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Social media sets us free, or not

12 June 2013 By Edward Hadas

Modern history can be told as a story of new communications technologies which both undermine authority and reinforce the power of the state. The last week has shown that the Internet and social media are playing these two roles well.

Start with the contrasting historical narratives. In the 15th century, printing undermined the autocratic Catholic Church. A few centuries later, cheaper printing made possible the newspapers and pamphlets which helped destroy monarchies and then spread democracy, nationalism and revolution around the world. Telephones and now the Internet have sped up the process.

But there is also the expanding state. Printing allowed central governments to set up and monitor extensive bureaucracies. Cheaper printing gave governments the means to take control of the education and indoctrination of children. Add in telephones, communicating computers and now the Internet, and liberal governments feel free to set up an extensive bureaucracy which monitors and guides almost any aspect of life.

Until Tuesday, it looked like Turkey might be demonstrating the disruptive power of new technology. It took only a few days for a protest over a building project in Istanbul to spark a national movement and become a global cause. A small group of people without anything like a clear agenda was able to jump ahead of the unpopular traditional opposition parties and the cowed old media. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the popular prime minister of Turkey, rightly held social media responsible. He called it “the worst menace to society”.

Tear gas and rubber bullets have scattered the demonstrators, but it’s too early to say that Erdogan has won. I think of the rebels who eventually unified Italy in the 1860s. Inspired by one of the first media-aided anti-authoritarian successes, the American Revolution, they spent decades using the popular press to win hearts and minds, both inside Italy and in several European powers. The new popular opinion eventually prevailed.

Similarly, when the predecessors of the current AK Party Turkish government were persecuted, they relied on the printed word to keep enthusiasm up. It took decades for them to take power. Their opponents now have the Internet, which could work much faster.

But the state can also use the new media to expand its powers. While the Turkish government has been clumsy, the U.S. government is well ahead. The Internet, which developed from an American military communications network, has been partly converted back into a tool for national security. The U.S. government has admitted that it spies on foreign nationals’ net use.

Thanks to harsh criticism from both old and new media, including some biting irony on the Twitter-sphere, President Barack Obama is on the defensive about what he called “modest encroachments” on privacy. But I don’t expect anything more than a modest tactical retreat. It would just take a few more terrorist incidents before he or his successor feels free to develop more intrusive programmes.

After all, the principle has been established: the U.S. government considers social media as potentially under its control. Americans are well behind the Chinese in Internet intervention – there, little censor-figurines march across screens reminding users not to cause trouble. And they are ahead of most European nations in their intervention, but the pattern is global.

So which is stronger, the new media’s power to disrupt or its power to control?

The best answer is it depends. Any government that does not respect the power of the Internet to gather, motivate and organise like-minded citizens will undoubtedly be vulnerable, just like any company which does not respond to the Web activity of its disgruntled customers. Conversely, governments which master social media can become even more closely entwined with the lives of their citizens.

One lesson of the last five centuries is that direct opposition to new media is futile. Governments can close down mobile-phone networks and restrict internet servers, but even the reclusive state of North Korea is liable at border areas. Citizens of normal countries, including Turkey, would simply rebel.

Adoption and subtle manipulation is another matter. American-style direct spying will only snare a few in the fight against terrorism, but the masses can be moved by well-crafted efforts to portray the world as the states’ leaders think it should be portrayed.

As education, administration and information move to the Web, the government’s agenda will seem increasingly natural, increasingly part of the everyday conversation. The craze for “nudge” policies, otherwise known as gentle propaganda, fits in perfectly with the scattered and apparently random spread of information and disinformation on social media.

If anything, I think Twitter and Facebook are friendlier to governments than to revolutionaries. The short and informal formats are better at comforting the doubtful and preaching to the converted than at changing minds. Clever governments are already working with, not against, the new communications technology.


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