Who is Social Media Really Working For?

As a lifelong political activist I would like to believe that “digital activism” had tremendous impact and leverage for change. However, as someone who has built his career upon communicating the “magic” of technology to the public on behalf of the leading companies in Silicon Valley, I remain skeptical concerning the democratizing impact of the Net through its newest expression, the social network. It’s my opinion that social networking, as an activist tool, is being vastly oversold. However, this is not without precedent or purpose: Great IPO fortunes depend on this popular misconception.

Given my background, I consider myself inoculated from charges of Luddism or “cyber-pessimism” – a pejorative that I also reject for Mr. Morozov and others who have liberated themselves from what I call “the cult of tech.” Simply defined, the cult of tech is the nexus of technology companies, telecom service providers, tech think-tankers and assorted digerati that derive their livelihood from promoting a digital panacea. These combined interests exert undue influence over an often befuddled popular media struggling to keep up with the “magic” of new tech offerings. For example, the cult of tech jumped at the marketing opportunity to brand an indigenous anti-authoritarian uprising in Iran as the “Twitter Revolution” with scant evidence of the application’s actual impact, negative or positive.

Technology always cuts two ways. Although the personal computer provided empowerment and creative liberation for individuals, and the Internet gave us access to information, they came at a cost. Experiences over the Net require a service provider to mediate connections amongst us. The early 90s freewheeling Internet with hundreds of independent ISPs has devolved into less than a handful of huge players. This new concentration of power, whether as a public or private entity, is cause for concern. Since centralized power is inherently non-democratic, these monolithic network entities are not inclined to liberate humanity. Therefore utopians better think twice if they are depending on the Net to promulgate democracy and freedom. For example:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

John Perry Barlow’s quote is Utopian indeed, a poetic touch, but unfortunately the last sentence is magical thinking. In reality, cyberspace, and the au courant “Cloud,” are not ethereal things – they are physical assets that depend upon tangible presence and resources. Just as we don’t have minds without brains in which consciousness can reside, cyberspace exists in data centers and network switching racks in real locations, owned by huge corporations and governments. Those in control of these physical assets rule over the network and the flow of information. Although they allow for variable amounts of chaos depending upon the cultural context, they are fundamentally authoritarian in structure.

Does social media make any kind of impact in molding opinion? Yes. As with all media types it serves both for good and evil, truth and lies. However, Mr. Morozov and I are on the same page in the belief that cultural and physical realities are the determining factors far more than “friending” a cause. Whether we like it or not, bullets and batons are more potent than bytes. Reality generally trumps virtuality.

In the opening paragraph of Mr. Szoka’s essay, he headlines three “successes” attributable to social network activism – the Obama election, the North African uprisings, and SOPA’s defeat. Below I will argue that all three are actually perfect examples of the medium’s failure to deliver change.

The efficacy of the network as a tool of activism is best examined in three different contexts:

1. Democratic states

2. Authoritarian states

3. Commercial “states”

1. SOCIAL MEDIA IN DEMOCRATIC STATES

THE 2008 ELECTION

Although the Obama campaign was adept at fundraising, messaging their base, and organizing volunteers, once elected, the power center for Obama dramatically shifted. It was not longer the network of activists and “the professional left” who mattered; it was those within earshot of the White House, those who lunched and dined with the people who had the president’s ear. Pre-election virtual lost out to post-election proximity and presence. Polling indicated that the “public option” was the leading choice for a new healthcare model. Bloggers blogged, but to little effect as a few well-funded senators derailed a social network of millions of vocal activists. In elections, even a well-organized social media effort can be undone by one individual tampering with digital voting machines.

ONLINE PETITIONS

The popularity of online petitions is astonishing. Yet they are served to no one and have no force of law. The purpose of their existence is simply data collection for issue-oriented fundraisers and spammers. Similarly, millions can “like” a cause on Facebook and have no impact on reality. These devices are akin to “close door” buttons on elevators and “walk” buttons at pedestrian crossings. They have the effect of making people feel like they are taking action, but in reality, the effect is nothing beyond self-satisfaction. It might actually deter real political action since people “already gave” at the web browser.

OCCUPY

Although there had been progressive blogging and activism of note since the advent of MoveOn.org and Daily Kos, it wasn’t until activists stopped merely talking to themselves and made their continuing presence felt on Wall Street that they became hard to ignore. Reality again trumped virtuality.

SOPA

Many “netizen” activists seem to be taking a victory lap on the deferment of SOPA legislation. However, when we look at the players, it wasn’t little the guy versus the omnipotent. It was two powerful entities at odds over the rulebook for revenues from intellectual property. It was Silicon Valley billionaires versus Hollywood billionaires and Hollywood overplayed its hand. Next time the studios and companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft will make a deal with content companies and exclude the rest of us. And make no mistake – they will be back.

CISPA

Vitally more important than SOPA is CISPA. We see organizations as politically divergent as the ACLU and Cato showing up to fight this heinous violation of the Constitution – but neither the technology giants nor their considerable lobbying/political-action surrogates are working for freedom this time.

2. SOCIAL MEDIA IN AUTOCRATIC STATES

If you ask yourself what’s new and different about the recent events in North Africa and the Arab world, the answer would be “not much.” The pattern of autocracy repeats over time; as Mark Twain said, “history rhymes.” A corrupt leader is replaced by a reformist in a revolution. After a few decades, the newer leader succumbs to corruption and begins to siphon off the national wealth at the expense of everyone else, just like the old leader, and starts positioning his heirs to succeed him. The populace grows poorer and more enraged and then overthrows the government once again. The spark is always different, but the rage is the same. This time the spark was literally set by a self-immolation in Tunisia, not by Facebook.

In Libya, a nation had divided in two and then NATO intervened on the side it favored to win. It was fierce town-by-town fighting determining the course, not social media. Despite blood being spilled, not much democracy has emerged from Libya. Egypt remains in a state of chaos, and most likely the Egyptian Army is being restrained by its multibillion dollar benefactor, the U.S. government. It was also made clear during the Egyptian uprising that the Internet Kill Switch was a playable card for the government.

At other times, the technology winds up being a net negative for organizers. Iran’s 2009 uprising is a frightening example of what can go wrong. Hailed as the Twitter Revolution, social media gave a false sense of empowerment to the protestors. Yes, the world was watching, but so were the secret police. Worse, the intermediators who controlled the wireless and the Net were government entities and enabled by western technology companies. The government used these networks to track down, jail, torture, and kill those striking for human rights. The world mistook watching for taking action, which was not possible.

In confronting authoritarian situations there can be technical workarounds to protect identity and bypass filtering, yet there is never a technical measure that doesn’t eventually have a counter measure. We can also be certain that well-financed state authorities will have early access to the most expensive and capable tools to monitor, filter, and eliminate opposing opinions – and these are supplied by the same Silicon Valley companies whose leaders who glibly and regularly espouse “freedom.”

3. SOCIAL MEDIA IN COMMERCIAL “STATES”

Finally we arrive at the purpose of social networks…and some success in activism. However, it is only what could be called “consumer activism.” Social media applications were designed as advertising platforms and consumer intelligence-gathering channels. Using increasingly powerful software tools, marketers scan for opinions and even complaints about their offerings. In the commercial context, the feedback of social networks is an asset – it is data collection for “business intelligence.” Consumer activism can have an effect here because the criticism is valuable to marketers in their efforts to sell more stuff, even if at times criticism is uncomfortable.

Now consider this sales proposition from a social networking company: If our application can overthrow a government, certainly it can help you sell more fizzy sugar water. How many businesses decided they needed a Twitter strategy after seeing the “Twitter Revolution” taking place in Iran? Why would companies such as Facebook and Twitter not want to capitalize on the misconception that their tools powered social change when it increases their perceived value, especially with potential retail share purchasers at IPO time?

Inevitably, the mix of commercial and political brings us to China. Defying all the pre-conceived nonsense that commercial liberalization and political freedoms are tied together, China blesses engagement with the web and social media to market products, but actively blocks the Net as a means of expressing dissent or diversity of opinion. In these efforts they are being enabled by best of Silicon Valley. The cult of tech preaches freedom, but happily sells the tools of oppression.

Conclusion

Overall, I am by nature an optimist. However, the social network as it is presently constituted is not a serious tool for substantive social change. It is concentrated, centralized and controlled. At best, in the autocratic context, it is akin to China’s “Democracy Wall.” In the democratic context, it is similarly a way to vent, and perhaps organize, but as of yet not much more. However, if you are selling widgets, the social network looks more promising.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Toward a Greater Understanding of Internet Activism by Berin Szoka

    Berin Szoka surveys recent developments in Internet activism. The 2009 Green Revolution in Iran may have failed, but activists in the United States defeated SOPA, a bill that would have imposed significant restrictions on the Internet. Szoka concludes that the Internet helps solve a significant problem in activism: It makes it easier for like-minded people to provide reputational feedback about corporations and governments. Still, we must pay close attention to the fact that governments can and do manipulate the Internet to repress their populations.

Response Essays

  • Internet Activism? Let’s Look at the Specifics by Rebecca MacKinnon

    Rebecca MacKinnon urges a close attention to the particularities of time and place. Protest movements are more and more using social media, but they may stand or fall based on other factors. Laws and Internet architectures may vary, rendering the medium more or less conducive to citizen activism. It becomes increasingly important to pay attention to what makes for good or bad Internet law, because the results in this area may prompt virtuous or vicious cycles throughout society.

  • Better Policy Through Better Information by John O. McGinnis

    John O. McGinnis argues that the Internet and associated technologies can and will change the terrain on which policy choices are made. Not only does it become easier for dispersed interests to aggregate, but information technology can also shift the focus of our political culture. Empiricism and evidence will become relatively more important as facts become easier to check; ideology and unsupported intuition will lose a good deal of power. For these reasons, McGinnis is an optimist.

The Conversation