Interviewed Today on Al Jazeera: Social Media, Soft Power, and American Empire

Al Jazeera Arabic invited me to participate in its hour-long program, In Depth (19 April 2010; 3:00-4:00pm EST), and I was happy to do so via satellite earlier this evening, hosted by Ali Al-Dafiri, with my fellow guest, Mohamad Takriti. One of the main topics that the host of the program, Ali Al-Dafiri, asked me to speak about concerned the use of social networking sites (and I focused mostly on Twitter) for the purposes of both surveillance of citizens at home and for exercising state power abroad.

The host, Ali Al-Dafiri, made specific reference to what he called my “famous article” on the so-called “Twitter revolution” in Iran (see: America’s Iranian Twitter Revolution), which was this site’s most read article for 2009, the English version exceeding 18,000 readers at last count. Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel had itself translated the article into Arabic and posted it on its site last year (see: ثورة تويتر.. أحلام أميركا في إيران) and others translated it into Farsi and posted it on an Iranian website (see: جوگيری اينترنتي/ انقلاب تويتري). The article also led to my being interviewed by Egypt’s Amira Howeidy for Al-Ahram Weekly, later reproduced in Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper. The article has since been translated by others in Spanish and posted on Cuba Debate. In the end, I have no idea how many times it has been read, or where it has been read the most.

The program itself was excellent for its discussion and coverage of the politics, economics, and ethics of social network sites in ways that one does not normally find in North American mainstream media. For example, examining the ways that Google search results favour articles that are most flattering and supportive of Israel, which is the contrary case for searches for Muslim and Arabic resources. The other guest on the program  — Mohamad Takriti —  related his experiences editing in Wikipedia on the topic of Jerusalem, which still says that it is the capital of Israel…even though no country on earth recognizes it as that. When he tried to alter the entry to indicate that it is contested territory, he was told by Wikipedia editors that he was being disruptive and was eventually banned. The program host and the other guest spoke at length about Israeli use of social media to push Zionist propaganda, while also highlighting who sits on the boards of the various social media companies and their allegiances to Israel. This was fascinating and very enlightening. I have since thanked Mohamad Takriti not only for his excellent analysis, but for sharing some of his considerable in-depth knowledge about the history and economics of social media, and of the penetration of social media in the Arab world.

For my part, I focused on:

  • Israeli government uses of social media such as Twitter and YouTube during the January 2009 war in Gaza;
  • the ways that commercial imperatives, and labeling certain arenas as areas of concern for “national security,” impel data mining and the ultimate elimination of everyone’s privacy on the Web;
  • the manner in which social networking sites that allow for anonymity (such as Twitter) can be used by intelligence agencies and propaganda arms of the state to seed discussions with misinformation, while using the same sites for surveillance;
  • the utility of “crowd sourcing” as a foreign policy tool;
  • the concept of “soft power” and how it relates to the projection of an ideology of U.S. domination through texts and images via social media;
  • the U.S. support for the Iranian opposition and its allocation of $50 million to support the Iranian opposition’s use of social media, plus Farsi-language broadcasting into Iran by organs of the U.S. (see Subtitle D – Victims of Iranian Censorship Act or VOICE Act, of H.R. 2647: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010; also see, “U.S. changing focus of Iran policy,” Los Angeles Times, 09 March 2010; “Iran accuses U.S. of seeking to use Internet against it,” The Washington Post, 26 January 2010);
  • I also spoke of how entities such as Google, Twitter, and YouTube are aligned to the goals of the U.S. State Department and frequently participate in various foreign policy ventures with it (such as the Alliance of Youth Movements), in targeting governments which the U.S. opposes (more on this below, but see this for now: “Google honours Iranian women bloggers,” AFP, 11 March 2010);
  • Back to “soft power,” I alluded to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s initiatives — see “State Department on Civil Society 2.0 Initiative,” U.S. Department of State, 03 November 2009, and, “Secretary Clinton Announces ‘Civil Society 2.0’” — and attempts to create what can be called “genetically modified grassroots movements” (see: “The Fog Machine: Iran, Social Media and the Rise of Genetically Modified Grassroots Organizations,” CounterPunch, 22 June 2009, by Jack Z. Bratich). See also Hillary Clinton, “Remarks on Internet Freedom,” 21 January 2010; “Tweet About Democracy,” U.S. Department of State, 07 January 2010;
  • In particular, I emphasized for Al Jazeera viewers that they begin to familiarize themselves with the workings of the U.S. State Department’s organ, the Alliance of Youth Movements (more below), and examine how it uses social media to create groups in opposition to governments targeted by the U.S., followed by protest actions on the ground. This is conspiracy, as in factual conspiracy, and it is self-documenting.

At the end of the program, in the final minute in fact, I was asked a very large question. Luckily, thanks to my experience in Twitter, I have learned to produce sound bites (sometimes spelled bytes). Moreover, understanding that I was being simultaneously translated into Arabic (I could hear the translator speaking in my ear piece), I spoke slowly, often repeating the last few words before going forward, and keeping the overall number of words to the bare minimum. The final question I was asked by the host was whether I thought the West would be successful in dominating other societies through its use of social media. My response consisted entirely of the following points, almost verbatim now:

  • Ultimately, no;
  • Communication is not the same thing as understanding;
  • Information is not the same thing as meaning;
  • The best way to provoke a nationalist and localist backlash is for the U.S. to bombard other societies with its ideas, opinions, products, values, etc., and this has happened time and again.

This means that I am not a fan of the old “cultural imperialism” model in media studies, except as it applies to the actual economics of media dominance.

Finally, having promised three times so far to get to “more” about the Alliance of Youth Movements, I recommend to interested readers that they examine the following materials on their own:

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16 thoughts on “Interviewed Today on Al Jazeera: Social Media, Soft Power, and American Empire

  1. Congratulations, Max! This interview is a signal moment in the anti-imperialist struggle. I have taken the liberty of circulating your ZA summary widely.

    There may come a time in the near future when al Jazeera (or a similar service) routinely reports on the repression of academics in Canada. They might well begin with the case of pro-Palestinian Professor Denis Rancourt, who was fired from Ottawa University in March 2009 under the presidency of Allan Rock. While functioning as Canada’s UN ambassador, Rock had reversed Canada’s longstanding policy on Israel by voting against UN resolutions for Palestinian human rights along with the US, Israel, and a few Pacific island.

    For those in media studies it may of interest to know that your own example has inspired me to print a bumper sticker worded: DON’T SUPPORT THEIR TROOPS. By the time the locals figure out that means, I’ll be gone in a cloud of dust.

  2. I have been reading about Denis Rancourt, I need to follow up more, and it definitely is a case that we all need to bring to wider attention and debate.

    I like your bumper sticker idea!

  3. The funny thing is that the book that is about to come out does not deal with these issues, that might be some two years down the line I think. Many thanks for the comment John.

    Incidentally, I do have an edited volume consisting of student research that we are putting out next month, “The New Imperialism, Volume 1,” the start of an annual series coming out of a seminar I teach. I will post more once that is finally out.

  4. Congratulation for the interview ! Thank you so much Max, for this excellent work and for the quality of the material posted on the site. Merci infiniment pour ce boulot incroyable, pour la réflexion générale autour de l’anthropo, et pour la qualité de ce qui est posté sur le site.

  5. Another congrats to you! I consider Al Jazeera to be the only media giant capable of regularly turning out quality, long-format news pieces…well, at least in sch a way that I can access them on youtube. Unfortunately, I have zero Arabic skills. I wonder if they have any plans to run an English story on social media. Being a troglodytic twitter hater, I to like to hear the subject handled outside the Anglo perspective.

  6. Many thanks for the kind comments Karim and JG. (JG, don’t worry about the typos…I see someone has given you a “thumbs up” just for having mentioned making those errors! If only classes worked liked this.)

    I didn’t find a way to fit this into the piece above, which would have taken me off into a discussion about public anthropology. I wanted to share this with others though, an anthropologist whom I admire very much and deserves a lot of recognition for her all of her research and public activism, one who has been on Al Jazeera, Russia Today, and many others, over a long period.

    I mean Adrienne Pine, who oddly enough is only an assistant professor when she has done more work than many full professors. She teaches at American University, where David Vine (active with the Network of Concerned Anthropologists) also teaches, and we don’t need to repeat just how publicly active the NCA people have been, as a whole and individually.

    Adrienne Pine also blogs at, well worth checking out if you have the time.

  7. Max,
    I would like to thank you for publishing this interview, it’s very important to know about this specific issue, especially, the piece of information that related to Face Book site.

  8. Yes, I thought the other guest, Mohamad Takriti, was amazing. I have since been in touch with him via Twitter to thank him for his excellent analysis and for sharing some of his in-depth knowledge. I learned a lot from listening to him.

    On my side, listening to the translation from Arabic into English, I have to say the translator was fantastic, very fluid, rapid, and catching the right tone and emphasis to make listening very easy and engaging.

  9. Max,

    No doubt that the media “via satellite channels, Internet, Newspapers and even Movies “ is very powerful toll that can be used both ways. It was important to explain how countries and men in power are using this tool nowadays. This interview has covered very important topics that are very useful for ordinary people to understand how this toll “ media “ has been used and for what purpose and also how facts can be twisted by whoever controls the media today.

    Good for Aljazeera to choose you for this interview and good on you for the information you have covered in this interview.

    Way to go my friend.


  10. Yes, the information presented regarding the manipulation of Google results, the lack of transparency, and the degree of penetration (large or small) of various social media in the Arab world, was really fascinating for me. Luckily Al Jazeera provided me with excellent translation that surpasses what one normally hears from U.N. proceedings, for example, and I was able to follow along (though with some delay of course).

    That these tools can be used both ways is, of course, a very important point. It seems basic and simple sometimes, but it really needs to be the starting premise of everything we do online.

    Many thanks for your kind comments.

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