Facebook and Freedom

Malcolm Gladwell has a smart piece in The New Yorker about how the kind of “weak ties” promoted by online social media can’t do the kind of work of the kind of “hard ties” that the leaders of the civil rights movement used to knock down an authoritarian system. This has been greeted on the Web with a kind of bizarre reaction where people point out that social media does other good things (very true!) and then denounce Gladwell. Then Matt Steinglass, pushingback against the pushback winds up going far too far in the other direction. He explains that Facebook doesn’t help advance freedom because authoritarian countries are able to set up their own censored alternatives:

The government-monitored domestic social networking sites don’t tend to evolve into centres of alternative political activity. When people think about how internet use might help people evade governmental information control, they still tend to use a mental model drawn from the “samizdat” underground publishing system of the Soviet era. But Soviet-era mass culture contained very few outlets for independent creativity and entertainment that weren’t politically restricted. Contemporary media culture even in autocracies isn’t like that; it’s full of entertaining, creative, personalised stuff to do. 99.99% of what takes place on social networking sites isn’t political. It’s flirtation, mp3’s of pop songs, classified ads, and so on. And on a site like Zing, that ratio approaches 100%. Using the site for political messaging is like sending out a red flag directly to the security police. In fact, some political discussion does take place on Zing and other websites, but it’s likely that police tolerate such discussion and allow users to develop a false sense of security, because it helps the police to identify potential candidates for arrest. Periodic arrests of dissidents caught posting things they had believed to be anonymous help propagate a society-wide chilling effect on political discussion, and a sense that one is better off sticking to flirting, making mp3 playlists, and other entertaining and risk-free online pursuits.

Okay, but that right there is freedom. Contemporary China or Vietnam or Iran are freer societies than was the pre-Gorbachev USSR or the pre-Deng China. “Contemporary media culture even in autocracies” is, in general, freer than it used to be.

The other thing I think this whole conversation has neglected is that a great many countries are neither well-established liberal democracies nor well-entrenched authoritarian regimes. Do the weak ties promoted by Facebook make it harder to steal an election in Mexico? Provide a useful outlet for opposition views in Venezuela? Point the way to an alternative to Silvio Berlusconi domination of Italian broadcast media? I don’t really have a well-informed or strongly-held view on those questions, but they’re all elements of promoting liberal politics.