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Top contender for Nobel Peace Prize? Social media

Gunnar Lier / AFP - Getty Images

This year's Nobel Peace Prize will honor a positive development in the world, the prize committee's chairman says.

Update for 6 p.m. ET Oct. 7: The Nobel Peace Prize went to three women from Africa: Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian human-rights activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman. Karman's selection as part of the trio served to recognize the contribution of the Arab Spring movement, according to prize committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland. That's as close as the Nobel committee came to recognizing the contribution of social media. So ... I think I should hang up my Nobel prediction mantle and leave the job to the professionals.

From Oct. 5: This year's Nobel Peace Prize, due to be announced early Friday in Norway, seems certain to have a social-media spin. The only question is, which Twitterers or Facebookers will be listed on the Nobel committee's citation?

Although the identity of the laureate or laureates-to-be is a closely held secret, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee sounds as if he's itching to let the cat out of the bag in a series of interviews given during the run-up to Friday's announcement.

"It will be an interesting and very important prize ... I think it will be well-received," Thorbjoern Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister, told Reuters a few days ago. That stoked speculation that the prize would go to activists involved in the Arab Spring democracy movement. Those activists famously used Twitter and Facebook to organize anti-government protests in Arab countries from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, ushering in nascent democracies.

Jagland went further in an Associated Press interview today. "The most positive development will get the prize," he said. "So I'm a little bit surprised that it has not already been seen by many commentators and experts and all this, because for me it's obvious."

He said the fact that the deadline for Nobel nominations fell in February did "not necessarily" rule out giving the prize to leaders of the Arab Spring, which came to a head in Egypt in early February. "We saw many of the actors at the time, but that doesn't mean that the prize goes in that direction, because there are many other positive developments in the world," Jagland said.

AP's Jamey Keaten came right out and asked whether the Arab Spring might be the source of the honoree, and Jagland responded: "That is one, but there are others, too."

How about the 27-nation European Union? Wouldn't that be considered a major peace-building institution? "Yes, of course, but today it's ..." he said. A press handler stopped him from saying anything more on that score.

Jagland said the Peace Prize honors would go to "not necessarily a big name, but a big mission — something important for the world."

The five-member committee decided upon the laureate at its final meeting last Friday. A record 241 nominations, including 188 individuals and 53 organizations, were submitted for consideration. Committee members could add their own suggestions until Feb. 28. That's just about the time that the anti-Gadhafi Libyan revolution was heating up.

"For me and the committee, I think it's quite obvious if you look at the world today and see what is happening out there," Jagland said. "What are the major forces pushing the world in the right direction?"

You don't have to have 17,000 Twitter followers to see that social networkers would rank among those who have "done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations," as specified by industrialist Alfred Nobel in 1895 when he set up the Peace Prize. Commentators have floated lots of names of Arab Spring activists who used social media, including Egyptian Google executive Wael Ghonim, Egyptian April 6 Youth Movement leaders Israa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Maher, and Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni.

But if the prize is going to these leaders, or even to the April 6 Youth Movement as a group, why would Jagland voice surprise that the development honored by the prize has not yet been seen by so many? Also, Jagland's comment that "there are others" beyond the Arab Spring movement suggests that the committee might be looking beyond just Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

This suggests a couple of potential twists: The prize could go to an array of activists including but not limited to the Arab Spring movement. The group of honorees might even include the folks involved in facilitating the global use of social media from outside.

Might Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter's founders win a share of the medal? That seems unlikely — not only because social-media tools have been used for evil as well as for good, but also because focusing too much on the technological tools would detract from the achievements of activists on the ground.

"Of course cyber activism as a movement can change things, but we cannot forget that the Tunisian revolution began on the ground," Ben Mhenni told AFP.

Another Tunisian activist, Riadh Guerfali, voiced a similar sentiment. "It wasn't Twitter, it wasn't Facebook that carried out the revolutions," Guerfali told AFP from Tunis. "Here, we are the children of those who were imprisoned, tortured, of those who truly sacrificed their lives."

Those children of the revolution, from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, should win recognition. But based on Jagland's comments, there's a chance that others, living far away from North Africa but connected through the global Internet, will be given a nod as well.

All this is just based on a quick reading of the tea leaves — and there's always a chance that the reading is totally wrong. After all, this year's Nobel medicine winners were nowhere to be found on the Thomson Reuters prediction list. The experts predicted that this year's physics Nobel would go to quantum-entanglement researchers (it went to the discoverers of the cosmic speedup instead).

And the people supposedly in the know guessed that the chemistry prize might focus on laser chemistry, electrochemistry, DNA electron transport, signaling pathways or carbon nanotubes. (The answer was none of the above. Instead, the Nobel went to Israeli researcher Dan Shechtman for his discovery of quasicrystals.)

So even if the Nobel Peace Prize goes to someone completely different (Wikileaks, for example), my track record can't get much worse. Keep an eye on the Nobel website and BreakingNews.com to get the answer, sometime around 7 a.m. ET Friday.

... And a program note:
Speaking of the Nobel Prize, Caltech physicist Sean M. Carroll and I will be talking about the implications of this year's physics prize and other weird and interesting research tonight at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT) on "Virtually Speaking Science," an online talk show that I host on the first Wednesday of the month. You can listen to the hourlong show via BlogTalkRadio, or be a part of the audience at the Stella Nova auditorium in the virtual world known as Second Life. (Here's the SLURL for your teleporting pleasure.) You can ask questions during the show via Second Life chat or BlogTalkRadio's call-in number.

If you can't make it in real time, don't worry: The show will be archived at BlogTalkRadio as an audio podcast for on-demand listening. Many thanks to the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics for providing the Second Life venue.

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter. You can also add me to your Google+ circle, and check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.