How Repressive Governments Benefit from Social Media

THE FREEDOM TO TWEET, BLOG, AND POST VIDEOS is a way for activists to exercise their freedom of speech. But what happens when that freedom is turned on its head and used against those very same activists?

When governments want to stop the free flow of information—especially when the conversation threatens or criticizes said regimes—they move in and shut down the internet, as was the case during Egypt’s anti-government uprisings.

Rather than being a tool for democracy and open debate, social media can be a tool for repression. Abusive governments benefit from social media by using it against activists to disseminate false messages, or blocking it altogether. So is this liberation technology, or repression technology?

How social media will evolve as a political tool is arguably one of today’s most pressing—and important—questions. Governments as well as private citizens are starting to examine what shape social media will take. This week Sweden’s government pledged to provide aid for “internet activists,” and called a meeting in March to discuss ways to support activists and entrepreneurs. One of the invitees to the meeting is live video streaming site Bambuser, which just created a new site dedicated to videos from Egypt.

On Wednesday, Syria restored access to Facebook after a three year ban, though it remains to be seen how far Syrian citizens will be able to use the service as a tool for free speech, or if the government will use it to spread misinformation.

At least one expert, author Evgeny Morozov, only sees dark clouds over the so-called Twitter revolutions. His new book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, makes the case that for all the talk of the Internet promoting democracy and freedom, repressive governments can still gain the upper, technological hand.

In an interview with Radio Free Europe, Morozov talks about how authoritarian regimes are increasingly smarter about tracking and neutralizing web activism.

It’s heartening to see technology aiding pro-democracy movements. Yet is also gives us pause when we consider how governments can, and do, step in to use those very same tools against activists.

What effect do you think the Internet and social media will have on democracy movements?

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