Apr 20, 2010, 11:05AM

Digital Dissent

The political implications of social networking.

In a recent Edge.org talk between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky, both theorists of the Internet, an attempt is made to work through some of the enduring fog in our knowledge about the Web and its significance as a social and political tool, especially in authoritarian regimes. Does Twitter’s “freedom” of diffusion allow people to mobilize ideas, as a way to emancipate themselves, or is this simply a “utopian” view? Is the web actually better suited for such states’ use as a monitor of all uprisings and their coordination?

Shirky says that when states like Iran block Facebook and Twitter, they are “dampening” public discourse because of the real threat it presents. Morozov’s response is this: the fact that Twitter/Facebook users in authoritarian states are seen as enemies of the state does not mean they actually are; they don’t have effectual power just because the government blocks their access to web communication. He goes on to discredit social networking from having any impact on actual protest activity in Iran:

Yes, it was a very vibrant, online campaign, but I didn't see it extending into real world coordination all that much. How many completely uninitiated protests have actually engaged with the real world because of something they had read on Twitter or Facebook? While there was synchronicity of online actions, I'm not sure that it translated well into coordinated protests in the streets.

The power of the Internet to distract—in its overabundance, its millions of individuals, and shallow opinions, not to mention its infinite entertainment capacity—is the most interesting problem posed by this conversation. Bloggers, whose work often consists of re-blogging others’ writings, can hardly serve as the real voices of activism. Social media’s vast sea of opinion has as yet unclear effects on our social, cultural, and political minds. Morozov wonders “whether it might be promoting a certain (hedonism-based) ideology that may actually push them further away from any meaningful engagement in politics…” in its infinite capacity for entertainment.

Shirky points out:

One of the funny things that [philosopher Jürgen] Habermas says in Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere…is that newspapers were best at supporting the public sphere when freedom of speech was illegal, so that to run a newspaper was an act of public defiance. Similarly, a protest which is relatively easy to coordinate at relatively low risk is not only less of a protest, but potentially draws off some of the energy that could go elsewhere.

The problem with tweeting and blogging in authoritarian regimes is perhaps its inherent ease, its safety, and its remove from more direct and active methods of dissent.

  • I feel like our generation is the most codified and complacent one yet. We don't really believe in anything and probably wouldn't be willing to fight for it. Facebook and Twitter only makes this worse.

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