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Part One – What Kinds of Social Movements Does the Internet Support?
It is commonly assumed by technophiles, politicians, policy analysts and reporters that the Internet is an intrinsically pro-democracy medium. This assumption is primarily based on the implicit linkage between widespread access to information, instantaneous communication and grassroots political action.
Because of its decentralized nature, the Internet is currently difficult to censor or control by authoritarian regimes. For example, Saudi political blogger Ahmed Al Omran, in a recent speech, described early attempts by the Saudi government to block access to politically-contentious material by denying access to entire domains. If a WordPress blogger wrote a piece critical of the government, Saudi censors simply blocked the country’s access to every WordPress site. However, they were forced to abandoned this strategy, because the collateral blockage of millions of unoffending blogs caused a considerable popular outcry.
The political uprisings of the Arab Spring have also drawn considerable attention to the use of social networking technology to report injustices and organize mass protests. The political upheaval in Egypt that resulted in the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak was triggered by a video of police officers beating Khaled Said, an innocent civilian who refused to pay a shakedown bribe. The video went viral, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Other politically-oppressed communities have looked to the successes of the Arab Spring as a possible model. Saransh Sehgal reports in Asia Times, for example, that the Free Tibet movement, frustrated by waning international attention, is attempting to gain traction in the digital world.
Phurbu Thinley, a Tibetan journalist based in India, told Sehgal “Social media, when used effectively, [constitute] a powerful tool to promote activism and change, and even to ignite large unprecedented public events. Tibetans are aware of this. Tibetans are aware of the role played by social networks during the uprisings in the Arab world.”
With these examples in mind, we can begin to evaluate the hypothesis that the Internet is intrinsically supportive of democratic mass-movements. To do so, we need to take a closer look at what happened and why, beginning with the observation that the ultimate outcome of Mubarak ouster remains highly ambiguous.
The two primary centers of social organization in Egypt are the military and the mosque. It should therefore come as no surprise that the primary candidates for the recent presidential election were representatives of these two networks. The Nobel peace laureate and neoliberal exile candidate Mohammed ElBaradei was quickly eliminated from the running in favor of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafik, former commander of the Egyptian air force and holdover stooge of the Mubarak regime.
Now that Morsi has been elected and the Muslim Brotherhood won a majority in the Egyptian parliament, it is not clear that the new civilian government of Egypt will have any real power. The military-controlled Supreme Constitutional Court recently dissolved the parliament, and just after taking office, Morsi precipitated a showdown with the military courts by attempting to nullify the Court’s actions, calling for the parliament to be reconvened. The parliament has subsequently met, despite its uncertain legal status.
The civilian government in Egypt hangs by a thread, and it is not clear that if it prevails, it will seek to instantiate real democratic institutions. ElBaredai has denounced Morsi’s handling of the crisis as unilateral and unlawful, arguing that a monolithic civilian government is not the solution to the problems posed by a monolithic military government.
These historical outcomes raise serious questions regarding what the Internet can and cannot do.
The Berkman Center for Internet & Society of Harvard University analyzed several situations including the case of Egypt, and concluded that decentralized communication technology is supportive of rapid, large-scale events such as the protests at Tahrir Square, but less supportive of the establishment of the persisting social organizations that are crucial to effecting and preserving real long-term change.
In the Center’s study “Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing,” Etling et. al. differentiate between three kinds of social organization based on their longevity: mobs, social movements, and civil society organizations. In authoritarian regimes, established online communities are subject to surveillance and restriction. Thus flash events may occur, but the persisting networks are much more vulnerable. The Center concludes that promoters of democracy should shift focus to developing tools supportive of those lasting structures.
Even in the absence of widespread surveillance and disruption, mass movements precipitated by social media tend to be diffuse and are therefore subject to rapid decay. A case-in-point is the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, which quickly mobilized large numbers of disaffected citizens, but has since struggled to generate persistent outcomes.
Both the short-term success and the long-term failure of the Occupy movement probably derive from the same factor: its generality. By asserting a nebulous critique of widespread corruption, the Occupy movement hoisted a large banner that many could gather under. But when the time came to call for a specific program of reform, it became much more difficult to achieve consensus.
Viral messages and campaigns tend to be general because they tend to be very simple – a short video or slogan. Thus crowds convene on Wall Street or in Tarhir Square to express grievance, but the subsequent development of a complex program of reform lacks the networks of communication and organization necessary to deliberate, reach consensus and implement strategy.
We can therefore tentatively conclude that the Internet and social networking technologies are powerful for triggering and supporting flash-in-the-pan mass actions, but show less evidence for creating and sustaining long-term social movements.
In Part Two of this series, I’ll evaluate arguments that the propagation of decentralized information networks are in fact pervaded by asymmetries of power and access, even in politically liberal societies, and have been explicitly conceived as centralized, hierarchical channels of communication and control from the beginning.