Arab Spring – and the Long Winter Ahead

[Editor's note: This post was written by Alison Craiglow Hockenberry, contributing editor at Ashoka Changemakers®, and originally featured on the Huffington Post.]

For all the debate about whether this is the year of the Twitter revolution and the Facebook riots, the much more interesting question is: What is not happening on the giant social media websites of the world?

The answer is: A lot.


About two billion people have been touched by the Internet revolution. The connections they have made, information they have exchanged, and actions they have taken are undeniably revolutionary and immeasurably profound. But Facebook and Twitter, for all their power to speed a new era of openness, can't do it all.

While we celebrate the fact that two billion people now have access to the Internet's opportunities for speaking out, five billion others are still waiting for their chance to be heard.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, there are countries with regimes every bit as repressive as those we hear about daily in the Middle East, in which Internet penetration is only about one percent.

This dismal rate is due to many factors, including the lack of cable and electrical infrastructure, a prohibitively-high cost of service, language barriers, and illiteracy. The region's more readily-available mobile phones allow some information access, but sharing one's own views and interacting over social media is not practical on a non-smart phone and in places where languages are not digitized.

Globally, there is another group without a strong enough voice: women. In much of the world where home Internet connections are prohibitively expensive, Internet communication happens mostly in cyber cafes. In regions where women are not allowed or not comfortable going to these public gathering places, it's mostly men doing the blogging. This is a vastly unbalanced situation.

"If we want a world that is more just and more representative and involves more perspectives and more voices, and has more fairness for more people, then let's build it," said Ethan Zuckerman, who was recently named director of MIT's Center for Civic Media. The big question is, he said, "How do we get our technologies to do what we want them to?"

In Afghanistan, for example, the Jalalabad-based FabLab develops locally-designed tech solutions from start to finish that address communications challenges specific to the country. Among other things, the organization aims to keep information flowing across Afghanistan despite sketchy infrastructure and a fluid political and security situation. FabLab is an initiative of MIT; there are FabLab workshops around the world.

Mizzima News Agency trains the passionate storytellers of Burma's emerging democracy to create engaging, well-crafted narratives out of their citizen journalist impulses. Mizzima recognizes that in a country long under the grip of censorship, factual, compelling journalism of the kind that can engage citizens and hold the government accountable is a skill that needs to be developed. Citizen media cannot be the only source of checks and balances.

FreedomBox aims to confront the privacy risks associated with communicating over huge, easily-tapped networks by building simple, low-wattage devices that put privacy controls squarely in the hands of users. "We integrate privacy protection on a cheap plug server so everybody can have privacy," explained James Vasile, FreedomBox counsel. "Data stays in your home and can't be mined by governments, billionaires, thugs, or even gossipy neighbors."

Mizzima, FreedomBox, and many other brilliant ideas can be found among the entrants in Citizen Media, a Google-sponsored online competition with Ashoka Changemakers. The global competition welcomes innovations that "catalyze full information citizenship... to engage freely and powerfully with information to advance their own lives and society."

The competition seeks not only tools for increasing access to information and avenues for expression, but also to solve other challenges of a more open world, including: How to figure out what sources to trust, how to get other people to care about a story, how to share ideas efficiently and effectively and ensure people's exposure to a diversity of opinion, and how to sift through the ever-growing supply of information.

These grass roots approaches may be the key to opening access to free expression to more and more people -- especially those in the "Long Tail" -- in rural and marginalized communities. The solutions may overcome the challenges of infrastructure requirements, expense, and cultural barriers that have left people totally unconnected, especially in places where the profit-potential hasn't been attractive to investors.

"Free expression is a universal value," said Jillian York, director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. A universal value that's not nearly yet experienced universally. You can help change that. If you have or know of a solution for creating a more engaged global citizenry through boosting media access, you have until September 14 to enter and vie for $5,000 and a chance to become an Ashoka Fellow, part of the world's leading network of systems-changing social entrepreneurs.