Tony Blair Visits SF, Warns of Social Media

Former British PM says social media should be watched by the government.

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    Western values such as democracy and free trade remain vital to the world in the 21st century despite rapid change and the rise of countries such as China, according to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

    In a keynote speech at a conference for information security professionals at San Francisco's Moscone Center on Friday, Blair said the combination of a global economic crisis, unrest in the Arab world and the rise of new economic world powers had created a uniquely unstable political situation.
     
    Particularly in times of economic crisis, it can be tempting for countries to disengage and "let the rest of the world take care of itself," Blair said.

    But the need for western leadership and western values of democracy, freedom of thought and religion and free trade is greater than ever, Blair argued.

    In Arab countries where citizens are fighting to overthrow oppressive governments, there is a tension between those promoting a more "modern, open society" and Islamists and others with "backward views," Blair said. Those fighting for democracy need the support of western nations.

    "It's important that they know we're not neutral on these issues," said Blair. "The leadership of the west is necessary to guide the world in these difficult times."

    He noted that western countries also needed to deal with Iran, and keep that country from becoming a nuclear power.

    "I would be more optimistic about the outcome of those revolutions in the Arab world if there was regime change in Iran," Blair said.

    While some speakers have pointed to the success of China as evidence that state sponsored capitalism is an equally viable approach, Blair said that China and countries such as India would succeed only inasmuch as they became more open and more like western countries in their approach. 

"State capitalism is not the answer," Blair said.

    Blair noted that social media and technology have played major roles in recent uprisings in Arab countries, but noted that they cannot take the place of a democratic government.

"Social media is a wonderful way of bringing people out on the street, it's an instrument of protests," Blair said.

    "Unfortunately, it's not an instrument of government."


    He noted that social media needs to be carefully watched by those in government, because it can rapidly create waves of intense opinion. Like traditional media, it can amplify conflicts and factionalism in politics.

    "At first we thought that social media would be a break from conventional media," said Blair. "But in fact, it's not, it's a multiplier."

    Blair said that despite conditions of unrest and uncertainty, he remained optimistic about the chances for progress, and even thought it possible that all countries could eventually have democratic governments.

    He cited the success of peace talks in Northern Ireland, which ended with an agreement in 1998 during his term as Prime Minister, as a cause for his optimism about the rest of the world.

    "I think we've got every reason to be optimistic," Blair said.