Social Networking: False Promises? – The Hope of Liberty (Part Two)

Although social media has been the target of much criticism (including on this site), one should not allow accusations – however legitimate – to obscure the equally important truth that this relatively new technology can be a boon to the much-cherished principle of liberty. Throughout history, new means of communication have widened the scope for freedom of thought and expression: the printing press, the television or the Internet come to mind. Is it any wonder that repressive regimes have sought to heavily censor these vessels of thought and ideas? So, in this post – Part Two of my exploration of social networking – I shall attempt to outline the precise nature of the connection I have just described. By doing so, I want to offer a counterpoint to my previous criticisms. But first, a recapitulation.

In my previous post on this subject, I attempted to describe and explain some of my concerns regarding social networking and social media. I spoke of the potential problems surrounding social networking’s corruption of the concept of friendship, the illusory (or at least superficial) nature of online knowledge, and the rather trivial uses to which the technology is often put. To be sure, much of what we witness on social networking sites reflects the present position and trajectory of contemporary culture (in the West, at least). That said, one has to acknowledge the so-called “Facebook” effect and how it has intensified many of the less-praiseworthy strands that compose contemporary society. The tendency has, in many ways, been towards mimicry, cultural cannibalism and the veneration of the trivial.

However, one cannot escape the fact that the entire phenomenon of social networking can have a more substantive effect on social relationships. This is something I also mentioned, by way of anticipation, in my previous post. Barriers to friendship are no longer such a problem, now that the digital age is well and truly upon us. Time and geography are compressed and ultimately overcome by technology that is not constrained at all by them. One thinks of the way friendships, which might have been ended by the “tyranny of distance” when one person moved away, no longer face this kind of hindrance. Social networking, by offering a digitized parallel to social connection, allows people to bypass conventional obstacles to it, both in terms of the maintenance of existing relationships and the construction of new ones. The phenomenon is thus a boon to individual liberty (something I shall explore below), supplying unprecedented access to a social world previously closed off, and giving individuals the chance to (potentially, at least) enter a digital environment that can offer surprising new connections, challenge one’s thinking, and broaden perspectives on issues – in other words, social networking can, if so-used, “expand one’s horizons” (to use an old cliché).

Now, it’s true that social networking is routinely used for things that elevate and reify the trivial. But the potential – occasionally glimpsed – to use this phenomenon in a much more expansive manner is present, even as a means of enriching human lives. Although most people are familiar with the more hum drum uses to which social networking is frequently (though not always) put, events over the past months and years have offered examples of how the phenomenon can actually function as a tool for social and political transformation. Many are using social networking sites as a means of self-expression; generating and disseminating ideas; influencing public debate; shaping political and social discourse; and even organising opposition towards dictatorial governments. In short, they contain within themselves the possibility for something much deeper and far more satisfying than what one routinely observes.

The revolutions in the Middle East, particularly those in Tunisia and Egypt are only the most spectacular examples of how social networking can change, in quite a dramatic and explosive way, political reality on the ground. In many respects, the upheavals we saw on our television screens and read about in our newspapers were partly (and crucially) youth-driven events, and given the often-close correlation between youths and technological savvy, it might be unsurprising that new social and communications technologies – including social networking – should have been a significant factor. I am not arguing that these revolutions would not have happened without Facebook, et. al. However, it is clear that the role of social networking – whether in relation to the organisation and galvanisation of opposition to the various regimes, or in regards to the posting of material that was able circumvent official security and inflame popular discontent – was very important. Images of regime brutality were posted on Youtube and Facebook, opposition groups were formed, and information widely and easily disseminated (see, for example, David Kirkpatrick, “Tunisia Leader Flees and Prime Minister Claims Power,” New York Times, January 14th, 2011).  Indeed, as Fareed Zakaria, an academic and journalist for Time magazine, commented, technology, “…has played a powerful role in informing, educating and connecting people in the region. Such advances empower individuals and disempower the state” (“Why it’s Different this Time,” February 28th, 2011). This is an important point, and shows how social networking can expand, rather than domesticate, one’s thinking and actions. Or, to put it another way, events in places such as Egypt have demonstrated the extent to which social networking can help expose people to, as well as actually transform, the political and cultural dimensions of life.

Perhaps a crash course in the theory of revolutions might be useful, in order to get a sense of how social networking can rapidly and drastically change the political landscape. In an essay on the theoretical underpinnings of popular rebellions, academics Ravi Bhavani and Michael Ross cited previous literature that argues for the prominence of what is called “threshold theory.” Briefly, this theory holds that uprisings or rebellions occur when enough people living under a repressive regime develop the need to voice their opposition. In particular:

“Once a sufficient number of aggrieved individuals openly criticize the government, the individual cost of dissent begins to drop, because dissidents achieve safety in numbers” (“Announcement, Credibility and Turnout in Popular Rebellions,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, June 2003, p.342).

Other models, which follow the main contours of threshold theory with slightly different nuances, suggest that citizens’ opposition to the regime is fomented by the release of previously hidden information about the “malignant quality of the government” (ibid, p.342). In any case, threshold theory provides a good model for how people living under a brutal government can eventually develop the courage to openly voice dissent, and – in some cases – actually rebel. Of course, it takes time to generate enough popular opposition to a regime, such that individuals are positively affected by a feeling of “safety in numbers.” And in years gone by, the dissemination of information detailing the malignancy of a despotic government would have taken some months (even years) before inciting opposition and disaffection, if at all. But social networking sites have compressed time and geography, such that they can be used to accelerate these processes, and often at an exponential rate. Disparate groups of people that would have faced seemingly insurmountable geographical obstacles (not to mention the repressive tactics of authorities) can now go online and coalesce at the speed of a mouse-click. Information regarding official repression – often hidden – is now recorded and disseminated at an alarming rate. Social networking, in addition to bypassing efforts to curtail popular opposition (it’s much harder to stop the spread of digital information than it is to imprison a flesh-and-blood person), expands and intensifies the formation of oppositional networks to a degree unmatched by more traditional methods of popular resistance and communication. Thus, the so-called “threshold” that has to be reached in order for popular anti-authoritarianism to erupt, is done so much more rapidly. Physical protests were still significant, to be sure; this discussion does not negate the crucial role they played in the downfall of the Ali and Mubarak regimes. And we should not ignore the fact that much of the discontent that we saw spilling out onto the streets had been bubbling away for decades. However, I think it true to say that the airing of on-line grievances allowed groups to form more speedily and open revolt to occur more boldly.

Repressive governments have so far struggled to maintain pace with these emerging political weapons; Tunisia and Egypt are only the most dramatic examples of the impotency of regimes in the face of such technology. In both instances, the lumbering machinery of state was unable to defeat the fleet-footed networks that sprung up amongst young Egyptian and Tunisian urbanites. What use are concrete methods of repression, such as beatings and imprisonment, against the viral omnipresence of organised, on-line antipathy? Authoritarian regimes rely on the appearance of being ever-present, having complete control over knowledge and reality, and retaining total power over the citizenry. With relative ease, clusters of social networks in both Tunisia and Egypt were able to overcome the tools of the police state. One study, conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, found that social media had played a “critical role” in the development and maintenance of the uprisings in the countries in question. People built extensive networks that crossed time and space in ways previously inconceivable; grievances and opposition that before was fragmented and diffuse was, almost overnight, galvanized into a seemingly monolithic whole (Kate Taylor, “Arab Spring Really was Social Media Revolution,” TGDaily.com, September 13th, 2011). The result, as is well known, was the collapse of seemingly impregnable governments. Mr. Zakaria’s conclusion, quoted above, is certainly apt.

At this point, we should acknowledge the two-edged nature of the situation in both Tunisia and Egypt. In these nations, initial demands for freedom have been stymied, first by the inconsistency of the armed forces (in the case of Egypt), and second by inconclusive election results (which have seen Islamists win power in both countries). We should not be naïve about the current state of politics in this part of the world. Nor should we be naïve about any influence Islamist groups played in fomenting, and later driving, the revolutions. They may have been precipitated by the kinds of processes I have described, but Islamists have taken advantage of the prevailing situation. The heady days of expectation and anticipation have given way to greater uncertainty. As Roger Owen, a Harvard professor of history, has said, “The hard fact is that revolutions are lengthy and unruly…Creating a new political order takes many years” (“Little to Celebrate a Year After Mubarak’s Demise, The Weekend Australian, 11th – 12th February, 2012, p.11). This, of course, is true, with or without the influence of social networking. However, it is the case that those heady days were generated, in part, by genuine cries for freedom in both Tunisia and Egypt – aided and abetted by new social technology. If it can be argued that the revolutions have not (yet) deepened the freedoms of ordinary Egyptians and Tunisians, then it can be argued with equal force that demands for those very same freedoms were bolstered and maintained by social networking and media.

More prosaic, though no less significant, has been the role of social media in politics in the West. From social networking sites, to the many blogs that proliferate daily, political debate and action have been visibly changed. “Democratization” may be an apt description of the process, since the advent of social media has allowed an unprecedented number of people to enter into political and social discourse, to organise campaigns around issues in a more fluid and dynamic manner, and to engage with the ideas of political elites in a way that seemed unlikely – nay, inconceivable – a generation ago. A former digital guru in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has said that social media are providing digital spaces for grassroots organisations to coalesce and grow (Fran Foo, “Politicans Should Not Ignore Social Media,” The Australian, October 26th , 2011). Whereas once these groups formed in physical space, the incorporeal nature of the digital world allows them to do so at a rapid rate. The American mid-term elections in 2010 showcased the power of social media to shape political discourse. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Forum found that 20% of people who used the Internet frequented social networking sites to find out about candidates and issues. One-third of those using the Internet said that what they had viewed influenced their decision when it came time to vote (Katie Kindelan, “Social Media in Politics: Positive or Polarizing?”, Social Times, March 18th, 2011). Clearly, social media has become part of the “standard toolkit” for many Americans engaged in politics, as one of the study’s conveners put it.

Some worry about such sites subverting the principles of democracy. The proliferation of social networking, they say, may actually separate people into ever-more polarized groups – hardly a recipe for a fully engaged and unified democratic polity. Such concerns need to be taken into account, for social networking may simply solidify the relationships and cultural environment people already inhabit. It’s certainly true that the comparative ease with which one may air one’s opinions in the digital age makes it much easier for extremist views to gain a public hearing. In such an age, a cogent argument can be made that a cacophony of voices (not always mellifluous) may militate against the quality of debate. Blogs, for example, may be ways of giving extremist views the veneer of legitimacy; however, they can also act as digital public spaces where intelligent and insightful views, which may have otherwise remained unsaid, are offered and debated. As The Economist pointed out in its report on Economics blogs (“A Less Dismal Debate”, December 31st, 2011), the use of such technology can be a boon to robust debate and exposure to a range of ideas – principles that are intrinsic to the democratic project. It has certainly widened the scope for participation in political discourse, and in that sense, social media has deepened political freedom and opened up new opportunities for a dynamic exchange of ideas.

Of course, there are many caveats when it comes to talking about such a subject. I have already noted some of them in my efforts to delineate some of the major themes regarding social media and politics. But my point stands – that technology of this sort can be used for projects and purposes that extend beyond the realm of the quotidian and the trivial, and which seek to enrich human life, challenge the status quo and deepen an appreciation for the fruits of human intellectual endeavour. Despite the obvious problems that often accompany the use of social media – which I explored in my last post on this subject – it is clear that such problems do not tell the whole story. This technology can, and does, bear within itself the potential for substantive change in people’s lives – which goes to show that even though the things we create can end up “creating” us, we still have the power to use them as we will. How we do so is an important thing to remember.

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