Beginning in 2009 with the massive election protests in Iran, media pundits in the West began heralding a new era of political activism in which young pro-democracy advocates harnessed the power of social media to organize spontaneously to overthrow their oppressors. Aided by western journalists, the term "Twitter Revolution" entered the popular lexicon to refer to the mass demonstrations and uprisings in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt during the period from 2009-2011. In his celebratory piece, "The Revolution Will Be Twittered", the prominent British political commentator Andrew Sullivan declared, "You cannot stop people any longer ... They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before."
Unfortunately the reality of social media as a tool for collective action against political repression has proven to be much more grim. Slowly it is becoming clear that social media are much more effective for control, manipulation and surveillance than they are for democratic activism. This shadowy reality has been brought to light most recently in Cypherpunks by the notorious online whistleblower, Julian Assange, and The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, by prominent author and scholar, Evgeny Morozov. Both of these authors point to the fact that social media are by their very nature more easily deployable for state repression than they are for for political activism.
As I elaborated in my October 2011 column, social media facilitates the forging of online communities by enabling individuals to communicate with others around shared interests instantaneously, regardless of location. The technology that makes this possible is the global network of computers, the internet, across which all the communications that define these online communities are stored as physical digital records. There is very little to impede anyone, for example a government or private intelligence agency, from intercepting, mining, or monitoring these communications.
In other words the defining characteristic of social media that make it so attractive for users - the way that it enables us to communicate and connect with others who share our passions - is exactly what makes it a poor tool for political activism.
One could make the argument that social media could still be used for political organization against repressive governments since the most advanced encryption technology is now widely available. The problem with encryption, as Assange points out, is that it requires special technical knowledge that is not easily accessible to the masses of people. Moreover, as Morozov suggests, encryption sort of defeats the purpose of online organizing since it inherently prevents transmissions from reaching the masses of people.
Social media is definitely the most entertaining media technology since television and certainly the most powerful development in brand marketing since television. However, like television, it's more useful to the status quo than it is a threat. While it is, without a doubt, a transformative social force, it's not going to bring forth the future global utopia.