The power of social media

We’ve learned a lot over the last month about the power of social media to bring down tyrants and corrupt governments in Tunisia and Egypt and mobilize people in Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Iraq, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Oman. It’s been thrilling to watch how Facebook and Twitter, in particular, have helped to encourage thousands of people to take action.

But these social movements have been essentially leaderless. Years of political repression has pretty much stamped out any meaningful civil society in these countries.

So what happens now? How does social media help build civil societies and democratic governments? I don’t have an answer, but it’s going to be a lot harder for social media alone to actually build institutions. I can see it playing a role in mobilizing people to vote or assessing public opinion. But who will play the role of writing laws, creating institutions, and developing political parties? It seems to me that will still need to be done the time-tested, old-fashioned way with people sitting in a room and hashing out the details.

The U.S. government seems to be pondering this question too. This Sunday’s POST (March 6) reported that the U.S. will spend about $250 million this year in Egypt for economic assistance, job training and education, health and pro-democracy assistance. I assume other efforts are under way in other mid-east countries, although not at this level.

At the recent Tech Soup Global conference I learned about another government effort from Noel Dickover , who works for the U.S. State Department where he leads an effort called “ediplomacy Civil Society 2.0.” The Project is discussed by Fast Company here: http://www.fastcompany.com/1703889/state-department-convenes-tech-conference-for-ngos-in-latin-america. Here is a little bit from the State Department web site: http://tech.state.gov/profiles/blogs/what-is-civil-society-20.

At the Tech Soup conference, I also spent some time with Beth Kantor. In her blog she writes about her recent visit to Beruit participating in a program to teach social media skills and help empower individuals to build more participatory and pluralistic societies.

It’s good to know these efforts are underway. But my central concern remains: can social media be as effective building new institutions as it is in tearing down old corrupt ones?

I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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