The Corruptible Web

Given the huge impact that the Web and Social Media like Facebook and Twitter  have had in the Arab  revolutions of the last month, a debate has started on whether the Web can be effective as a counter balance to repressive regimes. Or is it, like all other media , subject to corruption and being subjugated to ulterior designs by autocratic states and their political elites. Takethe5th has recently come down in favor of the Web not only revealing corruption but also helping to organize and act against repressive regimes. But two very cogent arguments are against a strictly positive influence by Web media.

The essential position is  that social media are  dual edged – they can be used just as well for indoctrination and political manipulation as they can be for positive enlightenment or dissent. A series of  Australian papers looks at the effects social media have on political campaigns, voting and political movements. Consistently,  social media are found to be empowering of the elites as much as dissenters against those elites. This echoes the arguments found in a recent  NYTimes article on the effectiveness of social media and the Web on dissent. This article follows the two major uprisings in Tunisia and now Egypt.  Here are some of the telling viewpoints:

The countertrend has sparked a debate over whether the conventional wisdom that the Internet and social networking inherently tip the balance of power in favor of democracy, this confidence is misplaced. A new book, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” by a young Belarus-born American scholar, Evgeny Morozov, has made the case most provocatively, describing instance after instance of strongmen finding ways to use new media to their advantage.

After all, the very factors that have brought Facebook and similar sites such commercial success have huge appeal for a secret police force. A dissident’s social networking and Twitter feed is a handy guide to his political views, his career, his personal habits and his network of like-thinking allies, friends and family. A cybersurfing policeman can compile a dossier on a regime opponent without the trouble of the street surveillance and telephone tapping required in a pre-Net world.

And finally the historical record would seem to favor the dual-edge viewpoint on the Web and Social Media . For  all things positive in Tunisia and Egypt there  is  China. After the Sinkiang and Tibet uprisings, Facebook and Twitter were oulawed- and more compliant Chinese versions of the same were given “state approval”. Likewise Iran has used mobile and social media records as their primary means of rounding up dissidents and protesters since the wave of protests following tainted elections in 2009 . Thus as a countervailing force and communication tool, the Web and social media may be  subject to as many corrupting influences as benign – its an ironic echo of the Gun lobby’s “guns don’t kill, people do” argument for unlimited usage of guns in the US.