Reflection on Clay Shirky “The Political Power of Social Media” by Willi Ibbeken

In the beginning of his essay, Clay Shirky is writing about the “first time that social media had helped force out a national leader” (Shirky). The Philippine President Joseph Estrada was forced out because activists were organizing demonstrations by forwarding text messages. Nevertheless, Shirky is posing the question, whether digital tools will have a positive influence on democracy. Hillary Clinton sees the task of the U.S. in preventing the censorship and restriction of websites like YouTube, Google and general news pages. “(…) United States would promote Internet freedom abroad.” (Shirky).

In my opinion, Hillary Clinton is proving a double moral standard here. Now, we all know that the U.S. is excessively collecting and accessing personal data from all around the world (PRISM). I really do not believe that the U.S. is in the position of being the upholder of moral standards, when it comes to Internet freedom. Also her suggested instrumental approach in order to achieve Internet freedom is wrong, as Shirky is correctly pointing out by saying: “It overestimates the value of broadcast media while underestimating the value of media that allow citizens to communicate privately among themselves. It overestimates the value of access to information, particularly information hosted in the West, while underestimating the value of tools for local coordination. And it overestimates the importance of computers while underestimating the importance of simpler tools, such as cell phones”

Shirky explains, that a computer must not necessarily be the best tool for sparking collective action. More basic technology like mobile phones proved to be more effective.

Furthermore: “Political freedom has to be accompanied by a civil society literate enough and densely connected enough to discuss the issues presented to the public” (Shirky). Social media is creating a space, where people can talk about the drawbacks of their country. This does not ensure, that a government will be defeated. It is only the basis, the seed, of what could happen in the future.

“Opinions are first transmitted by the media, and then they get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. It is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed. This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference” (Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld). Mass media on its own does not change anything. I agree with this statement. Social media is often glorified as a miracle cure and universal weapon against political grievance. But in fact, social media is only one (important) step in the chain of a successful protest. Technology will never remove the effort of real participation and real effort. Social media can be the important catalyser but not the replacement of real activism and direct disobedience.

Furthermore, Shirky is mentioning the conservative dilemma, a tricky situation for governments and businesses. It basically means, that government and economy are in need of the Internet in order to be progressive and modern. Blocking the Internet because of activists will also harm the government. In my opinion, this is the result of the fact, that the Internet is a space with a relatively low hierarchy. Every user is more or less playing by the same rules and sits at the same table. There is more commonness online, than there is in the real world. Sad but true.

Briggs says: “The state will censor critics or produce propaganda as it needs to, but both of those actions have higher costs than simply not having any critics to silence or reply to in the first place. But if a government were to shut down Internet access or ban cell phones, it would risk radicalizing otherwise pro-regime citizens or harming the economy”. The government would run the risk of waking the sleeping dog or better, the cute cut lovers. Brigg’s explanation is quite d’accord with Ethan Zuckerman’s cute cat theory.

Moreover, Shirky is writing about two arguments against the idea that social media will have an effective impact in national politics:” The first is that the tools are themselves ineffective, and the second is that they produce as much harm to democratization as good, because repressive governments are becoming better at using these tools to suppress dissent.”

Concerning the first argument, I think that social media is very useful for online activism. Sure, amongst users you will always find a large amount of Slacktivists but that does not mean that real activists can’t use the social media in an effective way. Sure, for most of the people social media is only about having a good time and enjoying cute cats but for a maybe small but nevertheless  decisive minority, social media contains the chance of sparking something big. Concerning the second argument, sure, repressive governments are becoming better at using tools to supress dissent but in my opinion they can’t stop it. There will always be a cat and mouse game. You can ban one network and more networks will spring up like mushrooms. This will also result in the provocation of previously inactive internet users. They might become active.

At the end of the text, I stumbled across the following statement, which nowadays appears in an unfavourable light:” One way the United States can heighten the conservative dilemma without running afoul of as many political complications is to demand the release of citizens imprisoned for using media in these ways. Anything that constrains the worst threats of violence by the state against citizens using these tools also increases the conservative dilemma.” (Shirky). By imprisoning Bradley Manning and chasing Edward Snowden for their leaks, pressuring journalists and spying on citizens, the U.S. has proven that their Internet freedom measures can only be masquerade – don’t throw bricks when you live in a glass house. First of all, the U.S. should look at the way they treat Internet freedom, than they will have a great chance of being a good example to other countries.


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