What is the role of social media in democratic movements? Does social media lessen popular commitment to political causes or shift the balance of power toward the citizenry? Recent protests in Iran, Moldova, Kenya, and elsewhere are proving to be the ultimate testing grounds for social media in authoritarian politics.
SMS, Twitter, Facebook – in the summer of last year these communication tools grew into something more profound than simple social outlets. All across Iran, people took to the streets bearing mobile phones and were backed by an array of online citizens. At first a tool for the development and distribution of news where none would have existed before, social media then turned into apparatus for organization and even revolution.
Social media is founded on interactivity and an increase in the amount and velocity of information flows. Its inherent social nature leads to mass signaling of the actions of others in civic life – a signal for protest followed by another and then yet another can swiftly turn into a torrent of similar actions. When action occurs, it does so with greater tactical coherence. In Iran’s instance, dissatisfaction, action, and reaction cascaded through society through social outlets that then offered the coordinating mechanisms necessary to sustain protests – even when the original social outlets were shuttered by the government. The Iranian government eventually reacted with enough force to drive public protest underground (or above, through fluttering green flags), but only at a great cost in legitimacy that did little to dispel popular discontent.
How much does social media ultimately change, though? Authoritarianism remains in Iran and many are coming to realize that dictators can use social media as much as demonstrators.
Social tools (like mobile phones) are widely distributed and cheap, meaning that a government can use these tools as much as activist citizens. As seen in Kenya and Moldova, social media may also foment citizen-led violence.
Widely distributed networks also need nodes (like Facebook) that focus and coordinate social activity – nodes that can be tapped into by government actors. Egypt now asks for blogs and other new media tools to be registered and issued licenses, after which the approved tools will be monitored to ensure they satisfy a code of ethics meant to ensure “national unity.”
Political causes like those in Iran also require deep commitments by a dedicated few who are able to signal their serious intentions to the rest of the community. Inexpensive and anonymous social tools may actually be cheapening the very commitments needed to engender and sustain political sacrifice for a cause.
Social media is simply a tool, one that may be used for repression or advocacy as well as to enable or mitigate violence. It can further and foster such interaction, allowing for greater social coordination, the redistribution of knowledge, an increase in transparency, and the amplification of citizen’s voices. Yet, social media is not a solution in and of itself. Broad-based, active civic engagement still comes down to individual actors taking charge in the social, economic and political communities in which they relate, as well as truly democratic governance from the top-down.