Access to social media networks is supposed to be the key to 21st century liberation movements. What’s gone wrong?
We must start by dispelling a myth which has taken root in the West. It is that young people worldwide, by default want to live like their counterparts in London or New York. Further, we lazily take it as said that once a critical mass of young people in a repressive state have social networking capabilities, they will organise themselves into successful protests groups.
It could be distilled to the equation Repressed Youth + Social Networks = Democratic Movement
It’s more than a little validating to think like this, but the evidence is being somewhat stubborn. Why hasn’t the rise in connectivity been matched by a corresponding drop in the number of tyrants? The answer is threefold.
Just stop and think for a moment how much information you make available to strangers every day? Now think how much more is behind flimsy passwords. Now contemplate how much information about you and your contracts a repressive regime could acquire within one hour?
The KGB and Stasi could spend weeks torturing a suspect to get mere morsels of intelligence about dissident groups, which might not even be accurate. Yet today, a cursory glance at the Tweets of a human rights campaigner in Iran will disclose names, dates, locations and daily habits of entire networks that Tehran may wish to monitor, subvert, or simply snuff out.
Never in human history have states had access to so much information on their citizens. To be sure, a certain amount can be hidden by false names and amateur encryption, but latent protest groups are still doing an awful lot of the secret policemen’s work for them.
A caricature of the Arab Spring protests has been that of groups of tech savvy youth craftily outwitting the bumbling, knuckle-dragging and techonophobic authorities. But it is inaccurate and dangerous allow such a false sense of security to develop. Regimes may be thuggish when kicking in doors, but they can be remarkably slick when it comes to electronic surveillance. Many gas and oil rich regimes, particularly in Central Asia, have taken to employing Western tech companies to set up sophisticated intel gathering operations who write and run algorithms to identify potential threats and their networks. Indeed, some of the best Big Data mining operations in the world right now are those engaged in keeping authoritarians in business.
As a further nod to the growing multi-media savviness of the world’s undemocratic states, we are seeing governments employing small armies of bloggers to take the fight to their enemies. Rather than the whack-a-mole approach of closing down anti-government blogs as and when the pop up, governments such as China’s are paying tens of thousands of web users to spread the government message, either on their own lavishly funded blogs, subject the comments section of anti-government pieces to a deluge of abuse or counter argument.
In homage to Mao’s infamous line that he had more men than the enemy had bullets, today’s Communist rulers have more bloggers than anti-party activists have blogs. Given that state backed television and newspapers dominate the markets in oppressive states, it’s naïve to think that rulers wouldn’t think to co-opt Twitter, YouTube and Facebook as well.
And there is another, less obvious way in which social media is empowering the autocrats of this world; by acting as a distraction for otherwise restless youth.
As you dear reader will no doubt confess, it’s shockingly easy to while away a day looking at cat videos on YouTube, or setting up a tumblr for your favourite movie posters. Add the interaction of Facebook and Twitter, and you need never leave the house again. The fluff of the internet is the new opium of the masses, and kleptomaniac military juntas across the globe are laughing their jackboots off. Whereas in decades gone by, economically inactive people in their twenties were a nightmare for dictators to deal with, today’s youth have more than enough to keep them distracted and docile. And in a beautiful twist of irony, what makes it even better for these leaders is that it doesn’t cost them a dime, for most of the entertainment is generated in the very states who seek their downfall.
Even the keyboard political warriors tend to remain precisely that, keyboard warriors. All the angry tweets in the world won’t tear down a statue of the Glorious Leader, or dent on of his tanks. Indeed, the internet serves as a useful safety valve for dictators, for it allows citizens to vent their frustrations, but in a hilariously impotent way.
All this is not to say that these regimes are invulnerable. Most will crumble from within under the combined weight of incompetence and infighting. Others will mellow once they see the threat of Western military intervention wane. And the internet will help this process along, by exposing both its ruling elite and the citizens to ideas and influences it would not have previously seen.
But for time being at least, when it comes to serving the cause of freedom, the internet is a double edged-sword