Even as we talked about Egypt and Tunisia, and Simon wondered about the respective merits of Sophia Loren and Catherine Zeta Jones in the portrayal of Cleopatra, the talk turned to Egypt's recent controls on the mandatory licensing of group-oriented text messaging services. The conversation was soon given the predictable twist my lovely young friend Shruti. In both these nations, social media has been used extensively to communicate, inform and organise.This was a major boost for her belief in the role that the tools will play in spreading democracy all across the world.
Shaking her pretty head, she started airing her views, daring us to contradict with her tone.
She argued that this was not the first time. In January 2001, when the loyalists of the Philippine Congress had voted to set aside key evidence against president Joseph Estrada during his impeachment, close to seven million text messages had been set across the nation – assembling over a million people in Manila. In fact, after becoming the first national leader forced out by the social media, Estrada himself had agreed that “the text messaging generation” had brought about his downfall.
She went on with her examples, as we sat there and listened. Spain 2004. Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, having blamed the Basque separatists for the Madrid transit bombings, had been thrown out by demonstrations organised by text messages. Moldova 2009. The massive protests coordinated by text messages, Facebook and Twitter ousted the Communist party after a fraudulent election. Even the Catholic Church’s nexus with child rapists had transpired online and in full public view within hours.
Also, this was in line with the old tradition of political activism with tools of communication that was practised even during the cold war. The United States, while it stooped to communist witch hunting, did wisely promote tools like the Voice of America Radio Station, the Television Shows and also smuggled Xerox machines behind the Iron Curtain to boost the samizdat, or underground press.
Obviously, I don’t have such photographic political memories as my young friends. It was left to my Dutch friend to argue on my behalf.
Simon spoke about Belarus 2006, when street protests against President Aleksander Lukashenko’s rigged election grew with email based coordination, but then failed.
Iran 2009. The Green Movement activists used all the new tools of communication to protest against the miscount of votes for Mir Hossein Mousavi, but were crushed by a severe crackdown.
Thailand 2010. Red Shirt uprising by techno savvy protesters led to the siege of Bangkok until the Thai government resorted to violence.
Besides, the Cold War was not ended by samizdat, but by a twist of economic fate. With the price of oil falling and that of wheat shooting up, the Soviet economic model of selling dear and buying cheap faced a dead end. Kremlin was forced to borrow from the West, and to ensure that the loans materialised they had to stop interfering with the military of non-Russian states.
The debate gained heat, as Shruti pointed out that the states behind the Iron Curtain could well have allowed people to starve. Lots of dictatorships had done the same. Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong II. But, in 1989, demonstrations in East Germany, the Charter 77 civic movement in Czechoslovakia, the solidarity movement in Poland thwarted the communist regimes from doing so. And a lot of it was due to the communication tools, even simple photocopy machines. The economic bankruptcy and political decadence was not an open secret anymore, but had become a public fact. The same results were being obtained by the Chinese social media movement despite the Great Firewall and the lack of United States support for the Falun Gong engineered Freegate. The Government was being forced to take democratic measures. This was because of a better networked and connected middle class with political consciousness. If twitter and youtube were available in 1989, tanks would not have rolled in the Tiananmen Square.
Again, turning to China, one could see the ad hoc synchronisation of protestors in the wake of the 20008 May earthquake in Sichuan. The social networks allow the public to reduce the advantage of the disciplined and coordinated efforts of governments, since orchestration is made possible without a great budget or machinery.
At this Simon argued back that the example in question involved parents, particularly mothers, who had lost their children – due to Chinese policy, their only ones – in the collapse of the school buildings. This was a great cause unifying the community. In most of the normal cases, political movements in social networks were actually slacktivism, an electronic click and share version of bumper stickers. Soon, everyone was back to sharing you tube videos of rock stars or funny animals.
Shruti retorted saying that this did not take away the importance of the social networks. In the 1500s, more people were reading erotic novels than Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. That did not take away the significance of the printing press. As German philosopher Jurgen Habermans said in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, the printing press helped democratise Europe by providing space for discussion and agreement among politically engaged citizens. Social media did the same in today’s world. In fact, as Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society points out in his ‘cute cat theory of digital activism’, specific tools produced to defeat state censorship, like proxy servers, can be shut down with minimal political penalty, but broader tools which the larger population use to share pictures of cute cats are harder to shut down.
The two of them having paused for a well earned breath, I spoke for the first time at this juncture. Social networking tools were too new and too untested in the history of man. Attempts to enumerate its effects would currently always lead to such a duel of contrasting anecdotes. In fact, some of the more serious and less gimmicky studies carried out by people like Jacob Groshek and Philip Howard say something as inconclusive as that they probably do not hurt in the short run and might help in the long run. Besides, they have the greatest impact in states where the public sphere already constrains the actions of the government. The best way to think about these tools is as long term ones that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere.
Which is in line with another popular study of political opinion – carried out after the 1948 U.S. Presidential election by sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld – which showed that mass media alone does not change people’s minds. Instead the political opinions are formed when the propaganda of the media is discussed with colleagues, family and friends. This is where social media can be most useful, since this is a unique media which can consume and produce material with unprecedented ease and amount.
True, banning the cell phone and internet is difficult for even the most authoritarian regimes of today. However, the state, we must remember, are a well oiled machinery with access to the best technologies. So, authoritarian – as well as a lot of democratic – governments are increasingly gaining access to and creating sophisticated means of monitoring, interdicting and co-opting these tools.
Simon here pointed out that Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute has argued that social media is as likely to strengthen authoritarian regimes. This is where the pretty lady among us went almost ballistic, giving vent to her opinions about the Open Society Institute, the atrocious way the name of Karl Popper was used for imperialist expansion across the world.
I reminded the young people that we were drifting away from the topic. My conclusion was that the social media could be used as a tool for the second step of forming political opinion, through communication, through aiding and abetting political movements through coordination, making something like the Cultural Revolution of the 60s a complete absurdity through connectedness. However, I was sceptical about the extent to which this was beneficial.
Friends and family could ratify and refine one’s political views through discussions, but once online, ‘friends’ take on a different meaning. In social media, lots of our acquaintances are faceless, no more than an id. And one does not have to stretch the imagination too much to wonder about the infiltration of powers with certain interests into our virtual friend circle. Like the known bloggers of the Chinese government, there may be state machineries generating millions of posts, tweets and blogs to influence the second step of political opinion formation, aiding and abetting the first layer of propaganda.
It is these faceless interactions that I fear. With the half baked slacktivism – as Simon put it – being the order of the day for the net savvy generation, a coordinated and strategic idea propagating and influencing machinery in the guise of a cluster of online accounts can go a long way in controlling the flight of public fancy. I am too pessimistic to believe that motivated powers that be are not doing that already.