I found this essay, Social Movements and Governments in the Digital Age: Evaluating a Complex Landscape, on the most comprehensive scholarly database called Academic Search Complete.
In the essay, the author, Zeynep Tufekci, argues how the innovation of social media of nowadays has transformed the way both dissidents/activists and governments get themselves involved in social movements. The impact of social media on social movements is so complex that one cannot simply argue it is either beneficial or harmful. To show the complexity of social movements in this digital age, the author clarifies the duality of social media that its strengths inevitably cause its weaknesses for protesters in promoting social movements against governments. By taking examples of Turkey and Egypt, where the use of social media has taken a huge role in the movements, the author shows the readers the relationship between media and democracy in 21st century.
Social media has helped to empower protesters in mainly three fields: public attention, evading censorship, and coordination or logistics. With respect to public attention, the emergence of social media has transformed the public sphere itself. In some countries such as Turkey, the government took control over the mass media by pressuring them politically and financially. Gatekeeping all the information, those governments could keep people’s attention away from negative news about government’s policies. Under such an environment, people hardly can even notice what is really happening in their countries. However, social media, as an independent media entity, enable citizens to engage in journalism activities with much less restriction from governmental authorities. In the case of the protests in Turkey, one journalist, Akinan, used social network service to spread the reality of protests that media do not broadcast in any ways, and its news spread rapidly via, again, social network services. As this example shows, social media change the public sphere from narrowly restricted information space to open access for everyone. Especially in those countries where the governments have controlled the media in a strict sense, the impact of this transition brought by social media is huge to an extent that now people can get informal but worthy information mutually.
Governments, on the other hand, of course, do not just let those new technologies deprive them of a privilege of controlling the mass media: “digital infrastructure appeared to empower the initial phase…however, over the mid- to long-term governments learned to respond accordingly” (6). As the public sphere itself changes, governments change their strategies to pull back information led by activists via social media under their control. The author states their dealing with this new age:
Many governments have recognized that they cannot fully conquer social media as an alternative source of news and public opinion formation. Governments can try to divide, polarize, and counter its influence by both joining it, with their own supporters or employees, or by beating it, via demonization and/or bans, which do not completely block motivated citizens but help keep government supporters from using and trusting it. (7)
Governments aim at not eradicating all the information, but getting over the control of the mass media again. That is why they do not just simply illegalize all the activities relating to social media (which is actually questionable if governments could totally restrain all the social media activities even if they tried). Here, we can see that this conflicting structure between government and people. Social media becomes a means through which citizens get relatively liberal access to those information which governments might not want people to see for authoritative reasons. Despite its empowering aspects, social media also has some inherent weaknesses, which are not favorable for protesters to keep their movements going.
Social media provide us technologies that can show us the whole new world where, unlike before the emergence of social media, a classical power balance between governments and activists in terms of media has changed a lot. One of the main reasons why social media is so innovative is its connectivity among so many people who barely know each other to gather and communicate at once very easily and quickly. It favors social movements in two ways that 1) it makes a lot easier to organize those movements and that 2) each participant unites as a whole even without any leader figures, which represent their concept of democracy. However, these two characteristics also represent social media’s weaknesses. Since it is very easy now to organize a social movement via social media, protesters can proceed their plans without having some essential procedures that any organizations have to go through. The author points out that “Digital infrastructure helps undertake functions that would have otherwise required more formal and long-term organizing which, almost as a side effect, help build organizational capacity to respond to long-term movement requirements” (12). This quote shows that the instant form thanks to social media renders social movement lack of strong bond that can be only attainable for protesters by working together in person and spending time so much together.
The other weakness comes from its leaderless-ness. In the name of democracy, protesters tend to idealize an organization without hierarchy unlike governments. For them, equality among participants is prioritized in protesting governments. However, their ideal can be their weakness when it comes to be some representative of movements becoming in need: “the same technological tools that make it possible to carry out beneficial acts of decentralization also allows protesters to decentralize to an ad hoc system and run their protests—and when applicable, their protest camps—without dealing with the inevitable tensions around deliberation at scale, delegation of representation, and negotiation with authorities” (13). Though leaderless-ness itself is not totally a bad thing, but as long as a social movement has to have a certain form of distinct organization in it, this problem must be considered.
Having shown the complexity of social movements of this digital age, the author concludes the on-going stories of the relationship between social movements and social media in our world. In promoting democracy in such a digital society, social media surely becomes its center along with involving all the citizens and governments to face the reality.
As the author examines in the essay, a democratic society always somehow has this conflicting structure between people and a government. As the word “democracy” means power to the people, the form of politics should take a system in which a government serves the people. Sadly, what we see in this present day is governments’ strict policy that does not seem to really guarantee the freedom of expression to media. As the case of Aaron Swartz indicates, governments are so excessively conservative that they won’t let one change the social reality if one violates the law, under which people cannot possibly receive certain human rights they deserve to get in a democratic society.
What Aaron was striving for was equality among the people in terms of access to the information, which only few limited populations have access while most of the people do not. After all a social movement to which he contributed so much for its success won. As the author of the essay says, however, as soon as protesters utilize the power of social media, the governments also try to incorporate the same tools to control media. In the essay, the author also points out one of the potential weaknesses of social media is its leaderless-ness in social movements. But when we think about how a democratic government should function as an authority in a citizen-based society, the government should really become the representative of social movements. At present, governments almost react to any social movements utilizing social media as if those movements were new kinds of threatening to them. Since social media has broadened the opportunity and possibility for many people to participate in any social movements either actively or passively (it does not really matter because what matters is the outcome of movements), people tend to pay more attention to politics and social problems. What social media offers is the public sphere where people can constructively discuss those issues. As Aaron always said, “to make a better world,” governments need to change their ways of intervening the social reality and people. Undoubtedly, in this digital age, people have more power than ever before in a sense they have access to the information. Therefore, in order to make the true democracy happen, both governments and people need to cooperate and consider how we can utilize this new media in making a better society.