Social media is like a raging river, and governments can either move with it or be toppled by it.
Voices of online dissent are being taken in two ways. In the free world, social media has merged with government decision through what is referred to as “Government 2.0.” Repressive regimes that resist the trend are quickly finding that the Internet is not just a place to voice opinions, but a place to organize.
“Any government that is trying to repress free information exchange is really engaged in a futile battle that will eventually end in their own demise,” said Peter Corbett, CEO of iStrategyLabs, a civic engagement company that develops government 2.0 technology.
“You can’t really repress the passion of people who want to be free—it’s something they will die for, and we’ve seen it throughout the course of human history,” Corbett said. “I don’t think there is anybody on the government side who is willing to die for the blocking of Twitter.”
Social media began its emergence in the late ’90s with the advent of the first blogging platforms, according to Corbett. The original idea was simple: give everyone the ability to publish and discuss online. This later grew into what is referred to as Web 2.0, or the Internet’s switch from static websites into a place of interaction and collaboration.
“I think the intention was really the democratization of publishing. It would be easier for people to publish people in the Web and to just give more people that tool,” Corbett said.
This was done with the knowledge that, traditionally, all forms of publishing “have the ability to affect governments and the people,” although it was likely not the original intention, Corbett said.
The role of social media as a way to incite change, however, is now undeniable.
Tunisia was among the first to realize this when the Jasmine Revolution forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country on Jan. 14.
Egypt has taken center stage in an emerging social networking revolution, as protesters coordinate through Twitter and Facebook to call for government reform. The Egyptian government initially tried blocking Twitter and Facebook to quell the protests, but by Jan. 27, the Internet was shut down completely.
Corbett said that while governments may try to quell dissent by blocking information exchange, “I don’t think it’s possible for them to do that,” adding “People will figure out how to get the information they need in order to be happy—and in order to be happy, sometimes governments need to be replaced.”
The use of such tools differs in each country. Arab countries, in general, have higher cell phone usage, and less from desktop Internet connections.
Since protesters in Egypt and Tunisia were using cell phones, they were able to coordinate in real-time, alerting other protesters where there were roadblocks, or where police were using tear gas. “That was remarkably effective,” said Eva Galperin, international activist of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization for digital freedom.
Next: Two examples stand out—that of Tunisia, and that of Iran.