Are Social Networks Inherently Democratizing?
“Libya is not Egypt, it is not Tunisia.” It’s an observation recently made by many – no less in this quote than by Saif al-Islam, son of Libyan autocrat Moammar Gadhafi.
And unlike those two nations and others, it appears social networks are playing little if any role in the pro-democracy uprising.
“The Internet is more or less irrelevant to the struggle,” notes author and Stanford visiting scholar Evgeny Morozov. “They seem to be operating very well by themselves, usually relying on the off-line momentum and the off-line networks. That’s why even when the Internet is turned off, as again happened in Libya, we still see protesters in the streets demanding change.”
This is familiar ground for Morozov. A self-described “cyber-realist”, he argues in his new book “The Net Delusion” the Net and social networks are not inherently a force for democracy: they can be used either to expand freedom or increase repression – depending on real-world conditions on the ground. The Internet can “amplify and accelerate” he told VOA, but cautioned:
“There’s nothing about the Internet that makes it an ally of democratic or authoritarian governments. It all depends on the political situation on the ground. Authoritarian countries that are strong and have happily growing economies and that enjoy a modicum of political legitimacy with the population, they will not fall down because people can mobilize online.”
That runs counter current US State Department policy, which has been to assertively promote Internet freedom and access as a means to greater democratization. Just this week, in a “social media dialogue” on the Egyptian website Masrawy.com, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the young organizers in Tahrir Square, saying the US watched the Egyptian uprising “…with great admiration.” She continued:
“And we have, of course, provided many of the tools. I mean, Facebook and Twitter, even the internet, are American inventions, and we are proud that these American inventions are helping to connect people up around democracy and human rights and freedom and an agenda that will lead to a better life in Egypt.”
Morozov calls such assertions “naive” – or worse. “At least as it’s currently conceptualized by Hillary Clinton, it’s probably more harmful rather than helpful to the broader struggle for freedom and democracy,” he observes.
Few doubt the size of the challenge in Libya. Geographically it’s a huge nation with a small population and limited infrastructure, few resources other than oil, low rates of literacy, high levels of distrust of the government – and almost no Internet penetration. The UN International Telecommunications Union estimates around 5% of the population has access to the web, with penetration rates for social media like Facebook even lower.
“I think with every country you have a different mix of elements,” says NYU professor Jay Rosen. “You have the nature of the regime and how it’s enforced it’s power over the years. You have the development or the inhibition of a political system – in some places there’s an opposition, like in Algeria, and in some places it’s been repressed, like in Egypt.”
Philosophically Rosen lies sometwhere between the “cyber-utopians” – as Morozov calls State – and the “cyber-cynics” – as State calls Morozov. “Nobody thinks Twitter can topple dictators,” dismisses Rosen:
“I think that’s a headline, it’s a feature story, it’s a side-bar…it’s a joke, its’ a sandbox activity, it’s a playground.”
Yet any nuanced understanding of the role the Internet does play in democratic struggle by needs varies nation by nation. Some places, like Egypt, it played a large role – although one dating all the way back to the start of the April 16, 2008 movement.
“The economic conditions and desperation of the population is a huge factor. The relationship between the armed forces and the guy who’s in charge is a huge factor. Education levels are a huge factor. So when you add social media to the mix those factors are really important for determining what social media means. We’re trying to avoid a kind of hard work that really can’t be avoided.”
“People aren’t pouring into the streets because they have an Internet connection or Facebook profile,” notes Morozov. “It doesn’t take much to get the Internet right.” But State, he says, “…has been dominated by the wrong kind of internet-centric mindset. It’s people who have focused on technology instead of the broader geo-political setting.”
So in these recent months, has the Internet been a force for democracy – say in Egypt, or Tunisia – or repressions – such as Syria or Iran? Answering that, says Jay Rosen will take some work:
“One place to look is to examine with a very close eye exactly how people organizing protests against regimes did that work, and coordinated widespread action – how exactly did they do their work day to day? And then another way to find out would be, which would be hard, look at how the people fighting against those protesters – people trying to control them or harass them or deter them from succeeding – did their work.
And that’s almost like a post-mortem. But it’s at that level of use that we’re gonna get the answer to our question.”