“Technology, social media and the continued importance of the United States" - Address to the Sydney Uni Politics Society

Monday, 4 June 2012

4 JUNE 2012

“Technology, social media and the continued importance of the United States: a powerful combination"


The Arab Spring has delivered newfound hope for many repressed citizens in the Arab world.  For the rest, it has provided inspiration and is serving as a catalyst for positive change that gives people power, and a stronger voice in the body politic.

Like many of you, I have been following, in real time, the events of the Arab Spring via twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

We were shocked by the self immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor that started the revolts that led to the toppling of Ben Ali over a year ago in January 2011.

We then cheered as young Christians and Muslims took to Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest against the denial of democracy.

These young Christians and Muslims, ultimately, forced a long overdue regime change.

We were gutted and horrified when reports emerged of a young teenager, just 13 years old, tortured and murdered by Syrian authorities.

That boy has become the enduring symbol of the struggle against the tyrannical and murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Young people, across the world, are rejecting the demands of conformist past generations and taking up a fight for democracy, something we in Australia, all too often, take for granted.

The young people of the Arab world have exhibited creativity, idealism and a zealous desire to make a difference. 

They are empowered by their demographic muscle. An amazing 51% of their population is aged under 25.

Their willingness to try new ways of gaining a voice, and subsequent political relevance, is not just forged in the face of a gun but it is now the historical destiny of a generation.

Governments cannot cover up their tyranny any longer. The harder they try, the harder they will, eventually, fall.

This popular desire for change is made all the more possible by new technologies which empower individuals and make the collective far more mobile.

And their power comes from it coinciding with the fact that young people, now more educated and better informed than ever, are relentlessly searching for the next opportunity to make a difference.
Your generation wants to live in a better and more peaceful world. It is less tolerant of the mistakes and failings of authority than any generation before it.

And young people are using technology to achieve this change.

The power of technology

Just as the printing press took the control of knowledge out of the monasteries and the palaces, the Internet is empowering billions more with greater access to information and the works and deeds of others. Twitter and Facebook are the equivalent of the modern day printing presses.

Further still, international diplomacy is no longer the domain of rich and well connected families – anyone with a mobile phone and an internet connection has become a player – and therefore a threat to any authority the world over.

If current trends continue, this decade could well be the decade of the decline of authoritarianism. It could also see the world made up of more democratically elected governments than at any other time in history.

Information is immediate, universal and unfiltered.

In 2009, the vision of murdered Iranian Neda Agha-Soltan following rigged elections went straight from the streets of Tehran, to the American President’s desk in less than three hours.  It sparked protests never before seen in Iranian history. Time Magazine at the time noted that Neda’s death, beamed onto our TV screens through a video posted on YouTube, was ‘probably the most widely witnessed death in human history’.

But few would have expected that this was only the beginning of tech activism in the region. Few would have thought that the event would have become a precursor for the Arab Spring.

The deaths of several hundred innocent protestors in Houla in Syria in recent weeks was made all the more real by photos and videos captured by people barely older than yourself, that within minutes, were uploaded on to YouTube and twitter.

The atrocities of the Assad government were live streamed to anyone with an internet connection. Anyone watching could not help but be shaken by the lack of humanity that took place in this small town a fortnight ago.

Ali el-Sayed, a child of 11 years of age, witnessed the massacre of his four siblings and his parents. He only survived because he smeared himself in his brother's blood and pretended to be dead. He watched on in agony when the bodies of his immediate family were disfigured with bullet holes.

Just hours later, his juvenile voice was being beamed around the world on channels such as BBC and CNN through a video he gave Associated Press via Skype.

With all the freshness of seeing his entire family slaughtered before his eyes, Ali recounted the events for the now global audience:
"My mother started screaming 'Why did you take them?',"

Immediately after someone took his mother to the bedroom and shot her several times. Ali went on to comment:
"Then he left the bedroom. He used his torch to see in front of him. When he saw my sister Rasha he shot her in the head while she was in the hallway."

These events are not new occurrences – events like these have been, for too long, common practice.

But it is the first time that, domestically, tyrannical leaders are being held to account.

No longer can dictators hide behind the state controlled press to report exactly what they want.

Stories like Ali’s are now set free. Stories like Ali’s make the lack of action by the international community all the more real.  Previously Global Leaders often dismissed reports of specific massacres as “unconfirmed claims”. This allowed greater room for diplomats to manoeuvre towards inaction.  Where transparency is available excuses fall away. Modernity is our friend.

Think of how different major human catastrophes may have played out if transparency and modern technologies were available at the time.

The Turks would no longer be able to deny the genocide of more than 1 million Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century - an issue that still affects relationships for Turkey today.

Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung collectively would not have gotten away with the systemic murder of millions of innocent civilians either through the programmed holocaust of the Jewish people or the additional systemic slaughter of their own citizenry.

Thanks to new and accessible technologies, events, as ugly and as unseemly as they may be, unfold before our eyes…in real time….often without a filter.

Back in 1982, Bashar al-Assad’s father was responsible for the brutal murder of over 30,000 Syrians in Hama. He razed the town in a brutal 27 day assault.

This massacre was reported without headlines, without comment, and went largely unnoticed, including inside Syria. The true scale of this massacre really only filtered out to the outside world through history books published by western authors well after the event. Thirty years later, the sheer scale of the massacre is still not known, it will probably never be.

Even in recent weeks, while Kofi Annan was busy trying to negotiate peace with this despotic regime, Syrian forces launched large scale assaults on opposition rural towns in Idlib Province, killing at least 95 civilians. They burned, destroyed and looted hundreds of houses.

The independently verified deaths of 14,000 Syrians at the hands of Bashar al-Assad’s government have dominated world headlines in recent months. Reports, from organisations such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, which document deaths are made all the more ‘real’ by citizen journalist’s pictures and accounts that cut into a viewers consciousness.

We have gone from merely hearing reports of violence to seeing it clinically documented by people with little more than access to a mobile phone and an internet connection.

Technology has been the differentiating factor. If the same tools were available to the Syrian activists in 1982, it is likely that Assad’s son may not be in power in 2012.

This is a scary proposition for dictators and despots around the world. The activism of youth is not new – but it has become all the more effective through the power of technology.

The Tiananmen protests in China were epitomised by the man with his shopping bags who stood in front of a tank. This image has become the enduring symbol of the struggle for freedom for many of the Chinese diaspora and the international community, and the Chinese government was able to use their totalitarian control of the media to repress distribution of the image inside mainland China. Even today, most mainland Chinese do not know about the events of 4 June 1989. If today’s tools were available to student protestors in Tiananmen Square then our world may be a very different place today.

Despite the continued tight grip of the Communist Party, social media is being used as a tool to circumvent state media.

In July last year, when 40 people were killed in a high speed train collision in Zhejiang province, users of the Chinese state controlled microbloging service, Weibo, started posting photos and videos of the wreckage, well before the ‘great firewall’ was able to able to stop the information being distributed to Weibo’s 300 million users.

More recently, when blind ‘barefoot lawyer’ and activist Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest, his supporters took to Weibo, and not the streets, to show their support. What followed was weeks of games between activists and authorities to try and outsmart each other.

The activists developed nearly 20 different names for Chen in an effort to avoid censorship – the authorities were busy playing catch-up to stop discussion. 

Even the Chinese government, with over 50,000 internet censors, cannot stop the free flow of information to their citizens. 

During the Egyptian revolution Hosni Mubarak tried to ‘switch off’ the internet and phone services to the Egyptian population, but realised the impact on Egyptian export markets – that is e-commerce, tourism and call centres - was simply too great. It made Egypt’s 55 million mobile phone users just more intent on overthrowing this tyrannical regime.

Furthermore, they used fixed line phones and a ‘hack’, hastily released by Google and twitter, which allowed activists to ‘speak to tweet’.

The power of the ‘American Dream’

Yet what motivates these protestors?

For the Arab world, it is power and freedom that motivates these uprisings.

When I was speaking with student leaders from across the Arab world at the University of Wollongong in Dubai last year, it became apparent that much of this desire for freedom is motivated by what they, and others, coin ‘the American dream’.

It remains true, despite the discomfort that it causes for many on the political left, that the United States remains the most powerful force for liberty in the world today. 

While America’s foreign policy is often seen, particularly around academic circles, as one of military imperialism and expansion, the reality is, much of the push for freedom on the Arab Street has been due to the place and vision of America in our modern world, not simply its military might.

While many in the Arab world have criticisms of American foreign policy, the core American values of freedom, enterprise, democracy and reward for effort are admired and respected across the world.

The courage of the United States in promoting and defending these values is equally important.

In July last year, when the United States Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, stood in solidarity with protestors in the flashpoint city of Hama in Syria, thousands of young people flocked to catch a glimpse.

The example set by liberal democracies provides the best hope for securing change – and America must continue to lead the world with this global image.

Just as those in East Berlin looked across the wall and wondered why communism failed to deliver the riches that were evident a stones throw away, the United States represents a beacon of hope and example, the power of which can not be underestimated.

American foreign policy has been somewhat obsessively divided between the Kissinger-style realists and the neo-conservatives.

For me, the most productive path for the world’s most powerful democracy lies somewhere between the two.  In this regard, I suspect that no one has truly got that balance right, although many have tried.

The ‘neocons’, much maligned as a result of Iraq, are none-the-less correct to assert the moral obligation and paramount importance of America’s role in promoting democracy. 

I share the aspirations of conservatives in terms of the values of liberty they want to see prevail and the importance of the United States playing a role in reaching that goal.

Fundamentally, I see freedom as a human value, not a manufactured one. Everyone does, regardless of their nationality, religion, language group or background have the desire for freedom at their core.

However it is a test for nations to stand up for the value of freedom outside of their own borders.

This is where the United States occupies an important position in the global polity.

Make no mistake, people across the world believe a United States willing to stand up for liberty and opportunity makes the world a safer place.  They recognise that countries like Russia and China are only looking after their own best interest, and not the collective desire to see a freer and safer world.

Russia and China have been accused of being the ‘bullies in the room’ of the United Nations Security Council by preventing international action on Syria. Nations who care more for their strong linkages with the established regime in Syria and care less for the deaths of 14,000 innocent civilians will not achieve a reputation of espousing democratic values.

The role of United States soft Diplomacy

The role that soft diplomacy from the United States plays, particularly in what Hillary Clinton has dubbed ‘21st Century Statecraft’, is one of the ways America is helping build a safer and freer world.

Whether this be in the United States actions to prevent twitter from going down for scheduled maintenance in 2009 during the Iranian election protests; the engagement of senior diplomats such as Ambassador Rice with Arab Spring activists on twitter; to citizen election monitoring in Egypt through mobile phone technologies, America is making an effort to bring statecraft from the round table in New York to the level of the individual.

As Hillary Clinton notes, the ‘freedom to connect’ to the internet represents a fundamental ‘freedom’ for the world because with it comes freedom to assemble and freedom of expression.

This is why in Australia the Coalition stood strong against internet censorship by the Labor Party. Violating internet freedom is a violation of an individual’s freedom of expression. 

The actions of our government were directly contradictory to the values in which both our great nations were founded upon.

But of course it is more than just the values of “freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. In a nation of 300 million people with as rich and diverse a culture as is possible in a relatively modern nation, the American dream delivers a message of hope for millions across the globe.

The continued role for the military

There will be times when threats, such as those that remain in Afghanistan, warrant American and international military intervention for the sake of protecting security of both ourselves and that of innocent civilians. 

However American foreign policy must be nuanced – for example, despite domestic pressure it should support the efforts of multilateral organisations including the United Nations, (as clunky and inefficient as it may be) in order to temper global sentiment that always argues against the interests of the largest and most powerful countries.
Weak regimes will always be threatened by a strong America for so long as America represents the values that empower the masses against their oppressors.

It is also the case that liberty can only be achieved when the hearts and minds of the repressed are willing to accept that change is required.

The masses have sometimes struggled to find this balance.

There is a healthy scepticism for a country that purports to be able to ‘deliver democracy out of the back of a Hum-vee’  - as one former Ronald Reagan adviser put it - but 21st century America is more sophisticated and nuanced than cold war America and its predecessors.

Previously America relied overwhelmingly on military intervention, and the threat of economic might, to influence change. Now the fight is as much ideological, as it is military.

Indeed we should never dismiss lightly the sacrifices the United States made in their defence of freedom, including that of Australia.

We must never forget that there are more than 100,000 dead Americans soldiers buried in the sand between here and Japan.

This sacrifice from American families is an intergenerational debt Australia must be forever grateful for.

This is why it is an issue of enormous concern that whilst our defence expenditure, 1.6% of GDP, is now approaching its lowest level a since 1938 (despite promises to the contrary from Julia Gillard), America’s spending on defence is still around 4.7% of GDP.

America still does the heavy lifting even in our region.

We welcome the announcement that 2,500 marines are to be stationed in Darwin.  But our government cannot sustain a lazy approach to our own defence whilst relying on our mates time and time again.


With the Asian Century well on its way, we do not know how the security situation in our region will pan out.

But we do know that political tyrants can no longer avoid the scrutiny of their people by operating in dark corners with complete control of their media. Not even the meanest leadership on earth in North Korea has been able to avoid the power of new technology.

Modern tools has been able to shine a spotlight on the worst behaviour in the darkest corners of our world. 

The combination of hard and soft diplomacy by the US and its allies has formed a powerful duo that for many despots is too great to bear.

The decentralisation of power through the internet has opened up new opportunities for influence and it is young people that have stood up and forced governments, civil society and commentators to change their ways to accommodate a ‘new voice’ on the Arab Street.

In 2010 half a billion people across the world had access to the internet on their mobile phone.  Now, two years later the figure is nearly double that. By 2016 telecommunications companies estimate that nearly 5 billion people will have access to the internet, including all the social and economic benefits this brings, from their mobile.

This phenomenon is certainly not going away, not for us, and especially not for tyrannical regimes.

Their time has finally come to fall before the greater power of social democracy.

This is a bad decade to be a dictator.