Internet and Democracy

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April 19

Digital tools are seen as playing a major part in political activities and revolutions around the world from the Green Revolution in Iran to the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa. In this class, we'll explore the role of the Internet in political organizing, social movements and popular protests, and the potential impact of digital tools on governance.

Slides: Internet and Democracy


Additional Resources

Class Discussion

I'm inclined to be skeptical of the idea that the internet and social media are making interpersonal connections "shallower", whether we are talking about "Facebook friends" or social and political activism. Setting aside the question of whether online relationships count as "real" relationships (that is, are qualitatively inferior to real-life relationships), in order for this theory to be correct, online relationships would have to be replacing real-life relationships. While I don't have any hard data to back this up, I simply don't see this happening in most cases. The imagined concept is one of young people avoiding traditional social contact in favor of hours spent online. However, I would postulate that the people most inclined to shut themselves off from the "real world" in favor of computers are the same people who would have shut themselves off in favor of books or various solo hobbies in previous decades. Under this model, the quantity and quality of social interaction for persons thus inclined is increasing, rather than decreasing. What we are talking about is both an increase in reach and a lowering of thresholds. For the average user, social media, first and foremost, provides a vehicle for interaction with people they already know in real life (friends from school, family, etc... so your kid spending time on the computer rather than playing with friends outside is likely to be interacting with those same friends electronically) and then adds to this a new layer of online friendships and acquaintances which arise as social media provides previously unavailable opportunities to build relationships over distance. (There is, as well, traffic between these two layers, as real-life friends separated by distance use social media to keep in touch, and friends - and potential romantic partners - met online arrange to meet in person). Similarly, when it comes to activism, the increasing availability of "intermediate" levels of support (such as donation or petition signing – hardly new developments) is not likely, to my mind, to decrease the number of active real-world advocates. Verily, the opposite: those inclined to get off the couch and "make a difference" are still likely (or even more likely) to do so, only now with the support of countless others who would not have been reached by the activist's message otherwise. BrandonAndrzej 00:04, 17 April 2011 (UTC)

I think it's worth raising the point that there have been a lot of serious questions raised as to the accuracy of the NYTimes piece read in class this week; for example, Global Voices shows Egyptian Twitterers mocking the idea that they needed Western help ( I think that, ultimately, this controversy is more important than the content of the article itself, in that it illustrates how social media can be vital to media accuracy--you have numerous direct accounts from known activists contradicting the commentary in the NYTimes, while the NYTimes meanwhile often has difficulty getting good sources in the Arab world because of its somewhat negative reputation (two words: Thomas Friedman). Another issue in the piece is the emphasis on a very tiny collaborative movement aided by the US, while numerous genuine, grassroots movements exist and have been ignored by media (case in point: The Arab Bloggers workshops and Arab Techies group).

In terms of the broader picture, one aspect of all of this that has been desperately overlooked is the use and importance of backchannels like private groups, IRC, and email. While social media is certainly important, the organizing that happens in private online spaces (as well as via SMS) is undoubtedly even more vital. Jyork 20:06, 18 April 2011 (UTC)

Another argument in favor of the role social media is playing in providing accurate information for journalists about things that are happening elsewhere: if you have Twitter, check out the work that @andycarvin has beeen doing. He's NPR's senior product manager for online communities, and has been connecting with people on the ground in countries like Egypt and Libya for a while, using them and their networks to verify or challenge information that the mainstream media has been getting. It's been neat stuff. Mcforelle 01:11, 19 April 2011 (UTC)

In addition to the lack of accuracy in the NY Times article, I don't think the internet is necessarily the mean of online hate speech and irrational behavior. Many of the least developed and heavily indebted poor countries are grossly corrupt, which lack adequate financial means or political and economic conditions to cultivate human rights. In addition, poor countries are also notoriously more vulnerable to economic volatility, conflict and humanitarian crisis; good governance matters to development and how citizens behave online.Alexsolomon

I find Mr. Shirky's interview to be especially important today. He highlights the use of social media, SMS, mobile email, and internet-based freedom of speech (i.e. blogs) to organize people in the absence of other more traditional, government controlled, methods (i.e. print media). I believe it is obvious that the governments are aware of the people's ability to organize over this uncontrolled medium which is why many governments are trying to stop further penetration of technologies such as email encryption and blogging/tweeting (e.g. India, Saudi Arabia, China). If they can control, stop, or accurately monitor these communication mediums they can further disrupt grassroots uprisings. Rakundig 19:15, 19 April 2011 (UTC)

The fundamental notion of democracy is the active participation of the governed in the government, either directly or through representatives. This week’s readings take aim at an outer fringe of that notion: the active participation of the governed in the overthrow of government. There can be no doubt that the Internet provides the world’s best electronic soapbox. It is a better mouthpiece, a better broadcast medium, a better tool. Etling et al. wisely note that “[t]he Internet lays a good foundation for a battle of ideas, but does not necessarily favor a winner” while Shirky states more bluntly that the Internet is “a better way to take down autocracies but not a better way to replace them.” We can marvel at the effectiveness of social media in toppling the Egyptian government, but it could not have happened without a military that was sympathetic to the public. Libya and Iran demonstrate the counterpoint. While the Internet has shown great promise facilitating political freedom, I fear those days are numbered. Last week’s readings exposed the blatant large scale surveillance which the Internet also facilitates. The video from the cell phone uploaded to youtube probably contains the serial number of the phone traceable to the owner via his GPS coordinates. This is not just a problem with the Internet – it is prevalent in all technology. You can no longer print an “anonymous” political flyer when it contains the serial number of the color printer that rendered it. Technology is a powerful tool that can do wonderful and terrible things. It needs thoughtful regulation. -Chris Sura 21:20, 19 April 2011 (UTC)

The simple quote by Wael Ghonim really brings home the message of how government should be looked at. “This is your country; a government official is your employee who gets his salary from your tax money, and you have your rights.” The simple message was able to be communicated through Technology and Social Media. Both have naturally played a crucial role in the changes occurring in the Arab world. Discussing technology, Clay Shirkey states “The technology is that big of difference if it is a big difference.” He goes on to explain that the newness of the technology creates a unique opportunity for impact, as users are unsure how to react to it. Unfortunately, this same technology can also be used against the protestors (as was used by Iran to track down protestors). Given that this is happening in some Arab countries, is there a reason why this has not created a lot of traction in countries like Syria? Is it because this same technology is being used against the protestors? Earboleda 21:36, 19 April 2011 (UTC)


State of Texas exposes data of 3.5 million people I mentioned this story in the chat room during last class, seemed to be a good point considered the private vs state accumulation of personal info discussion that we were having. It's a quick read, and it'll make you squirm. Mcforelle 18:20, 14 April 2011 (UTC)

Here is a link to Fareed Zakaria's 1997 "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy" essay, referenced in the Faris/Etling article, which contrasts "Democracy" with "Constitiutional Liberalism". BrandonAndrzej 23:29, 16 April 2011 (UTC)

If we're looking to Tunisia and Egypt, I really think we ought to be looking at Tunisian and Egyptian sources, particularly in light of the fact that we're reading what is largely considered an inaccurate portrayal by the NYTimes. Here are two great pieces from an Egyptian blogger (they're not necessarily representative, but they're the best English sources I've found so far):; I also think that these two 2008 pieces from Egyptian journalist Hossam El-Hamalawy are vital reading, incredibly prescient:; Jyork 20:09, 18 April 2011 (UTC)

My Assignment 4 paper was loosely based on this. I wonder people see the far reaching grasp of the Internet. Social media keeps growing and affecting our lives. With such devices as Facebook and Wikileaks, it wont be long before the masses control the countrys' direction. Joshua Surillo

This article too: Jyork 20:11, 18 April 2011 (UTC)

Interesting Question: Do Government Agencies Need a Twitter Tsar? --Gclinch 15:31, 19 April 2011 (UTC)

This is a great little video that considers some of the negative impact that the internet can have on democracy. RSAnimate: Does the Internet actually inhibit, not encourage democracy? Saambat 23:11, 19 April 2011 (UTC)