@ CTIA: Can mobile fuel social change?


It seems like only recently the focus shifted from our obsession with Angry Birds for mobile, to the idea of mobile for the social good. Day three of CTIA focused on how wireless technology, particularly mobile social media and overall coverage, can change the way people organize and react to certain political events. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch; Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter; and John Stanton, chairman of telecommunications investment firm Trilogy International Partners and recently named CEO of Cleawire Corp., gathered to talk about the way mobile-based social media helps fuel social change.

The social networking site Twitter began to garner attention when pictures and messages from inside a country in revolt, Iran, surfaced back in 2010. Twitter became more than a system about sharing what you had for lunch, transforming itself into a tool for social change and the spread of information. Most recently, the site played an important role in the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

When Stone was asked if Twitter had indeed created the revolution in Egypt, he said no, adding, “I don’t think anyone in their right mind would say that sending a tweet is the equivalent of activism.” Twitter’s platform, essentially an overlay of SMS is a tool that can be used for social action.

Roth vouched for the success of Twitter, adding people wouldn’t have had the success they did without aids of tools like Twitter. “As the revolution [in Egypt]was underway, it allowed incredibly quick communication among participants,” he said. Roth noted the basis for social change was set with the decentralization of leadership power and helped put in action with a population armed with mobile phones.

When asked if the government attempts to shut down the Internet in countries like Iran and Egypt during the protests helped quell the social change, Stanton said “only temporarily.” He added these governments realized they also could not live without the Internet and were forced to reinstate service, therefore rendering the shut down useless.

“Ultimately mobile devices empower people and are more powerful than the government,” Stanton said. Roth agreed with Stanton, reminding us although the government shut down the Internet, he never lost satellite or cellular connection with his people on the streets in Egypt.

The participants agreed the real power lies within real-time communication through Twitter and other mobile platforms, and have therefore changed the way people get information.

With this immediacy, they agreed there are risks like viruses and misinformation. With the good comes the bad, which can be seen in governments demanding subscriber lists in order to control the masses. Particularly in Africa, “There is a real risk of governments using this technology to control people,” Roth said.

Stone added he’s encourage by the number of political leaders signing up for Twitter, including recent new addition Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

“Obama was like, ‘Oh, Medvedev is on Twitter? Cool, maybe we can get rid of the red phone now,'” Stone said.

The panelists ended the discussion in agreement that the future of mobile technology for social change is indeed promising, looking forward to places where mobile can help rebuild a new order like for example, in Japan.


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