Just a few short years ago the term “social media” was only known to a select few in hi-tech start-ups and venture capital firms. Today, it is difficult to tell where the “real world” ends and where cyberspace begins. And vice-versa: often events are planned in cyberspace using Twitter, Facebook and e-mail, the event happens, and it is digitized and uploaded to YouTube and other social networking sites.
Anti-government demonstrators in Iran, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia have used social media with varying degrees of success. The results are still uncertain in a number of these countries. Israeli supporters and Palestinian supporters regularly try to match digital wits on Facebook and similar sites. One thing caught my attention, and I bet you’ve noticed it to: people living under authoritarian and totalitarian regimes have used social media to great effect, whereas in liberal democracies its use is more restricted.
Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes control all of the “old school” media: newspapers, radio, television. They censor all of these. They also censor university curricula, limit or outlaw trade unions, co-opt professional unions and even coerce the support of religious institutions. Of course, none of this is news. It is exactly the reason that protesters use the new media: they have nothing else to use.
In Tunisia, the country’s president was forced to flee after ruling for more than two decades. Egypt’s president dismissed his cabinet just hours before I sat down to write this. Jordan’s king is considering dismissing his cabinet. While we still do not know how these events will end. If new governments are formed, we cannot know whether they will be more responsive to their citizens. Thus, we cannot say with certainty that “social media” are “good” in and of themselves, only that in these instances they were useful.
One must also remember that Iran successfully crushed a pro-democracy movement that was fueled by the social media. It is actually not clear if the demonstrators were pro-democracy or just anti-Ahmadinejad. Apparently, tear gas, bullets and truncheons still have the same affect in “meat space,” regardless of how many friends one has or how many pages one has clicked “Like.” When a regime is dedicated to waging and winning the battle on the streets, social media are as useful as “teats on a bull,” as my Great Grandfather, farmer that he was, used to say.
Liberal democracies by definition have an independent press, judiciary, robust opposition and rule of law. Citizens in liberal democracies are able to choose from a wide range of domestic and foreign news sources, take advantage of a wide-range of civic and political associations. They are able to meet and interact with their elected leaders – and with opposition leaders – freely.
People also have an almost bewildering amount of business, cultural and social choices presented to them via social media. In other words, the political has to compete with the economic, cultural and social. In Israel, the turn-out in the last general election was 65%; three years earlier it was just over 70%; three years before that it was almost 80%. Social media are not responsible for this voter apathy; the blame for that can be laid squarely at the doorstep of Israel’s political parties and their machinations.
Can social media be used to re-kindle interest in the institutions of democracy in a liberal democracy? Many people will no doubt will claim that the “Tea Party” in the US has done just that. However, in addition to there being several socioeconomic factors at work in its formation, the “Tea Party” movement has also benefited great from the coverage given to it by the old media. It has also received begrudging support from the Republican establishment. Thus, the jury is still out.