just saying there are these authoritarian countries and authoritarian governments, and there are these protestors. I think the dynamics of really -- they've shifted so that anybody that has access to these tools can use them for a variety of purposes. And I think one of the things we want to explore during this conference is what are the different ways that these youth activists are using these tools, some of them in very productive ways to actually try and make government function better.
NNAMDII read an article this past week, Marcus, where you said that some of what you're exploring, speaking of youth, is an element of youth versus previous generations. What do you mean by that?
BRAUCHLIThe population of young people in this world is larger than it's ever been. The UN just released a report saying there are 1.8 billion people in the world who are ages 10 to 24 out of a population of 7.3 billion worldwide. Ninety percent of these people live in less developed countries. One-hundred-and twenty million people in the world reach working age every year. So young people have -- governments and societies have real challenges managing the expectations of young people.
BRAUCHLIAt the same time, young people everywhere are engaged and aware of the world around them in ways they never were before because of technology. You can see -- if you're in one society and there's protests taking place in another society, you can see it on your phone, on your computer, on your tablet, whatever device you may have access to. And access to technology is actually one of the giant issues for young people.
BRAUCHLIFascinating observation, when the riots were taking place in Ferguson and the police were deploying teargas, people were using social media from Hong Kong and Taiwan and from Turkey telling the people of Ferguson how to deal with teargas. So young people today connected by technology, aware of what each other are doing because of technology, they are a different generation really than the generation that preceded them, even the generation that immediately preceded them.
BRAUCHLITechnology changes patters of behavior so quickly that people today who are 10 to 24, they use technology entirely differently than people who are in their 30's, let alone people like us who are in our 50's or 60's.
NNAMDIQuestion for both of you, to what degree do you see technological change as the democratization of the information itself? A generation ago, the events that you were talking about in Ferguson, people would have been reading about in the newspaper or looking at a nightly television newscast that we all paid attention to. But now you have people who are on social media in real time, not only telling the story but helping in the -- to assist in the organizing efforts that are going on.
BRAUCHLIThere was a professor I once saw at a university in China who said that newspapers had liberated people's eyes, radio at liberated people's ears and the internet has liberated their voices. It is true that everybody now has an opportunity to speak out. And, you know, technology means that everybody can express themselves. There are a whole lot of complicating results of that for democracy, for societies, for social order.
BRAUCHLIEverybody having a voice doesn't necessarily produce more democracy. It certainly is beneficial in terms of the awareness that people have in a society of what people who previously might not have had a voice think and have to say. It creates problems, I think, for governments. And I guess, problem may be actually too loaded a word, or people might challenge the word problem.
BRAUCHLIBut if you're a government, it used to be you controlled the agenda. You set the terms of discussion for your society. And I think today if you're a leader of a government, it's much more difficult to control the conversation in your society because so many other people have voices and because the tone of the voices that you often hear through social media and through other platforms is often critical. Because what people are most quick to express is their frustration and unhappiness with things.
NNAMDIWe don't hear a lot from listeners who are very satisfied. We hear a great deal from listeners who are disgruntled about what we may do. But same question to you, Shanthi.
KALATHILI think two of the hallmarks of the information age for me are increased transparency and increased volatility. And as a byproduct of that, I mean, people now have ever greater means of gathering information about all sorts of events. That's the transparency. But that as a byproduct of that is volatility. And by that I mean people are also using those tools of the information age to mobilize, so whereas in the past, as you mentioned, people may have learned about things through the newspaper. Now they learn about things and then use those same tools to then organize and mobilize.
KALATHILAnd I think that's possibly the sea change that we're seeing now. And that's something that is different even from, I would say, 10 or 15 years ago. You know, we're really seeing that take off now in the last several years.
NNAMDIMarcus how is it that you came to link up with Fusion? And for those who are not familiar with it, can you describe what it is?
BRAUCHLISure. Fusion is a TV and digital channel that is aimed at millennials. It was started as a joint venture between Disney and Univision, a Spanish-language network. It's run by this brilliant and charismatic guy Isaac Lee who I know through various journalism circles. And Isaac and I were having breakfast earlier this year in New York and we were talking about this phenomenon of protests and youth protests in the world. And we were observing how rapidly it spreads and how protestors in one country learn from what happens in another country.
BRAUCHLIAt that point I was actually thinking perhaps, you know, it was slowing down and, you know, there had been the protests in Ukraine, but they seemed to be winding down or actually devolving into this horrific war. And I thought maybe there was going to be a little bit less of this. And of course, we since had, you know, Taiwan government occupying -- Taiwan students occupying the government buildings. We've had what's happening in Hong Kong. And of course we've had what's going on in Ferguson. So there seems to be no slowing, no abating of the pace.
BRAUCHLIIsaac suggested that we should try to organize something to bring people together in Washington from all over the world, people involved in the protest movements in Asia and the Middle East, Turkey, Yemen, Egypt together with people from Taiwan or people from Venezuela so they could share experiences and try to understand the challenges and the accomplishments of different groups and maybe learn from each other.
BRAUCHLIAnd we settled on a sort of core idea which I think aligns really well with what Fusion wants to be as a TV and digital channel, which is they're aimed at millennials and they want to be a channel that helps millennials to take control of their world. And so the theme of this conference that we're holding tomorrow in Washington is, how do we turn political protests into social progress?
BRAUCHLIAnd we're trying to connect all these activists with really smart technologists, people like Sascha Meinrath from the New America Foundation who understands mesh networks, David Keyes from Movements.org who's trying to create platforms for human rights people -- for people involved in human rights to connect with each other and with lawyers and people who can help them in their causes. And bring all these people together with activists who've, you know, put themselves on the line in very difficult situations sometimes. Try and give them the tools to make their movements successful.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Please don your headphones, please, so you can hear what Samuel in Hyattsville, Md. has to say. Samuel, you're now on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMUELHey, Kojo. How you guys doing?
NNAMDIDoing well. Good.
SAMUELI just want to say I have this -- I understand that social media has caused, you know, a lot of social consciousness, especially in the Middle East, but I haven't seen the positive results of social media when it comes to, you know, all I see is the addition of government, you know, the government gets run over and the whole country gets worse than it used to be. That's all I've seen social media go from Tunisia, to, you know, Egypt to Syria. What it look like to me -- I don't know if I'm wrong, but what it look like is the radical people push regular folk out, make them look like they're regular (unintelligible) that trying to, you know, take over and at the end of the day, radical will still take over that's not going to let them use social media anyway. So I haven't seen the positive results -- end results of social media.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. I think it occurs to a lot of people, both you, Marcus Brauchli and Shanthi Kalathil, that this is one of the reasons to have a conference like this because there is a lot of movement taking place. But people are not sure whether this movement is directional in any way or the other. I'll start with you, Shanthi.
KALATHILWell, I think the caller raises an excellent point. And I think one of the things to keep in mind is that so much of the attention and global media focus is on that point of transition when a government topples and when you can really see how social media may have played a role in making that happen. What is less visible is what happens after that and the very hard arduous work of building a free and just society.
KALATHILThere are lots of ways in which technology can actually play a role in helping that happen but that is less publicized and less well known. Many of the folks that we're bringing to have speak at our conference on Wednesday have done work along those lines. They may work at village level in Africa or the Middle East helping people understand their rights. And they may use information tools and technology to do that. But that's not the sort of thing that typically gets covered. So you see the revolution, you see social media, you see chaos and then you don't see that really hard work that goes on afterwards. And it is hard work. You know, it's hard to point to sort of the typical success story. And there aren't that many at this point.
BRAUCHLIIf I could just add, Kojo...
BRAUCHLI...in response to the caller's question, you know, it's not social media-driven revolutions that are failing because of social media. Revolutions are difficult to make permanent. I mean, people gathered in large numbers in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the streets of Burma in 1989 and in both cases, despite large popular uprisings, you know, the government stayed in place after responding violently in both cases, to keep the protestors out.
BRAUCHLII think making a successful revolution isn't -- making -- technology doesn't make it any easier to accomplish a revolution. It does make it easier in some ways to get people organized and to bring people out. And what we want to do is bring people together so they can talk about what technology does for them and what they need to do to accomplish their aims.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. If you have called, stay on the line. If you'd like to, the number's 800-433-8850. How have technological advances in how you receive information shaped your perspective on world events that have taken place during the past decade or so, 800-433-8850? You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the Fusion RiseUp conference taking place here in Washington tomorrow with Marcus Brauchli, chair of the conference. He's the managing partner for North Base Media, which invests in emerging markets media and technology companies. He's former executive editor of the Washington Post, former managing Editor of the Wall Street Journal.
NNAMDIHe is joined in studio by Shanthi Kalathil. She is a consultant on International Development, Freedom of Expression and Technology Policy. She's adjunct professor with Georgetown University's Communication, Culture and Technology program. I'd like to go directly to the phones to Courtney, in Washington, D.C. Courtney, your turn.
COURTNEYThank you so much. So I'm with the Community to Protect Journalists and we're excited to be supporting this conference. But I think that it's important to -- I take issue a little bit with what was said earlier, in terms of it being easy to get people out on the streets, because I think actually in many countries where there's repression, or authoritarian governance it's actually quite difficult to get over that barrier of fear. And in Egypt we know that the activists were working for several years to actually build up and get over that barrier of fear so that people could turn out into the streets.
COURTNEYAnd I think it's also important for youth and media activists to think about the role that mainstream media play in really the symbiotic role that they have in leveraging traditional media. We know that 70 percent of the content of social media refers to mainstream media. And so they should really be thinking not only about, you know, how do you get people out into the street, but also how do you work on changing people's imaginations about what is possible. Because I think that's one of the big things that we saw in Egypt and why people were able to get out on the streets.
NNAMDIThank you very much for you call. I don't know if you care to comment on that Shanthi or Marcus.
KALATHILYeah, I mean I think Courtney has a great point. You know, what I typically do when I talk about the role of technology is I try to emphasize that we're really talking about all forms of technology and media, including traditional media. And that is a tremendous force. And, you know, in many societies and communities around the world people rely on traditional sources of information. And so I think it's easy when we talk about technology and social media kind of get caught up in that, think that everybody has equal access to these types of tools when that's not the case.
KALATHILAnd so it is also important to consider the environment for media around the world and to understand that if a country has repressive laws and does not have -- does not permit freedom of expression, that's going to apply to traditional media as well as social media. And it will be more difficult to organize in that case.
NNAMDIDifficult to get people in the street. But allow me, Marcus, to complicate this a little bit more, because a book review that you wrote for the Washington Post Outlook Section this week. And you reviewed a book about the founders of an alternative social media network. This network has also been used to share the beheading videos made by the group ISIS.
NNAMDIIn what sense can these technologies -- we're talking about them being able to organize people and whether or not they have -- depending on the governments -- the capacity to get people in the street. But in what sense can these technologies be, well, because they're disorganized, chaotic to the point of creating an avenue for dystopia?
BRAUCHLIWell, you're right. Technology is always a double-edged sword. The social media network that we described in the book review was something called diaspora, which is a distributed network. It allows people to put -- it allows people to put their photos or material that they are sharing on computers that are distributed widely, rather than controlled through servers owned by a single corporation or by -- or easily monitored by the government.
BRAUCHLIAnd the people who created diaspora did it with the best of intentions, thinking that, you know, Facebook, in their eyes, had become a monolith and they wanted to create a social media network that wasn't commercialized and that was independent. But when the people at ISIS, who apparently are quite technologically and media savvy, wanted to distribute videos that they knew that the mainstream networks would shut down as quickly as they could, they used diaspora which allowed those pieces of information, the videos, the photographs to exist outside of the control of governments.
NNAMDIWhich is precisely what they wanted.
BRAUCHLIYeah, I think, you know, technology -- there are many ways in which technology is a problem for people who are trying to organize. Obviously, there have been these cases where people who are captured, either by governments or in the case of Syria, by forces that are unfriendly to foreign involvement, they take them, they extract from them through torture or other means, their names from their social media network and that gives them a roadmap of people to go after. So social media can be very threatening if somebody gets a hold of the network of an activist.
BRAUCHLITechnologies allow governments to monitor the activities and the movements of people in society, just as the United States has used technology, you know, and we've all learned this from Mr. Snowden, but as the U.S. has used technology to surveil many of its enemies around the world, so too do governments use technology to keep track of what activists in their societies are doing. And they can go after people using their cell phone identifiers and know where the people are based and send police to arrest them or interrogate them.
BRAUCHLISo there's a whole lot of ways in which technology is not a -- isn't always a positive. But I think in terms of organizing people, as Courtney said when she called in, it isn't always easy to organize people in the face of an oppressive regime. But technology definitely makes it easier to link up with other people, like-minded people and to at least build a coalition that eventually -- if people will screw up their courage, can become a force on the streets.
NNAMDIShanthi, if information can travel this fast and people can connect with one another so quickly and effectively, talk a little bit about which are the societies that seem to be best equipped for harnessing these technological changes, as forces for strengthening their values.
KALATHILI think the societies that are best equipped to use technology typically are the ones that feature an open and democratic government. You know, those are the ones that typically have put in place laws and regulations that foster free speech, that foster the growth of technology, the build-out of infrastructure and so on. And I think that you see that being played out. I mean, if you look at India, for example, they're really doing amazing things with technology there.
KALATHILDoing things not only in terms of social networking, but thinking about how technology can be used to address some of the poverty and close the wide income gap. And I think, you know, actually, if you look within the whole continent of Africa, you will see so many countries that are innovating incredibly with technology. And, again, that they run the gamut.
KALATHILAnd you'll see some governments that have taken a very proactive approach toward their technology policy, as well as their freedom of information and freedom of expression type of regulations. Those are the ones that are best placed, I think, to innovate and to really tap into the potential of technology to improve their societies.
NNAMDIWell, if, in fact, resilience tends -- or if, in fact, transparency tends to build resilience, what happens in a case like the aforementioned Edward Snowden? How have these developments affected what you think passes for credibility at the diplomatic level in the era of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden?
BRAUCHLII'm not sure exactly, you know, I don't know that it plays out the same everywhere. Obviously, the United States has suffered a lot of damage in its diplomatic relations with allies. I doubt seriously that people who are in the intelligence and espionage game in other major powers were entirely surprised by what the United States was doing.
BRAUCHLII think it was more the way the -- what the U.S. government appeared to have been doing to its own citizens and to its allies, which is to say monitoring their activities and their conversations that caused the most trouble. But I want to just pick up on something else that Shanthi just talked about a minute ago.
BRAUCHLIAbout the embrace of technology in places like Africa.
BRAUCHLIYou know, I talked earlier about the large number of young people in the world today. One of the other really interesting facts is that there are actually half a dozen countries, significant-size population countries in sub-Saharan African, where the populations are actually youthening. You know, we talk all the time about aging populations in places like Japan, the United States -- or not so much the United States, but Japan, Europe and even soon in China.
BRAUCHLIBut there are other countries where the populations are still getting younger. And there are also places, as it happens, where technology penetration is still relatively low. Fewer than one in five people have regular access to the internet. But as people get access to technology, as they get visibility in what's going on in the rest of the world, their demand for content and for information goes vertical. Their interest is enormous. And they take lessons from what other countries are doing.
BRAUCHLIDemonstration effect of what one society is doing is hugely important in another society. And I think in some ways you could actually attribute a lot of uprisings and unrest among young people in much of the world to what you could call rising expectations -- to take a phrase from the famous Kerner Commission and the 1960s urban riots in the U.S. You know, people looking out and seeing what other people have and what they don't have. And they're expectations, their desire to participate in that fuel activism.
NNAMDII'm glad you talked about that because I'm beginning to think that what I have been talking about to a large extent, what our caller was talking about, about the ability to put people in the streets, seems as if we're working a little bit on a 1960s model here, in which we tend to make judgments about all things social by the number of people in the streets. When in fact, when you -- what you're talking about when you talk about medical care in Africa or people in those environments being able to better fend for themselves.
NNAMDIWe're talking about the use of technology in an environment of social change that is not necessarily about putting large numbers of people in the streets to ultimately change the form or system of government that we're talking about. Shanthi?
KALATHILYeah, I mean, again, going back to the earlier caller's point, you know, where I think there's this perception that change, political change, social change is about putting those people on the streets. And I think, again, many of our participants and speakers at the conference are going to show people that they've done tremendous things with technology. They're activists. They are protesting, but they're protesting in a way that is directed and you may not see it by people in the streets. You'll see it in different ways.
NNAMDIAnything else you'd like to tell us about the conference tomorrow? In specific terms what can people expect?
BRAUCHLIThe conference is a gathering of, as I say, young activists around the world, but it's also the participants and the audience have been brought together to Washington mostly are young people who are leaders of organizations, entrepreneurs, activists, artists, people who are trying to make change happen. And as you say, Kojo, not always people who are trying to organize large numbers of people in the streets, but people who are trying to use technology to make positive change take place.
BRAUCHLIAnd I think -- the event is streaming on Fusion.net during the day tomorrow. And I hope people have a chance to tune in. They'll be able to see the wide range, the creative spirit of these young people and get a glimpse of what's taking place in the world.
NNAMDIGot an email from Catherine, in Bethesda, who said, "I applaud those places like Egypt who've used social media to bring people together, to advance the cause of democracy, high-minded things. If only we could put it to such high-minded use in America where it seems like on some days Twitter exists only to relay risque photos of what's-her-name." I won't even mention it on this broadcast.
NNAMDIMarcus, you gave an interview to Politico recently where you said you're optimistic about journalism. Not just in the United States, but throughout the world. What provides you with that optimism?
BRAUCHLIWell, I guess, you know, there is a lot of pessimism around this -- around the state of the industry in the United States, the state of the media industry. And I think the pessimism often times derives from an understanding of the economic condition of the legacy media companies. Meaning, if you run a big newspaper and you have printing presses and pension plans and large numbers of employees and you covered everything from, you know, international to business to politics to sport, you have (unintelligible) that are very hard to sustain.
BRAUCHLIBut today somebody can go out and start a new journalism enterprise with a handful of people and can actually produce journalism and can do it in a way that can generate revenues. You can generate revenues through advertising. You can sell subscriptions. Some of the best journalism in the country today is being done by non-profits. And I think this is a very fertile time for experimentation in journalism.
BRAUCHLIAnd rather than being solely pessimistic about the state of the legacy media companies -- which are important and by the way, which in many cases -- as with the Washington Post, as with the Wall Street Journal, as with the Boston Globe, have been acquired by people who have significant resources and can afford to sustain their journalism for a long time to come. But these -- but the new startup media enterprises, I see a lot of really great things happening.
BRAUCHLIThis week, for example, on the front page of the Washington Post starting Sunday is a series of stories from the Marshall Project, a journalism enterprise set up by Neil Barsky and former New York Times editor Bill Keller, on looking at the rules in this country regarding the legal process for people on death row. Powerful, powerful journalism done by a nonprofit. And that kind of thing gives me a great deal of hope.
BRAUCHLIAnd it's happening everywhere in the world. Everywhere I go I meet with journalists who are creative, starting new things, and very ambitious about what they want to accomplish.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's almost all the time we have. Except to remind you that the Fusion RiseUp conference it taking place in Washington tomorrow. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, where you will find a link to that conference. Marcus Brauchli is the chair of the conference, managing partner of North Base Media, which invests in emerging markets media and technology companies. He's former executive editor of the Washington Post and former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal. Marcus, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIShanthi Kalathil is a consultant on International Development, Freedom of Expression and Technology Policy. She's a professor with Georgetown University's Communication, Culture and Technology program. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIGood luck with the conference tomorrow. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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