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The Twitter Delusion
Twitter is Not a Great Emancipator

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.

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  • Andrew Allison

    I would argue that social networking is the primary cause of the fall into the normalized state of violence and repression in the mid-East. It’s primary effect has been to stir up violence which, surprise, surprise has led to repression.

    • Fred

      Exactly. Only Americans and Western Europeans could be so naive that they think savages suddenly become civilized because they get on Facebook.

  • ljgude

    In the case of the Arab spring the beam in our eye was our own positive regard for democracy projected on a very different society. In retrospect the process in Egypt yields to a much older explanation advance by Gibbon in his Decline and Fall where he noted that the real power lay with the Praetorian Guard who could make or break any emperor they pleased with a little assist from the mob down at Tahrir Square. Imagine the feats the Romans could have racked up declining and falling if they had had Twitter!

    • Jim__L

      Now you’ve made me want to rewrite Caesar’s “Conquest of Gaul” as a series of Tweets… the man would have been frighteningly good at social media, no doubt.

      • ljgude

        Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est would make a great start in well under 140 characters.

  • John Hasley

    Social networking has not been the primary cause of things reverting to their time-honored states. The fact is that it took many years for things in the west to get to the point where they would support a free society. The Founding Fathers maintained for a reason that they were upholding the rights of Englishmen and the king was a usurper. There was a long tradition of such things going back through the Middle Ages English Common Law goes through 1000 years of limitations on the kings of England, and they have similar parallels in the French Estates General and Spanish Cortes. But it took a long path to get here and a lot of work by so many whose names we don’t know. There are reasons why something like the Internet and social media can yield a tool for the limitation of government in the inheritors of Washington and Jefferson (and Alfred and Richard Coer de Leon) while not doing so in the heirs of Yaroslav and Ivan the Terrible. These things do not happen in a vacuum and they do not occur overnight.

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