Social Media for Democracy

We all take free speech for granted, especially when it comes to conversations between friends, whether in person or online. For the most part, with some minor exceptions, whenever we feel like saying something online, we just say it. There isn’t much concern about the government coming after us because of a comment we said.

Imagine one day you go to sign in to Twitter or Facebook and you see this, the site has been blocked. But it doesn’t happen to just you, it’s like that for the entire country. Oppressive regimes in China, Syria, and Iran are currently blocking these Social Media sites. The main reason cited for these blockages, to silence dissidents.

Social media is anything that is an Internet-based platform that enables individuals to freely create, share and exchange content. It is growing into an immense tool that is being used to shape the way people communicate with one another on a global scale.

History has shown that free speech and freedom to communicate with one another are essential for a democracy to function well. Uncensored use of social media can help to promote democracy organically in countries with a wide range of regimes.

Hearing from people who are being oppressed in authoritarian regimes firsthand on social media accounts. Events that often do not make it into mainstream media news get read, shared, and circulated all over the Internet making people aware of injustices that happen in oppressive countries.

For instance, in the case of Khaled Said. He was a young 28-year-old Egyptian man who was sitting in a café in Alexandria when two police officers in plainclothes approached him and then forced him to walk outside of the café to where they preceded to beat him to death in public.

This photo of his face completely mangled and disfigured made its way onto social media sites inciting anger and outrage from political opposition activists in Egypt. Suddenly, the whole world saw an example of the abuses of power that were happening in Egypt.

On June 8, 2010, Wael Ghonim, a 29-year-old Google marketing executive saw Said’s mangled face and started a Facebook group called “We Are All Khaled Said.” Egyptian activists quickly joined it and 8 months later, Hosni Mubarak a dictator of 30 years was forced to resign.

Events like the one that happened in Egypt have made many governments wary of the effects of social media on their countries. China, which has a long history of censorship and secrecy is employing very complex and, to a large degree, very effective strategies to censor social media use without banning it altogether

The Chinese government has made domestic sites like the extremely popular microblog, Sina Weibo, which has over 400 Million users, censor user content or face fines or a complete shutdown. They must also block searches for keywords related to controversial themes such as revolutions, protests, and names of the political activists

The more social media is being used as a collective political action tool, leading democratic countries like the U.K. and the United States are taking notice. In 2010, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, outlined a comprehensive plan on how the U.S. is going to start promoting Internet freedom around the world.

Clay Shirky points out that this plan is short-sighted because it underestimates the value of citizens being able to communicate privately with one another and tools of coordination. He also says social media should be thought of more as a long-term tool to support civil societies rather than a quick fix.

Some critics argue that social media sites are just full of meaningless chatter, but that is a good thing. It shows that social media is an amazing facilitator of conversations, many of which are meaningful debates that are helping to shape entire countries.

Mark Sedra of the University of Waterloo says, “the focus of Western efforts needs to be on strengthening the Web 2.0 platforms that can facilitate the networking of activists and the sharing of ideas.” If the West is trying to defy the censoring efforts of authoritarian regimes the focus needs to be on keeping the political space of Web 2.0 open for all.

Even if the West makes sure social media sites are available it does not mean that democracy will automatically happen. Social Media is not the answer to rid the world of evil and oppressive regimes. Citizens must want democracy and be willing to resist their oppressive governments. The West needs to protect social media so it is there to use when people are ready to stand up and fight.

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