Do Social Media Platforms Promote or Limit Individual Liberty?

In Iran, social media platforms played a role in protests in 2009.
In Iran, social media platforms played a role in the 2009 protests.
Image: Getty
September 10, 2012

Editors' Note: This essay was published in 2012. The comments are closed, but we invite you to comment on our Facebook page.

When Iranian dissidents took to the streets to protest irregularities in the 2009 election, some observers dubbed it the "Twitter revolution" for the role the social networking site played in coordinating the demonstrations. The State department asked Twitter to postpone scheduled maintenance to ensure that pro-democracy activists in Iran would have uninterrupted access. Thousands of Western supporters turned their Twitter icons green in solidarity with the "green revolution."

These protests failed to bring down the Iranian regime. And the next year, Malcolm Gladwell took to the pages of the New Yorker to pour cold water on the idea that social media had the potential to transform societies. He pointed out that for all their apparent decentralization and spontaneity, the most effective social movements tend to operate according to a carefully designed plan and to be put into action by intensely committed volunteers. The sit-ins and bus boycotts of the civil rights movement, for example, were carefully orchestrated from NAACP headquarters in New York. "The civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion," Gladwell wrote.

And that, he said, makes it unlikely that social media will become a major catalyst for social change. Successful social movements need "strong ties"—people who know and trust each other thanks to years of face-to-face interactions. By itself, getting a million people to "like" your Facebook page dedicated to saving the whales isn't going to save any whales. At some point, a critical mass of people needs to stick their flesh-and-blood necks out for the cause.

Gladwell obviously has a point. Social media isn't going to change society all by itself. But when a movement's most committed activists do take to the streets, it matters whether the broader population is sympathetic to their cause. And social media can be a powerful tool for increasing public awareness and support.

Indeed, when Gladwell's New Yorker article hit newsstands in October 2010, events were already underway in Egypt that would provide a powerful counter-example to his thesis. The protests that brought down the regime of Hosni Mubarak were partly inspired by a Facebook page called "We are all Khaled Said." It commemorated a young man who had been beaten to death by the Egyptian police in June 2010. Obviously, the flesh-and-blood protestors in Tahrir Square were essential to bringing down the Mubarak regime, but social media sites like Facebook and YouTube played an essential role in informing, motivating, and organizing people to participate in those protests.

Social media platforms are tools, and like any tools they can be used for nefarious purposes as well as heroic ones. So the effects of social media platforms on individual liberty depends on who controls them and what choices they make. Under the control of authoritarian regimes, social media platforms can be tools of repression. But if they are managed responsibly by private entities in free societies, social media platforms can be powerful tools for promoting individual liberty.

Some governments have been so spooked by the subversive potential of social media that they've tried to cut off access altogether. The Egyptian government cut off Internet access during the 2011 protests, though the move did not save the regime. The Chinese government reacted to riots in Xinjiang province, a traditionally Muslim area, by shutting down Internet access to the entire region for six months in 2009. Other governments have taken more targeted approaches. In 2009, Pakistan blocked access to YouTube to stop the "growing sacrilegious content" it contained.

Such tactics create a risk of backlash. Censorship is most effective when most people don't know it's happening. But cutting off access to entire platforms—or to the Internet as a whole—is disruptive to millions of people who are otherwise uninterested in politics. Depriving those people of access to popular, non-political content may cause them to wonder what the fuss is about, which could actually increase public interest in the very content the government is trying to suppress.

Some authoritarian governments have gone beyond blocking access to social media sites and have pursued a strategy of co-opting them to serve the government's agenda. The Chinese government is a leader in that effort. In her new book Consent of the Networked, Rebecca MacKinnon describes how the Chinese government has actually used the social networking revolution to strengthen its hold on power.

Access to Facebook and Twitter are severely restricted in China and Internet users are encouraged to use homegrown alternatives. These sites are required to actively assist the government's surveillance and censorship efforts. Chinese social media sites like Weibo and Renren employ a combination of automated filtering and manual human review to steer online discussion away from topics disfavored by the government. Sites that fail to police their sites to the government's satisfaction are shut down. And users who persist in posting banned content are referred to the police for harsher punishments.

This approach gives the government fine-grained control over online discussions in China, which allows the government to create an illusion of open debate. Citizens are sometimes allowed to criticize local officials and offer suggestions for improving government services. Indeed, the ruling party may even welcome such feedback, since it allows them to improve government services and therefore bolster the legitimacy of the regime. But at the same time, the government ruthlessly suppresses topics, such as democracy or human rights, that could stoke discontent with the country's one-party rule. And the Chinese government has also reportedly hired a 280,000-person army of commenters to ensure that the government's point of view is well represented in online discussions.

MacKinnon points out that from the perspective of the average Chinese Internet user, there appears to be a robust marketplace of ideas online. He will see that a wide range of topics—including some political ones—are open for discussion, and it will appear to him that the pro-government side of the debate enjoys broad popular support. He is unlikely to realize just how much the discussion has been manipulated to promote the government's political agenda.

Will China's Internet strategy succeed in turning social media sites into an asset for the Chinese Communist Party rather than a liability? It's too early to tell for sure. Even with its new, more powerful censorship tools, the government has less control over the national conversation than it used to. In the past, the government might have tried to completely bury news stories—such as a botched response to a natural disaster or sensational scandals in local politics—that the central government viewed as politically inconvenient. But even China's highly censorious social media sites, as well as its censored email and text messaging networks, propagate gossip too quickly for the government to completely suppress news of such events. The best they can do is to make sure that the government's version of the story is featured prominently on the Chinese Internet while critical perspectives are pushed to the margins.

Moreover, it isn't clear how many countries can effectively replicate China's approach. Smaller nations tend to be more outward-looking, so the strategy of building a Potemkin Internet to lure citizens away from the subversive ideas on the global Internet may not work in countries with populations one or even two orders of magnitude smaller than China's. And few authoritarian regimes enjoy the Chinese government's stability, resources, or technical competence.

For now, at least, many authoritarian regimes still allow access to American social media sites. And even in China, hundreds of thousands of citizens have figured out how to circumvent the Great Firewall and reach the unfiltered Internet. This means that the decisions of American technology companies can have a big influence on the spread of freedom around the world.

For example, Facebook faced a backlash in 2009 when it abruptly decided to make users' friends lists public information. Previously, Facebook had put this decision under the control of users. Dissidents in despotic regimes had chosen to keep the lists private out of fear that their governments would persecute people they had listed as friends on social media sites. Facebook eventually acknowledged its mistake and partially reversed the changes, but not before millions of Facebook users' safety was put at risk.  

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As Facebook, Twitter, Orkut,  Google+, and other social media sites reach a growing international audience, the Silicon Valley firms that operate these sites need to remember that not all of their users live in countries with robust protections for free speech. Suddenly exposing information that had previously been hidden can have dire consequences.

Even in the United States, more could be done to help social media sites reach their potential as a force for individual liberty. Under a legal theory called the third-party doctrine, information stored on third-party servers does not enjoy the same robust Fourth Amendment protections as our phone calls, letters, and papers in our home. American law enforcement officials can obtain access to private information on these sites without a warrant, and in some cases without any judicial oversight at all. Despite the protections offered by the US Bill of Rights, there are some activists in the United States who fear scrutiny from law enforcement. We ought to set a good example by revising the law to require the police to get a warrant before they obtain access to private information on social networking sites.

So social media can be used for both good and evil, depending on who controls them and what choices they make. Social media platforms built by firms in free societies are largely forces for good, allowing their users to organize to promote freedom and individual rights. On the other hand, social media platforms that are under the thumbs of repressive regimes may do serious damage to individual freedom by giving those regimes the power to spy on and manipulate their people.


Questions for discussion:

How has social media promoted or hindered individual liberty in the United States?

Will the Chinese government be able to keep their people in the dark about the extent to which their social media sites are censored and manipulated? Could government control become so heavy-handed that it sparks a backlash by Chinese Internet users?

Do you post freely on social media or do you stop to think about how your post might look to others (like employers)? Is this a form of self-censorship?

The Chinese social networking site Renren is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Is it ethical to invest in a company that is an active partner in state censorship?