It didn’t take long for reporting of the Tunisian uprising to lapse into lazy clichés about another revolution fuelled by Twitter. Are social media really a weapon to topple malevolent regimes or a muzzle on freedom?
Cyber-sceptic Evgeny Morozov, author of a new book, The Net Delusion, seeks to debunk the liberal consensus that the web is a universal democratiser. Oppressive governments, he argues, are more web-savvy than their enlightened counterparts, seizing on technology to track and silence dissent and mould public opinion.
Hugo Chávez uses Twitter (over one million followers) to spread propaganda, while the Chinese Communist Party employs legions of incognito bloggers to disseminate Government messages and discredit opposition voices. Social media are a relatively cheap and easy form of surveillance too.
Morozov says the West’s love affair with ‘cyber utopia’ has unwittingly created greater risks for dissidents and Iran is a case in point. Egged on by cyber geeks in the US state department, the administration was seduced into granting a trade embargo exemption to a 26 year old’s fledgling anti- censorship programme, Haystack. Soon after its launch, however, the software was found to be so flawed that the Iranian government could track down anyone who had used it.
The US administration is shown to be no web angel either, covertly using software platforms as a foreign policy instrument, all the while lecturing about the importance of “internet freedom.” Such double standards are even more hypocritical when you consider its sanctimonious condemnation of WikiLeaks.
Twitter shot to fame in 2009 when journalists credited it with coordinating the protests against the rigged presidential ballot. An investigation by Al-Jazeera, however, found just 60 active Twitter accounts in Tehran at the time.
Perhaps what social media really does in situations like Iran and Tunisia is to create a highly accessible cache of compelling eye-witness accounts, so raising our awarness of democratic struggles when free media access is restricted. On the other hand, it’s hardly wild conspiracy to suggest that secret police are actively infiltrating these networks to quash opposition.
Hopefully Morozov can help dissuade commentators from trivializing complex protest movements by telling us that social media is sparking revolution. Surely there are more important aspects of the struggle to report.
A recent analysis of the political impact of social media can be found in Foreign Affairs.