A new report out of the USIP is debunking the popular idea that social media and democracy are natural allies. Since the early days of the Arab Spring, technologists and liberal idealists alike have sworn that the proliferation of digital communication technologies would usher in an inevitable wave of democratization. The idea that Twitter and Facebook are de facto friends of democratic regimes was widely echoed by major news outlets, and has been reinforced in the public’s mind by the great lengths authoritarian governments like China, Syria and Iran go to block social media sites. But as this comprehensive report elucidates, these initial hopes for social media’s democratic tendencies were largely oversimplified and exaggerated. Foreign Policy reports:
Perhaps the most important conclusion of the [report], however, is that scholars, activists, and policymakers must avoid over-generalizing about the strengths — and limitations — of digital media. Not all new media have the same functions and effects, nor does one case necessarily provide lessons for the next.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise. Countries involved in the Arab Spring that many believed held such promise for democratization back in 2011—Libya and Egypt, to name a couple—have now fallen into a state of normalized violence and repression. Twitter couldn’t and didn’t prevent that. The mainstream media has had a tendency to ignore the equally aggressive use of social media by those very regimes the Twitteratti activists targeted—Twitter can be just as effective a tool for the “bad guys” as it can for the “good.” The media heralded social media tools as saviors of democracy, when in fact they were nothing but mere tools.