Prof. Dr. J. P. Singh (Associate Professor of the Communication, Culture and Technology Program, Georgetown University; USA)

18.05.2011 - Interview conducted by Katie Dickmeyer

Q1: There is a huge debate about the role played by the social media networks and the current uprising in North Africa and the Middle East. Some commentators have stressed that Facebook and YouTube are only one factor among dozens, while others have stressed that social networks have played a crucial role and without them the revolutions wouldn’t be possible. What is your position on this debate?

I would say that freedom and human rights are universal. What we find in the Middle East and North Africa, or at least in North Africa is people asking for freedom and human rights and they’re asking for them from their perspective rather than it being imposed on them or somebody coming from outside. That’s a very important thing for us to realize in the United States: that when people articulate a language of human rights, it’s their own language of human rights as it intersects with universal concerns. The second part about the social media and Facebook is that these are sufficient conditions for people to now be able to participate and make the causes known. From a very early age, any kind of social movement needs an audience outside of themselves, people who support them, and nowadays social media have become those instruments of support.  They galvanize people; you have the knowledge that when you send out a text message, there will be others who receive it and join in the common cause.

Q2: The concept of soft power shaped a lot of international, political, and diplomatic thinking in recent years. How do you think that cultural diplomacy as a soft power tool is being used to negotiate and recalibrate international relationships in a fast-changing and sometimes dangerous world?

Firstly, soft power is an instrument of persuasion. How do we persuade others to go along with things we care about? That is what soft power really is. In that sense, being able to soften our aims with culture allows that.  The flip side of it is dangerous: that if we recalibrate our aims through soft power, we must understand that we are then operating in an alternative sphere. We may not actually know what our aims should be in that world. So I’m a little uncomfortable with soft power because it speaks to persuasion and also because, well, whose goals is it fulfilling? National goals? If they are international goals, then who decided those? So I would say that, along with soft power, we need lots of participation in order to have a democratic way of exercising it.

Q3: Technology has dramatically changed communication, allowing for interconnectivity over large spaces. Do you think that such a change would allow for breakthroughs in conflict management, as faster and more efficient communication could facilitate dialogue?

I would think both and I’m going to sound very academic about it. One theory of exchange is when we get to know each other: this is the peaceful theory of exchange. The other theory of exchange refers to the kinds of things I hear about in college from roommates—“Now that I know my roommate I want to slap him or her”—so both scenarios happen. So what we have to figure out is how over these networks, over time, we will produce these understandings. If you’ve looked at those Youtube videos, even the most watched ones, you’ll find both types of comments. Some people say what a great video it is and others are just flaming. My hope is that, over time, we will know in these spaces that we have to get along; I think that will happen. I’m not a critic of Facebook: when people say that there are odd things on people’s pages on Facebook, most people leave them alone; they don’t want to participate in that either. So my answer is strange and what I find encouraging is that at the end of the day most people just leave those sorts alone so, as an eternal optimist, I think these spaces allow for positive interactions but I do know that a lot of them are very negative.

Thank you for your time.