Five years ago, and with social technology advancing at an unprecedented rate, it was widely believed that social technologies would open up a global political discourse in an almost utopian way. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, widening Internet access around the world and a greater sense of social responsibility gave rise to the idea that social media could provide a platform for civic engagement and social progress.
But social media did not turn into that science-fiction dream of an enlightened populace. Instead, it became a tool for small groups of like-minded people to form.
Throughout history, advances in communication technology have brought with them new challenges, to which every society has had to adapt. In the past thirty years, breakthroughs in information technology and communication technology have happened so quickly, that many developments have happened in quick succession. These developments are hard to predict, anticipate and prepare for – the ISIS beheading video, new forms of oppression and violence, and to broaden the gap in understanding between different people. Rather than connecting humanity, technology served to allow humans to separate into narrow groups ever more easily.
Recently, social media has been co-opted by governments in Russia, China, and the Middle East, who have used social media to prolong their rule. China uses social media tools to discover the private grievances and policy preferences of their people – giving them a clearer view of people’s real opinions, and anticipate potential unrest. Autocratic regimes are also using social media to shape public discourse through techniques such as astroturfing. Many consider social media to be a tool for active citizen involvement. Yet autocratic regimes have adapted social media to their needs, with democracy trying to play catch up.
In the past, autocratic regimes that retain control of their military have sought to confront and repress bands of rebels directly. During the Arab Spring, the Bahraini adminstration was able to leverage its powerful coercive apparatus (with support from Saudi Arabia) to crush the Bahraini uprising and limit the risk posed by ongoing protests. To this day, military force, oil wealth and foreign support remain powerful factors influencing the strength of autocratic regimes.
But with technology advancing exponentionally, the market for covert and overt surveillance has grown in tandem. The consumer electronics market now outspends the military in research and development, and is able to spread those costs across a far larger market – and technology flows are often reversing. Autocratic regimes find it far less expensive to monitor smartphones and social media feeds than
Social media has also been used to subvert the public discourse: making campaigning both more responsive and more shallow. During Britain’s EU referendum campaign, the ‘Leave’ campaign took up the populist issue of immigration, and both sides employed scaremongering tactics, at the expense of a more fundamental debate on the future of British society and the economic impacts (good and bad) of Brexit.
It’s difficult to predict with any degree of accuracy how social technologies will shape our future, and to what extent social technologies will be used for the public good. It’s become clear that it has fallen upon citizens to assume responsibility for how technology is used, including to protect individual identity and privacy.
Social media did not bring about a global commons, but is merely a tool. Society can no longer passively adopt technology without thinking through the implications. Rather, we must ensure that it enhances our way of life and our discourse the way we hoped it would. If not, technology will keep advancing, but civil society will lag behind.