The three most valuable, common sense, conclusions about social media and politics

Reproduced and excerpted from a conference report by Michael Brooks.

Don’t miss my comment and the added remark by Allison Powell below. And the embedded video interview with Clay Shirky listed at bottom is well worth watching.

Michel Brooks:

1. Technology has always been a factor in social movements.

From pamphlets to fax machines, activists have always used communication technologies to share information, tactics, and build communities. The point Skirky continuously returns to is the distinctive capacity of Internet and social technologies as the reduced barrier of entry into the conversation. Asmaa Mahfouz, the courageous young Egyptian woman who posted a Youtube video calling on all fellow Egyptians to protest despite their fears is a powerful example of the type of ubiquitous access that Shirky points to. In the 2004 film “V For Vendetta,” the revolutionary hero breaks into a television station to broadcast his anti government message. Why not blast the same message on Youtube and get far more viewers?

2. Morozov’s vital point is that information technologies do not negate broader rules of political science.

Just as activists are utilizing social tools in their tactical approaches to revolutionary actions, repressive governments are also developing counter strategies on social networks. An example of this is the Sudanese government setting up fake pro-democracy facebook pages calling for demonstrations and arresting the real protestors who show up. The main takeaway is that social networking tools are not magical elixirs that automatically lead to greater political freedom. Morozov’s broader point is that endless focus on social networking tools distracts us from an understanding and engagement with the deeper historical and political dynamics in political situations. This is an important point and reminds me of Juan Cole’s great writing on the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, which are primarily, labor revolts, according to Cole. Blue and white-collar workers facing dire economic conditions are integral to the success of these movements.

3. Instead of sitting and watching on the sidelines and getting excited by the various uses of Twitter and Facebook in social movements, activists in the US should focus on the threats to a neutral Internet and the collaboration of Western companies who have sold Internet monitoring technologies to states, such as Egypt.

Amy Goodman forcefully argued that the threats to Net Neutrality, and the attempts by telecoms to enclose the Internet commons are connected to the protests in Egypt. The American company Narus sold technology to Egyptian authorities that allowed them to shut off the Internet. I felt that one of the most relevant thing I could possibly do during these events was contact my congressional representatives demanding that they open an investigation into companies who have sold spyware to the Egyptian government. Social technologies open up both great opportunity, as well as great danger. Recognizing this challenge and connecting our commitment to support global human rights with a meticulous attention to the conduct of American and European companies in supporting repressive regimes. Is focusing on keeping our companies accountable a smart way of engaging the social technology issue?”

To these conclusions from Michael Brooks, I would like to add a very important comment by Allison Powell, which echoes an important argument I have been making since 2006.

i.e. one should not confuse the technical infrastructure with the human dynamic. In other words, even imperfect as it is, even as it is under corporate control and subject to government censorship and closure, the human dynamics that are taking place over the internet and the web are still essentially p2p dynamics, which means they have a profound transformative effect on our culture, even despite this control. This is why advocates and activists should not abandon corporate platforms, but be present in them, where indeed the people are, and defend freedom of speech and assembly on these very networks, rather than isolate themselves in ‘pure p2p infrastructures’. This latter effort is still commendable and necessary, but not an alternative. . The big danger is isolation in geeky enclaves where pure p2p infrastructures actually have an isolating effect, while the real world changers, as we’ve seen in Egypt, act where the masses are.

Allison Powell writes:

“As important as autonomous infrastructure can be for providing a decentralized alternative to the centralized social networks and communication systems upon which we rely, we also have to consider why and how social media has changed the balance of power in these past, eventful few weeks. As I noted above, the distributed, peer to peer method of communication has been around for as long as computer-mediated communication. What has made it important at the moment is the scale at which this form of communication can now operate. This massive scale has been the result of the very centralized service that Moglen and others rightly identify as problematic. But it’s also what makes the transformations so important. Geeks and hackers have been trying to make peer to peer networks for a very long time. They haven’t succeeded, but Facebook has. Now, we need to confront the challenge of that success. A new box with free software won’t automatically do this, no matter how fantastic the software or clever the networking protocols. “

More Information:

Watch the video interview with Clay Shirky here.

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