Thursday, December 3rd, 2009 | Anand Varghese
In the wake of the 2009 Iranian elections, social media like Twitter created an ostensibly minute-by-minute news feed of events on the ground, with the #iranelection hashtag trending for weeks afterwards. International media coverage of the event spoke of a “Twitter revolution,” and indeed, the theme of this Unconference is particularly pertinent in the context of such claims. When we look at ways to “use social media for good,” we must also be aware of the ways in which social media can either fail to create positive outcomes, or be utilized by the “bad guys.”
The US Institute of Peace’s Center of Innovation for Science, Technology, and Peacebuilding has been has been examining this issue for some time and has been partnering with organziations like George Washington University, Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Morningside Analytics, and Global Voices Online. While there’s clear evidence that social media can be beneficial for democracy and peace activists, there are challenges and downsides that must be taken into account, and we should approach the utility of social media with considerable skepticism.
Some points that should make us cautious about the causal connections we draw between social media and positive political outcomes:
1) These social media often tend to be the preserve of educated elite, especially in developing countries. Should we be skeptical of the grassroots political effects of a social media tool that is not widely adopted? At the time of the election, there were only 8500 Twitter users in Iran.
2) Repressive regimes are skilled at blocking internet access or other digital tools to their advantage. They can also rally their supporters to utilize social media tools to their own ends. For example, China employs it’s “50 cent army” to post pro-government blog and forum posts.
3) We should be wary of overstating the connections between online groups and actual collective action in repressive or violent contexts. The protests organized in opposition to the FARC in Colombia may have acted as a catalyst for large gatherings of people, but it is unlikely that many of the estimated 4.8 million Colombian protesters attended due to Facebook, since only 5% of Colombians actually use Facebook. Moreover, protests organized through social media in more repressive, violent contexts are bound to be problematic. Notifying pro-reform protesters of an upcoming rally on the streets of Cairo using a public space like Facebook can also notify the pro-government militias where they need to start violent crack-downs.
4) Social media can also socialize violent extremists, exposing them to a narrow set of messages that reinforce their existing ideas. They work to articulate partisan opinion in the same way that Fox News or MSNBC cater to the ideological leanings of their specific constituencies, only with more extreme results.
5) The potential insularity of online discourse can also undermine the cause of political reformers. When opposition groups are only talking amongst themselves, whether on the internet or otherwise, this diminishes their capacity to create broad, oppositional coalitions of the sort that are needed to trigger democratic transitions.
While the effects of social media need to be explored, these on-the-ground realities should give us pause. The limits of online discourse in the offline world should inform the way we formulate policy as we go forward. These limits should not diminish our enthusiasm for “using social media for good,” but they should temper our expectations.