Spring 2011

Tweeting Toward Freedom?

– The Wilson Quarterly

Can the internet and social media really promote democracy?

When Egyptian activist and Google marketing manager Wael Ghonim reflected on the overthrow in February of Hosni Mubarak, he said, “Everything was done by the people [for] the people, and that’s the power of the Internet.” Some credit a Facebook page with sparking the Egyptian protests. Twitter, too, played a role, but a different one—helping to spread news to audiences in Egypt, but mostly abroad. Ghonim sees great power in these tools. “If you want to liberate [a people],” he said, “give them the Internet.”

Not everyone is so sure. It’s too soon to say how large a role social media have played in the recent Middle East upheavals, but a debate about the Internet’s potential to promote democracy has raged for at least a decade, since before Facebook even existed.

There’s also the question of what happens after a revolution. In Egypt, according to a report in The New York Times (March 19, 2011), protesters are starting almost from scratch. Amr Hamzawy, a political scientist who was one of the young leaders, is quoted saying, “We are still searching for a good name for a party and an idea that attracts people’s attention.”

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell assumed the mantle of skeptic in chief with an article in The New Yorker (Oct. 4, 2010) contrasting today’s online activists with the young civil rights leaders who launched lunch counter sit-ins in the South in the early 1960s. Sure, these online tools, Facebook in particular, can increase participation in social movements—if you can call a single click of the mouse participation. More than a million people have joined a Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition, but few among them have taken any additional action to help those in Sudan.

What social media are not good at, Gladwell maintains, is providing the discipline, strategy, hierarchy, and strong social bonds that successful movements require. Such connections are what gave the four student leaders in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 the courage to defy racial subordination, despite the likelihood of violence. The instigators were two pairs of college roommates. They all lived in the same dorm, and three of them had gone to high school together.

Gladwell doesn't mean to say social media are worthless: When people have an array of what social scientists call “weak ties”—such as “friends” on Facebook or contacts on Twitter—they are exposed to a greater range of new ideas and information, surely a good thing. Such tools can make social processes work more efficiently. In 2006, to cite but one small example, strangers coordinated online a successful search for a cell phone lost in a New York City taxicab.

Author and New York University professor of new media Clay Shirky is a bit more sanguine. Writing in Foreign Affairs (Jan.–Feb. 2011), he says that Gladwell’s critique is “correct but not central to the question of social media’s power; the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively.”

Shirky argues that the value of social media to the cause of democracy should be measured over the course of “years and decades,” not weeks and months. Instead of focusing on the small set of instances in which activists using new technology were or were not successful at toppling authoritarian regimes, analysts should examine the ability of social media to enhance civil society and over time shift power away from governments and toward people.

Gladwell took to the letters section of the following issue of Foreign Affairs to continue the debate, writing: “What evidence is there that social revolutions in the pre-Internet era suffered from a lack of cutting-edge communications and organizational tools? In other words, did social media solve a problem that actually needed solving?”

New technologies have sometimes provided activists with a tool that turned out to be crucial, Shirky responded. The protesters who brought down Philippine president Joseph Estrada in 2001 spread word of their street demonstrations via text message. Social media are not magical. Insurgents may not always prevail (as in Iran in 2009). But on balance, social media will bring “a net improvement for democracy,” much as the printing press did.

Evgeny Morozov, author of the new book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, casts himself as a “cyber-realist” in Bookforum (April–May 2011), pillorying “cyber-utopians”—Ghonim being the chief example—who believe that social media can trigger spontaneous change. Morozov has pointed out that the new tools can be used just as easily—and perhaps more effectively—by authoritarian regimes seeking to spy or crack down on dissidents, by, say, breaking into their e-mail accounts or monitoring their Facebook activity. For example, Chinese officials hacked dissidents’ e-mail accounts last year.

All of the issues raised by new media take on a hard reality in one place: the U.S. State Department, where officials have seized on the promotion of Internet freedom as a central plank of American policy. In a January 2010 speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “We want to put these tools in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights.”

If the United States is to pursue a policy of “Internet freedom” around the globe, it must tread carefully and strategically. Shirky’s Foreign Affairs essay explores some of the mistakes he says the State Department has already made in this arena. In particular, he criticizes the government’s “instrumental” approach—the allocation of funds for the development of technologies to “reopen” access to outside Web sites, such as Google or the BBC, in countries where they are censored. “Politically appealing, action-oriented, and almost certainly wrong,” Shirky says. This strategy places too much emphasis on access to outside information sources and not enough on encouraging communication among citizens, which would strengthen civil society.

Instead, he recommends that the United States adopt an “environmental” approach, premised on the belief that the development of a strong public sphere must precede regime change. “Securing the freedom of personal and social communication among a state’s population should be the highest priority, closely followed by securing individual citizens’ ability to speak in public. This reordering would reflect the reality that it is a strong civil society—one in which citizens have freedom of assembly—rather than access to Google or YouTube, that does the most to force governments to serve their citizens.”

Such a strategy would also minimize the risk that activists will be seen as America’s pawns. When the United States too directly tinkers with the tools that activists use—such as when a State Department official asked Twitter to delay routine maintenance so that Iranian activists could keep tweeting during the 2009 uprising—it gives the appearance of meddling, rather than a principled pursuit of political freedom.

Morozov, in a piece in Foreign Policy (Jan.–Feb. 2011), argues that it’s too late. Washington has already violated the number one rule of promoting Internet freedom: “Don’t talk about promoting Internet freedom.”

Before the State Department’s initiatives in this area, “the state of Web freedom in countries like China, Iran, and Russia was far from perfect . . . but at least it was an issue independent of those countries’ fraught relations with the United States.” Thanks to its collaboration with Silicon Valley tech companies, the U.S. government’s fingerprints are all over the best-known tools, and many countries “are now seeking ‘information sovereignty’ from American companies.” Russia is considering investing in a homegrown version of Google; Turkey may provide government-run e-mail addresses to citizens; in Iran, a Facebook alternative exists called Velayatmadaran (which can be loosely translated as “Followers of the Leader”). “The best way to promote the Internet Freedom Agenda may be not to have an agenda at all,” Morozov says.

In the end, the more pedestrian uses of social media may prove the most revolutionary. Shirky cites the “cute cat theory” of digital media, formulated by Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Those in power may often be able to restrict the Internet freedoms of activists with few repercussions, Zuckerman says, but if their censorship hinders the vast majority of Internet users’ ordinary communication—sharing pictures of cute cats—they will risk brewing a revolution.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr/Dan H