A writer, Peter Klein, put forward the notion the other day that had Twitter been around in 2003, it might have prevented the Iraq war.
Intriguing thought. Unlikely, though.
When the warmongers of the Bush administration started putting out the baloney about weapons of mass destruction we recall that most of the mainstream media (though not all of us) swallowed it whole.
Had the social media maestros been around back then, the theory goes, the real story would have been out in time to ward off the invasion. But the voices of dissent weren’t heard. There wasn’t the bullhorn of Twitter to tell the world, for example, that the mobile biological weapons lab the White House and Whitehall were spreading fear-fiction about was, as revealed by weapons inspector David Kelly, simply an Iraqi gas generator for filling balloons. (Mr. Kelly, you’ll remember, committed suicide after being named as the mole who told the BBC the UK government had ‘sexed up’ the dossier that made its case for war.)
But while it would be nice to think social media could have prevented the Iraq war and might prevent future wars, it’s far from knowable. On Iraq, it presupposes that there were people with intimate knowledge of what was really going on who didn’t have a media vehicle to get it out. It presupposes that administration goons like Dick Cheney wouldn’t have been able to discredit those sources anyway.
We hope that Cheney and George W. Bush go to bed every night thinking about the 4,000-plus Americans and the tens of thousands of others killed in their fraudulently–conceived war. On the conflict’s tenth anniversary we need pause to thank Jean Chretien for having the fortitude to stand up both to Bush and Britain’s Tony Blair and say no. Other political leaders — not only Conservatives like Stephen Harper but Liberals like Michael Ignatieff — would have had Canadian boots on the ground in Baghdad.
It’s far from certain that social media makes government more transparent and accountable. In closed societies we know what a powerful and wonderful tool it can be, the Arab Spring being exhibit A. But in advanced democracies, the record isn’t so good. Social media has been around for several years of the Harper government and it is a widely accepted view that this government has been more closed and more adept at information control than practically any before it.
Much has been written about how the government has muzzled the public service, how it has employed new methods to keep the media at bay, how it has suppressed research and deprived Parliament of information to which it is entitled.
Twitter, Facebook and other Internet toys arguably serve the purposes of government messaging as much as they do media effectiveness. They have allowed the Harper government to microtarget constituencies and tailor messaging for those markets. We have seen how they served the Barack Obama in mobilizing support.
These new communications tools are splendid for spreading news at lightning speed and, for any government so inclined, spreading falsehoods as well. But they haven’t been particularly adept at breaking news. Social media lacks the investigative resources to do that as well as the trained professionals. To prevent another Iraq from happening would have required inside reporting on the Bush administration that social media normally isn’t capable of doing. These technologies are better at giving voice to anti-establishment views and, in the run-up to the war, that may have helped in influencing public opinion.
The array of opinion platforms social media provide to citizens who once lacked them is terrific. The more voices are heard, the better democracy is served. Getting a sense of public opinion on any given issue is much easier now. Just go to the media comment boards.
For the journalism business, one of the advantages social media brings is independence. Its practitioners aren’t compromised the way that, for example, mainstream media in Ottawa often are due to the ideological tilt of proprietors or the need to suck up to the powers-that-be in order to get leaks and break stories.
But as for the overall quality of media performance, things haven’t changed all that much. Mainstream media, with its strengths and its weaknesses, is still the dominant player and will be for a long time to come. It will be up to them to seek out the truth that can prevent the bogusly-conceived wars of the future.
Lawrence Martin is the author of 10 books, including six national bestsellers. His most recent, Harperland, was nominated for the Shaughnessy Cohen award. His other works include two volumes on Jean Chrétien, two on Canada-U.S. relations and three books on hockey.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.