Speaking at the Guardian’s Activate summit in London on Wednesday, Alec Ross said “dictatorships are now more vulnerable than ever” as disaffected citizens organise influential protest movements on Facebook and Twitter.
The US has pledged to back the pro-democracy movements that have swept the Middle East and north Africa since January. Ross welcomed the “redistribution of power” from autocratic regimes to individuals, describing the internet as “wildly disruptive” during the protests in Egypt and Tunisia.
“Dictatorships are now more vulnerable than they have ever been before, in part – but not entirely – because of the devolution of power from the nation state to the individual,” he said.
“One thesis statement I want to emphasise is how networks disrupt the exercise of power. They devolve power from the nation state – from governments and large institutions – to individuals and small institutions. The overarching pattern is the redistribution of power from governments and large institutions to people and small institutions.”
Ross said that the internet had “acted as an accelerant” in the Arab spring uprisings, pointing to the dislodging of former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in little over a month. The internet had facilitated leaderless movements, Ross added, describing it as the “Che Guevara of the 21st century”.
However, he said it was a “bridge too far” to describe the Egyptian uprising as a “Facebook revolution”.
Ross added: “If hierarchies are being levelled then people at the top of those hierarchies are finding themselves on much shakier ground. What’s remarkable is the speed, this is lightning fast change taking place and I’ve got to be honest, I think this is fun. It’s going to be wildly disruptive in the next few years and net-net I think this is a good thing.”
US president Barack Obama, whose 2008 election campaign Ross helped co-ordinate, threw US support behind the pro-democracy movements in a landmark speech in May. “The status quo is not sustainable,” he said, describing the movements as a “historic opportunity”.
Ory Okolloh, the manager of government policy and relations at Google Africa, speaking in the Guardian Activate session, said: “A lot of these uprisings underline that young people not only frustrated – they’ve been frustrate for a long time – but the internet brings you closer to what your life could be and should be like.
“We have this revolution, but what happens after the revolution? Technology cannot answer that question: it won’t give you jobs or financing, and won’t help rebuild the economy. If we get too caught up in the role of technology we will be missing a huge opportunity.”
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