Is Social Media Helping or Hurting Dissidents?

Is Social Media Helping or Hurting Dissidents?

In a speech broadcasted throughout his nation, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi condemned the recent uprising in Tunisia that led to the ousting of Ben Ali, a fellow North African dictator. “Any useless person, any liar, any drunkard, anyone under the influence, anyone high on drugs can talk on the internet, and you read what he writes and you believe it,” Gaddafi calmly explained, speaking from the library of his palace. “Should we become the victims of Facebook and [Wikileaks] and Youtube?”

How the Internet affects the relationship between governments and their citizens is a particularly contentious and important question. Cyber-enthusiasts affirm that the Internet strengthens societal openness, and in the process undermines authoritarian regimes that have traditionally relied upon controlling popular access to information. Those skeptical of the Internet’s virtues, however, question whether these authoritarian regimes may be much more adept at using the medium for their own purposes than the more optimistic forecasters have considered.

On the one side, the Internet has empowered individuals at an unprecedented level and provided access to information originating from every corner of the world. A microblogger in China revealed that a party official’s son had received merely a warning for killing a student while drunk driving, sparking outrage among local citizens, and eventually leading to the offender’s arrest (although the details of the trial were never released). Last year, 10,000 young Moldovans clashed with police and protested the communist party’s governance, a seemingly spontaneous event that materialized through text messaging, Facebook and Twitter. A video of the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old Iranian student and musician, provided the world with an indictment of the government’s suppression. And just this year, US documents leaked to the Internet and other cyber technologies have played a crucial role in the uprisings throughout the Middle East, from Yemen to Egypt to Tunisia.

However, just as the music industry adapted to the file-sharing movement, governments have tailored to new political conditions as well. The Great Firewall of China, a massive censorship initiative operated by the PRC’s Ministry of Public Security, goes to great lengths to block certain content. Censored materials span from prodemocracy websites to external media, including the Chinese version of BBC News and Voice of America. In Iran, government officials survey dissident activity on the web and track online activity. Facebook wall posts, eBay purchases, Amazon wish lists, Tweets, Youtube views, comments on online media articles: the Internet provides a massive record of everyday activities that the KGB could never have imagined. The Internet also provides a new medium for state propaganda. Konstantin Rykov, the undisputed “godfather” of the Russian Internet and currently a respected deputy of the Russian Duma, founded a popular pro-Russian website russia.ru. Rykov produced a documentary called War 08.08.08: The War of Treason, which took footage captured by Georgian soldiers’ phones and portrayed them in the “worst possible light.” The film, posted online, became a viral sensation with over 2.5 million views.
Caught in the midst of such transformative change, it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand or predict the extent to which the Internet is changing and will change societies. Whether the medium challenges or entrenches authoritarian rule will be a question for future historians to fully answer.

The recent uprisings in Egypt, however, have proven that regardless of the long-term effects of these mediums, social networking and Internet-related technologies play a critical role. Despite Mubarak’s efforts to eliminate Twitter and Facebook during the protests, the medium proved too difficult to control.

*Information from Evgeny Morozov's latest book "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom" was used in this post