We recently wrote about the Russian government's plans
to ward off populist protests against the government by making service providers liable for what their users have to say -- an attempt to effectively get third party service providers to censor content. Clay Shirky has picked up on this story, with a fascinating discussion of the role of social media in these protests
, coming down firmly in the camp of believing that social media clearly has a role, and Russia's response more or less verifies that. But what struck me as most interesting about his piece, was the part where he points out the folly of commentators assuming that people generally are inert when it comes to their willingness to be active in politics. He quotes an article about the Kremlin's plans, where it notes that:
Russia's 40 million Internet users -- the country's middle class and most active segment of the population -- have shown remarkably little interest in this political struggle. This means that the Kremlin's battle to prevent an imminent Facebook
revolution will remain largely virtual.
But then he notes that this makes a major assumption that people who aren't showing interest right now won't show interest later -- perhaps driven by widespread communication on social media platforms:
The unpoliticized nature of Russian internet use is presented as evidence of its political inertness. The underlying observation is correct, of course; young people the world over typically don't use the internet for political activism, but to seek employment or distraction. This is then assumed to be evidence that these same young people are inherently apolitical. The second assumption doesn't follow from the first, however, as illustrated by the events in Tunisia.
Prior to December 18th, Tunisia's 2.8 million internet users--the country's middle class and most active segment of the population--had shown remarkably little interest in political struggle there either, and that country subsequently underwent as thorough a
revolution as has been seen in the region since 1979, one in which the organizers both used and credited social media (principally camera phones and social networks) as effective in aiding Ben Ali's overthrow.
I blame academia for planting the notion that people either are or are not political, and that we can read that aspect of their identity from their daily practice. Because universities put the PoliSci department down the street from Economics and all the way across the quad from Media Studies, we encourage people to think these are actually separate things. Meanwhile, out in the real world, they are all mixed up; you could ask whether an unemployed protester joining her friends to march on Parliament is making an economic, social, or political choice, but the answer would be "Yes."
The North African revolutions and remind us that citizens aren't so much political or apolitical as they are politicized or unpoliticized at any given moment; even people who don’t like discussing politics in their spare time can turn out in the Tahrir Square when the serious business starts.
I think that's a really key point. It still doesn't mean that these protests and government changes are entirely due to social media, but ignoring the role that social media may have had in helping to politicize people who were previously unpoliticized -- if not unpolitical -- should not be understated.