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Social media fisticuffs

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12 January 2011 10:26

I've been enjoying the stoush between Malcolm Gladwell and Clay Shirky (pictured) on the political power of social media. It offers some insights into how significant tools like Facebook and Twitter are going to be for foreign ministries and the type of internet freedom agenda Western states should be supporting.

In October, in the New Yorker, Gladwell took a swipe at some of the ideas in Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody. Gladwell argues social media only creates 'weak-tie' networks that lack the strength to foster real world revolutions like the civil rights movement. Commenting on an example from Shirky's book — where a Wall Street banker uses the web to recover a lost 'Sidekick' phone — Gladwell writes:

Shirky ends the story of the lost Sidekick by asking, portentously, “What happens next'”—no doubt imagining future waves of digital protesters. But he has already answered the question. What happens next is more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.

In the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, Shirky hits back with an insightful piece. He points out that 'social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all the world's political movements' and argues the ineffectiveness critique is misleading because it focuses on:

..."slacktivism," whereby casual participants seek social change through low-cost activities, such as joining Facebook's "Save Darfur" group, that are long on bumper-sticker sentiment and short on any useful action. The critique is correct but not central to the question of social media's power; the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively. 

Shirky argues the real potential power of social media 'lies mainly in their support of civil society and the public sphere', pointing to the two-step process by which people change their opinions:

In a famous study of political opinion after the 1948 U.S. presidential election, the sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld discovered that mass media alone do not change people's minds; instead, there is a two-step process. 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.

It's in this space that large social networks run by foreign ministries might be able to play some (limited) role in shaping opinion, although leaders in the State Department have broader ambitions than just this. If Shirky is right, then it also has implications for the type of internet freedom agenda Western states should be pursuing, and he concludes his essay with a challenging argument. He urges the US Government to support mainstream social media platforms (that are harder for authoritarian regimes to shut down) and adopt a long-run approach that:

...should de-emphasize anti-censorship tools, particularly those aimed at specific regimes, and increase its support for local public speech and assembly more generally. Access to information is not unimportant, of course, but it is not the primary way social media constrain autocratic rulers or benefit citizens of a democracy. 

Photo by Flickr user Pop!Tech.

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