About Clay Shirky´s “The Political Power of Social media”

Clay Shirky´s article about “The Political Power of Social Media” draws an overall positive picture of future perspectives through the influence of modern communication tools.

The essay shows several cases in which people were empowered to stand up against authoritarian governments through the use of new media technologies. He starts with the description of the organization of protests in the Philippines against the unjustified president Joseph Estrada in 2001 which was based on the extensive use of text messages. Though short messages are not considered to be social media in its classical meaning this example of the political impact of modern communication technologies can speak very much for itself in terms of their not-to-be underestimated power. He adds other similar happenings in Spain and Moldova that showed the crucial power of social media. Shirky quickly involves the question whether the meaning of these development touches the interests of the USA which leads us to a fascinating discourse about their “forced” implementation on foreign markets and thereby countries. This shall be discussed later.

 First of all Shirky makes clear that social media tools, for him a wider field that also includes text messages, are not responsible for the movements. They just speed them up. He furthermore states that the ideal public sphere in authoritarian governed countries appears to be online. Therefore these governments are trying to limit the access to them which is a phenomenon that happens in presumably democratic countries as well. Shirky emphasizes that hence the USA are supporting the spread of social media and internet technologies to help the ideal of freedom to be established in the heads of people who live in wrongful systems. In 2010 Hilary Clinton has announced that America will support every act in that manner. The fact that most people will use the new freedom of communication for entertainment and not activism in their own interest is not to be seen as a backlash since Clinton quoted similar media revolutions in the past that had the same effect of people rather enjoying the new technology than actually using it for their own good. Nevertheless in the end it often proved that progress was not only made by thoughts but by the medium that carried them. The example of the collapse of communism beginning in the late 1980s can be linked also to the effect of the new technology. Shirky states that personal computers have been smuggled to Soviet Union to improve communication in both text-processing and networking which of course did not yet happen through the internet but with the establishment of an underground press which bit by bit was able to set new agendas against the states propaganda. The given success stories appear to be showcases for the huge opportunities that lie in digital and portable technology.  The author stays still a bit skeptical as he admits to have two objections to make. One is about the inefficiency of social media, which clearly can be supported because these tools were originally designed to connect people and allow them distraction and not to include them into constant political discourses. He also says that is not only practied by dissidents but also by governments that learned to use their influence for their own good. The second argumentation does make more sense to me because out of my understanding media is there to be used no matter what content it carries. Otherwise it would not gain the awareness in actual cases of importance.

All in all it is to say that Shirkys view on the Internet comes from an apparently rather national perspective. The question whether freedom is to be brought through the American involvement illustrates that clearly. To his defense there is to say that he is critical towards the extension of online networks that is only economically motivated. Also, given that the essay is from the year 2010, the opinion that freedom as an American “export product” can be spread through the internet appears to be still a bit more reasonable than it would nowadays. Today it could be a more prominent approach to compare the overall international surveillance to the national blocking of internet content. The described feeling of an American-based freedom has suffered some erosion in the meantime. 

To put it in a nutshell Shirky´s point of view is reasonable for that particular period of time and the future of democracy and freedom in many countries will be dependent on the proper use of social media. Though it is yet to be proven that these technologies will in the end have an outbalanced meaning in opposition to the permanent supervision that cannot be seen as the right step towards more freedom.


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