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Social Media and Civic Engagement

The British magazine Prospect featured a debate this month between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky about the advantage -- or danger -- the Web brings to global politics, civic life and the pursuit of such values as freedom, liberty and democracy.

These two examples capture the differing points of view of the two debaters:

First to Clay Shirky:

Nevertheless, I want to defend the notion—which Morozov goes after in the “man most responsible for intellectual confusion” section of his essay—that social media improves political information cascades, as outlined by the political scientist Susanne Lohmann. It also represents a new dynamic within political protest, which will alter the struggle between insurrectionists and the state, even if the state wins in any given clash. Where this will lead to a net advantage for popular uprisings in authoritarian regimes is an open question—and a point on which Morozov and I still disagree on—but the new circumstances of coordinated public action, I believe, marks an essential change in the civilian part of the “arms race.”

Now for Mr. Morozov's rebuttal:

One possible reading of the current situation on the ground in Tehran is that, despite all the political mobilisation facilitated by social media, the Iranian government has not only survived, but has, in fact, become even more authoritarian. The changes currently taking place in Iran are far from positive: a catastrophic brain drain triggered by the recent political repressions, a series of violent crackdowns on politically active university students who have chosen to remain in the country, the persecution of critical bloggers, journalists and editors, the appointment of more conservative ministers to the government, and mounting pressure on dissident politicians. From this perspective, the last six months could be taken to reveal the impotence of decentralised movements in the face of a ruthless authoritarian state—even when those movements are armed with modern protest tools.

I am on Mr. Shirky's side in this debate; as, I suspect, would be New York Times journalist, and Iranian exile, Nazila Fathi who wrote yesterday that "Protest was not about to die in Iran. Neither was news about it, nor our part in telling the story. Three things have made all the difference: the global reach of the Internet; the networking skills of exiled journalists and our sources; and the resourcefulness of Iran’s dissidents in sending information and images out."

Shirky's premise is that we are witnessing a fundamental shift in what he calls civic life. The demos is choosing more and more to play out civic life, and to participate in communities and the politics of their nations, through social media -- Twitter, Facebook, blogs, mobile chats and hundreds of social networks. The effectiveness of these social media today in toppling regimes, or the fascist backlash that sometimes result as Morozov points out, from this digital engagement, is not the crux of the matter.

The question should be: Is the existence of social media changing what we mean by civic life, and how we discuss politics, organize civic action and combat despotic regimes? The answer is yes, and political thugs and petty autocrats should be taking note.

In Canada where the government prorogued parliament for what some felt were cynical and partisan reasons, civic opposition took the form initially in the creation of an anti-prorogation Facebook group. The group offered no suggestions for effective action, just a way to express outrage at what they apparently felt was a haughty political manoeuvre. 

But almost 200,000 people have taken the time to identify themselves as opposing what some called a "sad day for Canadian democracy".  'Question authority' as the slogan from the 1960s urged of us, and they are. Is it enough to change the governing party's mind? Not likely given it's reputation, deserved or otherwise, for being opaque and distant and proud of it . 

However, to continue with the 1960's metaphor, 'somethin's happening here and what it is is EXACTLY clear' (Buffalo Springfield song for those who weren't around). Nearly 200,000 people have taken a step to make their feelings known . . . and in a public way that six or seven years ago would have been impossible.

People in democracies and those suffering under authoritarian regimes are channeling their impatience, indignation and anger through social networks. They are coalescing their opposition in groups mediated through these networks.

And both are just a step away from direct civic engagement and action.

Canadian Social Media Wiki

In Praise of Clarity