Reflections: ‘The Political Power of Social Media’

This text is about how social media can affect politics and how social media, should and could be used political to strengthen internet freedom.
Clay Shirky enlightens, in his text, how social media has been successfully used, in political protest and how the use of social media, sometimes causes failure. With failure he empathizes the fact that the government for example fights back, by either increasing the control of social media, shuts down social media or even tends to measures that involves killing.
In this text, Clay Shirky presents the terms ‘instrumental’ view and ‘environmental’ view. These terms are used, when discussing an approach to obtain a global freedom of the internet. The U.S. government has presented a goal about having internet freedom all over the world. Clay Shirky criticizes their approach, because they focuses mostly on freedom of information, by giving access to all websites (instrumental). Instead, Shirky thinks they should focus on the matter of improving private use of media and improving the public speech/sphere in media as well as everyday-life (environmental).
Clay Shirky says that an ‘environmental’ view will gain more in the long-term run, whereas an ‘instrumental’ view will only work short-term. Therefore, for the good of the long-term, some disappointments must occur on the short-term.

Topics that are up for discussion:
1. Is the approach of the U.S. government wrong?
The U.S. government presents an approach that has an ‘instrumental’ view on the freedom of the internet. According to Clay Shirky, that is the wrong approach. He argues that they overestimate the value of broadcasting media, the value of computers and the value of access to information, while they underestimate the importance of cell phones, communication between citizens and the value of tools used for coordination.
I though think you can discuss if this approach does not include the other approach. Will this approach to obtain internet freedom only obtain freedom to access information or will it also obtain freedom to public sphere and civil society? Their approach might have wrong intensions but maybe it will still have the right (according to Clay Shirky) outcome. I do not see why one goal should exclude the other.
In some way, I think questioning the government’s approach to obtaining internet freedom actually puts them in a ‘conservative dilemma’ as he mentions in the text. If their approach is too manipulating and controlling they might harm relationships with allies, and this can cause dangerous economic and political situations. Therefore, I maybe think they should consider combining the two views. As Clay Shirky mentions they should appeal to the countries’ self-interest – they should increase their ‘conservative dilemma’ so to strengthen the public sphere and freedom to speak.
2. Is it more important to obtain access to conversation than access to information?
As Clay Shirky mentions, I think it is very important to have the freedom to speak aloud and be able to discuss political as well as private matters with one another, both in media and in public. On the other hand, I do not think you can undermine the importance of obtaining information. I think conversation and information goes hand in hand. Without information, there is no conversation! However, I still agree with Shirky that political opinions are formed, during conversations and debates with one another.
Today’s information comes mainly from internet and other kinds of new media. The information spreads by people talking, texting and sharing information. This way I think you cannot separate those two things, and say one is more important than the other is.
3. Critiques on social media as a political tool
In the text, Shirky mentions two critique points on the fact that social media can affect national politics. One critique is that the tools are ineffectively – here he refers to the term ‘slacktivism’, which involves people wanting to participate in social change, without actually taking any action. This often takes place via Facebook or another social media, where one can take part in social groups that does not actually do anything. This makes people feel committed and feel that they do a difference. I agree very much on this critique! I see many people liking a Facebook group to support a course and not doing anything else about it, which seems silly – even though I might be tempted to do it myself once in a while. On one hand, I feel that if you want to take part, one should do it actively, but on the other hand, I also feel that the amount of people joining or liking the Facebook page actually does make a difference. It creates awareness, which is the first step of actually doing something and making a change!
The other critique is that when people obtain more freedom on the internet and more access to media and information, it might strengthen the public, but it will also strengthen the government. It is an improvement, for not only the public, but also the government!
The government can react on social media usage, and they can monitor the social media and even shut it down if they like. As Shirky mentions this might cause the so-called conservative dilemma though.
I think this can be a big problem – if these media tools are used to harm society. This is something that should actually, be done something about. This is where the fight for freedom of speech and public sphere comes in the picture and therefore the environmental approach should actually be the most important one, as Clay Shirky concludes in his text.


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