For a while now I have felt that social media has been too often reduced to a mere tool in an arsenal of communication channels.
But in fact, it is a much more intrinsic part of society and political culture.
Clay Shirky has written a great piece titled The Political Power of Social Media in Foreign Affairs that expresses this much better. Here is a quote of what he calls the environmental view of social media:
Political freedom has to be accompanied by a civil society literate enough and densely connected enough to discuss the issues presented to the public. In a famous study of political opinion after the 1948 US presidential election, the sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld discovered that mass media alone do not change people’s minds; instead, there is a two-step process. Opinions are first transmitted by the media, and then they get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. It is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed. This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference. As with the printing press, the Internet spreads not just media consumption but media production as well – it allows people to privately and publicly articulate and debate a welter of conflicting views.
A slowly developing public sphere, where public opinion relies on both media and conversation, is the core of the environmental view of Internet freedom. As opposed to the self-aggrandizing view that the West holds the source code for democracy – and if it were only made accessible, the remaining autocratic states would crumble – the environmental view assumes that little political change happens without the dissemination and adoption of ideas and opinions in the public sphere. Access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation. Moreover, a public sphere is more likely to emerge in a society as a result of people’s dissatisfaction with matters of economics or day-to-day governance than from their embrace of abstract political ideals.
Adding on to this more general observation on social media, I’d also like to highlight his thoughts on the so-called conservative dilemma. He wrote, before this weeks events on Cairo’s Tahrir square unfolded:
The dilemma is created by new media that increase public access to speech or assembly; with the spread of such media, whether photocopiers or Web browsers, a state accustomed to having a monopoly on public speech finds itself called to account for anomalies between its view of events and the public’s. The two responses to the conservative are censorship and propaganda. But neither of these is as effective a source of control as the enforced silence of the citizens. The state will censor critics or produce propaganda as it needs to, but both of those actions have higher costs than simply not having any critics to silence or reply to in the first place. But if a government were to shut down Internet access or ban cell phones, it would risk radicalizing otherwise pro-regime citizens or harming the economy.
Well, this is exactly what happened in Egypt. Overwhelmed, the regimes desperate actions of trying to shutting down the Internet and restricting cell phones only legitimated the protests. It also becomes clear that it is not social media as a tool, or catalyst as many observers have commented, that made the Egyptians stand up, but it being embedded in growing space for conversation in the country. And a growing opportunity for discussion, a building block in the forming public sphere of people that are striving for a democratic and accountable government.
This wish for access to conversation is why people brought their families with them when going on the streets.