Social Media and Political Power in the Cyber World
Clay Shirky | Foreign Affairs | March 2011
A shudder ran through the ranks of the internet community, as Egyptian authorities succeeded in turning off 88% of the nation's internet traffic in less than 15 minutes. In order to wear down the country's protest movement, Egyptian officials resorted to a trick that might regrettably inspire other authoritarian rulers: They simply shut down the so-called border-gateway-protocol-servers (BGS). These are crucial for relaying IP-data from one IP-network to another. Events in Egypt brought the debate surrounding the political power of social media like Facebook and Twitter back into the headlines. The outcome of this debate will determine to a large extent how the presently hesitant Americans and Europeans will react to similar situations in the future.
Ever since the events in Tunisia and the attempted uprising in Iran last summer, opponents and supporters of the supposed political power of new social media have battled each other on the internet. At the heart of the question are the steps the West can and should undertake in order to assist democratic movements in authoritarian states without placing them in danger. According to internet expert Evgeny Morozov, the web endangers protest movements more than it helps them. After all, authoritarian rulers these days use the internet as vigorously as their rebellious subjects do. For them, the internet is a useful tool that serves as a kind of "I-opium" for the people. Young folks especially are kept busy watching music videos and engaging in trivial banter. The internet discourages political activities rather than inspiring youngsters to partake in offline, real life protest movements. The internet even facilitates monitoring opposition movements for autocrats, who can easily impose censorship measures and use the internet for propaganda purposes.
Kirkpatrick by contrast believes that social platforms such as Facebook advance
the emancipation of the individual user. They reflect Western values such as
individualism and the yearning for freedom of expression, and thereby
contribute to the rise of democratic movements. David Kirkpatrick sees the
technology as the engine of modernity. Clay Shirky advances a similar argument
in Foreign Affairs. But he emphasizes that an "ecological view" of the internet
is necessary in order to understand the political power of social networking
properly. The internet and its services create an environment that fosters the
emergence of a strong civil society. It is not the access to information by
itself that is decisive here. Rather what matters is the social exchange among
citizens that takes place in this context. Information is crucial to
stimulating discussion and debate. However, it is only through debate that political
opinions are formed and the desire to pursue common political goals arises. That
signifies that the political processes inspired by the social media on the
internet need time to develop. Political change will not happen overnight.
As a result, Shirky recommends that the US government no longer attempt to primarily protect information channels such as media outlets against censorship, or try to directly support dissidents and political opposition parties throughout the world. Instead, it ought to pursue a policy of discreetly investing in the development of social media that promotes the idea of democracy and self-government in society. Morozov by contrast believes that Western firms could do much to support protest movements worldwide by simply refusing to sell authoritarian regimes the requisite surveillance and censorship software.
This summary was prepared by the Atlantic Community editorial team from "Social Media and Poltical Power" published here by Foreign Affairs. Material was also taken from "Die Evolution des Homo Facebook" published here by The European, from "Revolution Offline" published here by Zeit, and from "Kill Switch: So ging Ägyptens Internet offline" published here by Chip Online.