Social media is the new forum for free speech, but it's failed at creating political cohesion
Social media is the new forum for free speech - and its suppression. Whether coordinating large protests in Cairo and Tunis or flash mobs in Birmingham and London, social media have proved in recent months that they are capable of disturbing business as usual.
Governments, in response, are selectively shutting down sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to block unwanted activity. The lonely pamphleteer has become the many-friended user.
The latest deployments of this fast-changing technology form a pattern. There are certain things that, so far, social media seem to do very well. One is coordination. Coordinating large numbers of people to do exactly the same thing at the same time is notoriously difficult. So long as the activity is relatively simple - say, show up and protest the government - the new social media drastically reduce the costs of coordination.
In a sense, this coordination is the political analogue to holding a big party. All people need to know is when and where the party is. When they show up, the party will by definition be in full swing. If they come, the party is a success. If they don’t, the party fails. Of course, the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia were not partying. They were risking arrest and torture and even death. But the role of social media was nevertheless to coordinate multiple get-togethers in multiple places - just as one would for a party.
Big parties scare governments. Although the enormous crowds in Cairo and Tunis were not enough on their own to bring down dictators, they did signal that the public was fed up with the regime. The rulers realised that if they could not make the public go home, their legitimacy would be utterly undercut. Unable to suppress demonstrations using secret police, each looked to the military. That was the cue for senior officers in both Egypt and Tunisia to side with the public rather than the aging autocrat. That spelled the end for Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Without the coordination of social media, the protests would still have been possible. Huge crowds have gathered in places from the Washington Mall to Tiananmen Square long before the Internet, much less Twitter. But the demonstrations would have been much harder to organise.
Moreover, social media also carry rapid doses of instant information about protests (admittedly, of dubious reliability), sometimes across long distances. Although spreading news about government depredation is no guarantee of successful revolution - consider the Iranian Green movement of two years ago - it can certainly help to shift public attitudes away from a regime that is in the process of cracking down.
It is worth noting, too, that not only autocracies fear fast-forming crowds. The flash mobs of the British riots this summer were just as illegitimate from the standpoint of the UK government as the North African protests were to the governments of Egypt and Tunisia. The mobs wanted violence and looting, whereas the peaceful protesters wanted democratic change. But they were equally illegal under the norms of the country where they occurred.
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