Myths of Facebook, Twitter ‘Revolutions’
Are social networks political power brokers or just facilitators of social intercourse?
Facebook, the social media network, is claimed to have more than 500 million subscribers worldwide. I am not one of that vast army of camp followers.
In the history of antiquity, camp followers consisted of the entourage of marauding military expeditions, including soldiers, cooks, court jesters to ill-humoured generals, squires looking after the horses, and of course, women who provided all sorts of services to the troops.
I consider Facebook a huge pool of information into which a person surrenders his/her privacy as a consenting adult to microscopic examination by voyeurs, or blackmail operators. Despite assurances of security of information and protection of privacy of the clients, there is nothing sure about leakage of information stored in confidence or about its secrecy 'wall' not being hacked by predatory Internet eavesdroppers.
This information pool is a bonanza for whistle blowers, military and police intelligence agents, tax collectors and muckrakers, making it easy for them to operate. It is a mine field of information for espionage by agents of aspiring dictators. Most of the information collected by government today consists of tax returns, statements of assets and liabilities, VAT invoices, and census statistics, but social media do more than this. They have spread their dragnet to trawl personal information (for what purpose, it's hard to say) to gratify people's need to enhance their private relationships regarding matters that have little to do with the promotion of public interest?
Of late, social media have developed into monsters of transmission of political intelligence for the overthrow of dictatorships in the Middle East a task and function not originally envisaged by their founders with results beyond their wildest expectations. Social media have bitten more than they can chew, and now they have an identity problem and their role as a catalyst of political and social change is seriously being examined.
The extent to which social media contributed to the toppling of the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt is a matter of debate, according to Agence France Presse. Their role in what is now called The Age of Digital Revolution has become contentious. There is danger that the role would be over-magnified at the expense of underrating the importance of other elements, including the factor of youth unrest and public revulsion at brutal human rights suppression.
In Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, graphic pictures and raw video of harsh crackdowns by the security forces on crowds of protestors have earned international condemnation of their governments and further fuelled popular anger in the streets. Such footage has been uploaded in Facebook, Twitter, Flicker, YouTube and other sites.
“The biggest factor in the unfolding events, to me, appears to be the emergent power of young people, compounded by how urbanised they are,” said Micah Sifry, cofounder of politics and technology blog techPresident.
Wael Ghonim, the Google executive and cyber activist who emerged as a leader of the anti-government protests in Egypt, said social media “played a crucial role” in the events that led to Hosni Mubarak's ouster. “Without Facebook, without Twitter, without Google, without you-Tube, this would have never happened,” Ghonim said. “If there were no social networks it would have never been sparked.”
Ghonim, who started the Facebook page 'We Are All Khaled Said', is credited with helping mobilise the demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Khaled Said was the young Egyptian who was beaten to death by the police a brutality believed to have triggered the protest movement in January. Alec Ross, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's senior adviser for innovation, did not go as far as Ghonim in giving credit to social media. Ross said social media played an “important role” in the events in Egypt and Tunisia but emphasised that “technology did not create the dissent movements there.” He said: “It did not make the dissent movements successful people did (a point well put). They were not Facebook revolutions or Twitter revolutions. Technology served as an accelerant.
A movement that historically would have taken months or years was compressed into far shorter time cycles.”
True revolutions do not happen without angry people in the streets. Technology is merely the mechanism through which people express their wrath. There are no heroes from the ranks of Facebook and Twitter. In the meantime, Facebook has to make up its mind whether it is a political power broker or just a facilitator of social intercourse. It is beginning to muddle its information.
This article was first published in Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Reprinted with permission.