Review of Shirky, C. 2010: The political power of social media technology, the public sphere, and political change, Foreign Affairs 90: 28-I.
Clay Shirky analyzes the potential of social media in supporting civil society and mass protests around the world to offer his advice to the US government in its foreign policy related to Internet Freedom. While I´m not particularly interested in the US-centric purpose of this article, I consider that the conclusions coming from the analysis of several case-studies are very interesting and, therefore, worth sharing and discussing here.
Shirky explains briefly how in the Philippines (2001), Spain (2006) and Moldova (2009), text messaging contributed to the organization of mass protests which forced out national leaders. However, as Shirky notes, in Belarus (2006), Iran (2009) or Thailand (2010) the activists failed and where repressed violently. These cases show that, even if social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all political movements, the outcomes of their use in mass protests are diverse. Therefore, “the attempts to outline their effects on political action are too often reduced to dueling anecdotes”.
Drawing on empirical and theoretical work, the first conclusion that Shirky suggests is that social media are most effective in states where the public sphere is already powerful and constrains the actions of the government. For this reason, social media should be considered as tools to strengthen civil society and the public sphere, and their effects will be visible in the long-run and not in weeks or months. In addition, Shirky notes that the public sphere emerges more likely as a result from dissatisfaction with economics or governance than from embracing abstract political ideas.
The author discusses two main arguments against the power of social media in politics: 1) ineffectiveness and 2) that they produce as much harm as good because repressive governments can suppress dissent more easily. Regarding the first one, he recognizes that the critique against examples of “clicktivism” is correct but he considers it not to be central to the theme, as “the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean than committed actors cannot use social media effectively”. Social media do not replace real action, but help to coordinate it. The second critique, however, has to be considered more seriously according to the author, as social media can help to strengthen authoritative regimes. Interestingly, for Shirky, censorship of foreign media sources and surveillance are less important than the ability of states to shut down communications and denying dissidents the possibility of coordinating or communicating an event.
Considering all these items, Shirky suggests the US government to replace an instrumental approach to Internet Freedom with what he calls an “environmental approach” to the topic. The instrumental approach is action oriented and overestimates the value of broadcast media (such as preventing states from censoring foreign websites) and of computers. In contrast, the environmental one acknowledges the importance of conversation and considers that the highest priority has to be securing the freedom of personal and social communication, as well as the freedom to freely speak in public. According to Shirky, the freedom of assembly is more important than the access to Youtube or Google to build a strong civil society.
More than the author´s policy advice, what I consider very interesting from his article is the acknowledgement of the importance of the public sphere and his opinion about the two main critiques to the political power of social media. However, regarding this last point, the author does not mention the lack of access to ICTs of large parts of the population in many countries as another imporant weakness of new media as tools to foster social change from the bottom.