When Southern Sudan held a referendum in January, people in the poor districts in the neighboring countries did not know anything about either the event or the location of this region itself, because of the lack of Internet connection there. In contrast, when revolutions erupted in Tunisia and Egypt, entire communities in the adjacent countries got together to watch YouTube videos to learn about what was happening there. The Ukrainian Week has talked about the role of social media in the contemporary world with Michael Binyon, a prominent British media expert and journalist, who came to Ukraine in the framework of the “European experience: United Kingdom” joint project of the British Council in Ukraine and theYe bookstore.
Birth of a new power
U.W.: Would you agree that it’s a high time to reevaluate the role of classical media? Twitter and Facebook, rather than professional journalists, provided people in Egypt with the information that made them rebel.
“I agree. Journalists have really gotten confused about what their role should be, especially in countries where they perform 0rather dubious function of serving the ruling government. Most Arab governments still do not comprehend the power of social media, which cannot be controlled. The Western mass media do not understand how this resource can be utilized. Social media are a form of direct democracy. However, a great problem is that a lot of what is written there is either untrue, or very subjective, emotional, and fragmentary.”
U.W.: Can social media push classic media aside and cause disappearance of journalism as an occupation?
“I don't think so. Professional classical journalists will preserve their role in new conditions. The goal of the traditional mass media is to provide information from dozens and hundreds of sources and choose one that is the most important and relevant. Journalists present a general picture of the news to readers through strict selection of information. When people rely on blogs and social networks, they do not know whether information given is trustworthy. That the case when the classical mass media come into the picture.
“Social media are good for organizing a large number of people with something in common. But they are incapable of helping to solve political problems. Facebook will not explain how to help the poor or how to guarantee economic growth. Such media can raise the question, but won’t be able to lead to ant solution. Everyone speaks at the same time in social networks. It is not easy to achieve something specific under these conditions.”
U.W.: That is, certain functional division in the media environment takes place: some media help everyone to be heard, while others help understand processes and phenomena?
“In any case, you cannot rely on just one type of media. Information spreads through various channels. In my opinion, traditional newspapers preserve their functions — analysis and reflection. Therefore, a contemporary journalist has to keep in mind various channels of information. For example, he needs to know bloggers who write about certain topics and possess valuable data, as well as listen to political debates on television. The reason is that today politics is often made on television rather than in parliaments. Specialized, niche magazines that are important to decision makers will also keep their role.”
Reaching out to people
U.W.: What is the role of social media in Libya?
“People have cell phones there. They text message each other. However, Facebook and blogs have not been well developed there. The country receives large oil profits, but Libyan society is not technologically advanced. That is why young people are so desperate. They are now politically and socially more aware and mature than the Gaddaffi system itself. Those who have rebelled in Libya are ordinary people. The most educated Libyans are able to travel, and many work abroad. But ordinary citizens do not have a way to get out of there. That is why they are so mad about the situation, especially in Benghazi. This is an example of a more or less classical rebellion against dictatorship, rather than a revolution in Twitter.”
U.W.: What happens today is that journalists and other people go to Facebook rather than to the streets in order to collect information about certain country or person.
“It's a real shame. It's a great shame because you cannot assess the reliability of a person posting information on Facebook. When you go out into the street, you can see whether a person is trustworthy, really represents something or whether they are guided by common sens. Analyze how much time is needed to leave a long commentary on Facebook. Those who do it regularly are fairly often the loudest, most radical, or most superficial [about users]. It's a great mistake to rely only on electronic communication. The telephone and the Internet are fast and cheap, but they do not give you a comprehensive picture of reality. You have to reach a balance in your understanding of a situation. To do this, you need to talk to a large number of people. If the media are not doing this, what is the point of having them?”
U.W.: What impact can social media have on the development of Russia, a country you are well familiar with?
“To a certain extent, they can change something there as well. Still, I should note that the Russian government is much more tolerant to social media than the Libyan or the former Egyptian government. The Government of Russia understands that young people need it. We're talking about educated young people rather than about pensioners raised in the Brezhnev spirit. High-ranking Russian officials are actively using social media for their purposes as can be seen at the example of the Nashi pro-government youth movement. I believe that social media will play a bigger role there in exposing corruption. Nevertheless, power of social media is seriously limited in some countries. It is very important how much politicians [there] depend on public opinion. In Great Britain, when a large information campaign unfolds in social media, politicians must respond. They feel that they have to do it, because silence will cost them their careers. While Russian or Ukrainian officials can simply ignore the media, the British are so afraid of failing to be re-elected that they begin to react.”
U.W.: What role did social media play in the 2009 scandal about British MPs abusing their right for compensation?
“A large role was played in this scandal not by social media, but by the classical printed media, such asThe Daily Telegraph, The Sun, and The Mirror which have much greater influence. If such a hot topic finds its way to newspapers, it can be spread through the radio or television from there. When something, even something very important, is published only in social media, there is no guarantee that the topic will be picked up. Though, it really depends on the situation in the country. For instance, during the revolution in Egypt, it was social media that foreign journalists read, as classical media outlets published only Mubarak’s propaganda.”
Michael Binyon is a famous British journalist, political writer, and media expert. In 1967, he was the first British lecturer in the Soviet Union that worked for the British Council in Minsk. In 1971–2009, he was a journalist with The Times, in particular a special correspondent in Moscow (1978–1982), Bonn (1982–1985), Washington (1985–1989), and Brussels (1989–1991). He returned to London to become an international editor of The Times. He is the author of the book Life in Russia (1983). Currently, Mr. Binyon lectures in the Royal College of Defense Studies and New York University.