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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Social media — tool of revolution or repression?

An engaging article by Scott Shane in Sunday’s New York Times adds context to a flurry of articles on how social media (seemingly alone) is undermining authoritarian Arab leaders. I applaud the democratic movements and admire the courage of the people in the streets; I am fascinated by their use of social media. I also am fascinated by how new forms of media are used in ways never envisaged by their creators.

But, as Shane notes, we need to take a larger view when assessing the democratic potential of new media. Shane points out that authoritarian regimes are catching up on the media revolution. Security officials are learning to use new media to track down activists and protest leaders. He notes how, in Iran, after the protests ended, the Iranian police followed the “electronic trails” left by activists. The trails helped police arrest thousands of protest participants. The Facebook site of a leading protester can be a gold mine of information on his political networks.

As Shane notes, police and security officials from Tehran to Beijing have mastered the learning curve for new media and can match the media savvy of many democracy groups. It seems that protesters in these countries need to take their media usage to a new level — finding ways to not leave electronic trails for security forces.

These are sobering facts that should temper our sometimes naive belief in the positive power of new media.

Of course, even if security forces under repressive regimes use new media to inhibit protests, there is no guarantee that this will protect a regime from protest and perhaps revolution. There are other forces than media at work, including poverty, despair about the future, long-festering resentments at the loss of basic liberties, government corruption, and so on.   True, media alone does not cause revolution. But media combined with the right economic, social and political forces can be a potent threat to any leader, anywhere.

This is one lesson we should take from the Egyptian protests.

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