Do the tools of social media make it possible for protesters to challenge their governments? Malcolm Gladwell argues that there is no evidence that they do; Clay Shirky disagrees.
The rapid rise in popularity of social media outlets such as Twitter have led many to argue that people around the world are connecting in unprecedented ways. Parsing the data, however, reveals that isn't true. Rather than creating new relationships, Twitter largely reinforces those that already exist.
The U.S. government has begun to think of Anonymous, the online network phenomenon, as a threat to national security. This is the wrong approach. Seeing Anonymous primarily as a cybersecurity threat is like analyzing the breadth of the Vietnam antiwar movement and 1960s counterculture by focusing only on the Weathermen.
The U.S. embassy in Cairo's Twitter feed is once again embroiled in controversy. As the episode shows, tweeting can occasionally lead to trouble. But social media is good for governments and for citizens. For officials to ignore or disdain it would amount to professional malpractice.
On January 17, 2001, during the impeachment trial of Philippine President Joseph Estrada, loyalists in the Philippine Congress voted to set aside key evidence against him. Less than two hours after the decision was announced, thousands of Filipinos, angry that their corrupt president might be let off the hook, converged on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, a major crossroads in Manila. The protest was arranged, in part, by forwarded text messages reading, "Go 2 EDSA. Wear blk." The crowd quickly swelled, and in the next few days, over a million people arrived, choking traffic in downtown Manila.
The public's ability to coordinate such a massive and rapid response -- close to seven million text messages were sent that week -- so alarmed the country's legislators that they reversed course and allowed the evidence to be presented. Estrada's fate was sealed; by January 20, he was gone. The event marked the first time that social media had helped force out a national leader. Estrada himself blamed "the text-messaging generation" for his downfall.
Since the rise of the Internet in the early 1990s, the world's networked population has grown from the low millions to the low billions. Over the same period, social media have become a fact of life for civil society worldwide, involving many actors -- regular citizens, activists, nongovernmental organizations, telecommunications firms, software providers, governments. This raises an obvious question for the U.S. government: How does the ubiquity of social media affect U.S. interests, and how should U.S. policy respond to it?
As the communications landscape gets denser, more complex, and more participatory, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action. In the political arena, as the protests in Manila demonstrated, these increased freedoms can help loosely coordinated publics demand change...
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