1Social media gives power to the people.
More than 5 billion people are connected via mobile phones, 2 billion are on the Internet, and Facebook boasts some 750 million users. With such wide reach, it’s easy to assume that communications technologies are great equalizers, increasing the political and economic power of the least well-off.
A feature from The Post’s Outlook section that dismantles myths, clarifies common misconceptions and makes you think again about what you thought you already knew.
Certainly, there are examples of new technologies helping the less fortunate. Kenyan farmers and Indian fishermen have used phone applications to bypass corrupt middlemen and get real-time prices for their goods. Anecdotes abound of bloggers documenting human rights abuses, activists communicating via social media during the Arab Spring and indigenous people in Mexico using online newsgroups to promote their struggle for sovereignty. Even the current “Occupy Wall Street” effort was organized in part via social media.
But to best take advantage of a technology, people need dependable physical infrastructure and human capital — including electricity, education and media literacy. This is true even in the United States. For example, as a faculty member at UCLA, I have worked to develop a digital museum representing objects from the indigenous Zuni people of New Mexico in a way that respects their culture. Our research team found that designing the online system based on standard museum-style descriptions was alienating to the Zuni and that we needed to listen to their ways of describing the world, through storytelling and community rituals. If technologies are designed in isolation from the cultures they seek to connect, people’s real voices will not be heard.
2Governments easily monitor and censor social media.
The Internet is much harder to police than capital-intensive media such as television, newspapers and radio. With these older media, intelligence authorities can more easily detect broadcast or printing locations. It’s not as simple to monitor a digital environment where anyone with a laptop, bandwidth and the requisite education can create his or her own media network by blogging, tweeting or streaming.
In 2006, my colleague Adam Fish and I were working in Kyrgyzstan, which maintained a Soviet-style approach toward policing media outlets and phone communications. We were surprised to learn that, partly because of the country’s need for foreign aid, authorities had agreed to relax Internet regulation in exchange for assistance. We also learned how hard it was to monitor Internet users who were widely dispersed, in some cases using proxy servers and IP-address-scrambling technologies to evade surveillance.
As our research proceeded, we found a small blogosphere emerging in Kyrgyzstan, linking activists and opposition politicians with one another and with sympathizers throughout Central Asia, Russia and the West. The activists understood that the Internet would hardly be sufficient to oppose the regime, but they also found that social media helped them communicate, building ties that fueled at least part of the revolutionary leadership that toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010.