Bill Clinton went to the American University campus last night to accept an award for wonkiness. In remarks accepting the award, Clinton made the outsize assertion that “whole governments have now been brought down by social media sites.”
It’s a tempting claim of new media triumphalism that begs a one-word question: Where?
Where have social media taken down repressive governments?
Certainly not in Iran, where anti-regime protests sparked by a rigged presidential election in June 2009 gave rise to the misnomer, “Twitter Revolution.”
Twitter surely helped in organizing the demonstrations in Tehran. But social media proved no match for the Islamic government’s brutal crackdown that snuffed out the protests and shut down the threat to the regime.
Besides, Twitter became a channel for erroneous information — and disinformation — during the Iranian protests. Media critic Jack Shafer wrote at the time that Twitter was “more noise than signal in understanding the Iranian upheaval.”
So where else?
Egypt? A somewhat stronger case can be made there, that new media platforms contributed to the downfall nearly a year ago of Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt, 29-year authoritarian regime.
But even there, social media cannot be seen as decisive. They acted more as propellants in Egypt than as causal or precipitating agents.
Evgeny Morozov, writing last year in the Wall Street Journal, observed that the “Egyptian experience suggests that social media can greatly accelerate the death of already dying authoritarian regimes.”
Morozov, author of the insightful book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, also noted that the anti-regime protesters in Egypt “were blessed with a government that didn’t know a tweet from a poke.”
In other words, the regime was mostly clueless about online countermeasures, how to turn social media to perverse use as instruments for identifying, spying on, and sidelining malcontents and regime foes.
Morozov wrote that “dictators learn fast and are perfectly capable of mastering the Internet” in countering populist threats to their regimes. He also noted that some authoritarian governments “have turned mostly to Western companies and consultants for advice about the technology of repression.”
A recent, searching study about social media and political upheaval across the Middle East notes:
“There can be no doubt that online activism is a significant phenomenon that has had a major impact on the Arab Spring.
“Yet, we would be wise not to exaggerate its influence.”
Mubarak’s fall, the study adds, wasn’t “the result of online activism alone. This would ignore the major roles played by those [in Egypt] who had likely not even heard of Facebook or Twitter.”
But Eaton adds that “events in Tunisia … appear to have been the game-changer. The success of Tunisian activists in ousting President [Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali motivated many Egyptians to seek to replicate their feat.”
That phenomenon is known as a demonstration effect, in which tactics and events in one context serve as a model or inspiration elsewhere.
Mubarak’s regime did shut down the Internet in Egypt last year, from January 28 to February 1, in a bungled attempt to cut off the flow of online information to anti-regime activists. But the move backfired.
“It wasn’t the Internet that destroyed Mr. Mubarak,” Morozov wrote, ” it was Mr. Mubarak’s ignorance of the Internet that destroyed Mr. Mubarak.”
To assert, as Clinton did last night, that social media can take down repressive governments is to offer a simplistic message of media triumphalism, one thinly supported by empirical evidence.
It is, moreover, an explanation that shortchanges understanding of the complex mechanics of regime change.
And embracing simplistic explanations is an important way in which media-driven myths — those false, dubious, improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual — can take hold.
As I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, more than a few media-driven myths have emerged “from an impulse to offer easy answers to complex issues, to abridge and simplify topics that are thorny and intricate.”
Social media are not inherently democratic. Nor have they proved decisive in bringing down authoritarian regimes.
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