We are a generation associated with apathy, obesity and an inability to communicate effectively without the intermediary of an electronic device. We stand accused of degenerating the English language, breaking down conventional concepts of privacy, and creating a world in which human beings no longer have the capacity to interact personally. A generation of hoodies, hoodlums and text-talk, our weapons of choice are social networking sites, blogs and visual media feeds. Yet the events of the past year, in both the Middle East and here at home, have led many to reconsider this view, as Facebook and other websites become increasingly valuable tools of self expression and communication.
The role played by websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in the events of the Arab Spring has been widely debated by both journalists and academics. Though it is commonly acknowledged that they were a contributory factor, many have contended the ‘cyber-utopic’ view that the role of the internet was crucial. In his book The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov criticises the view that ‘tweets were sent and dictators fell’, writing that the internet is only a tool of self-expression and organisation. But surely this is the whole point. Whilst there have been successful revolutions in the past, even the most hardened skeptic must admit that the internet allows communication on an immediate and accurate level that previous generations of revolutionaries could have only dreamed of.
Though it did not conjure the public feelings behind the Arab Spring from out of the ether, neither was it the sole mode of communication used during the revolutions - but it did allow millions to be informed and inspired on a daily basis. The internet cannot be censored in the same way as other forms of media and communication. True, a government can control it to an extent, by shutting it down and limiting direct access, such as was the case in Syria and other Arab states. However, short of a complete shut-down, the use of proxies will usually ensure that most material can be uploaded and made available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.
The danger of the ‘cyber-utopian’ point of view is its presumption that the internet is a lone-standing entity, responsible for mass rallies such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. It must be remembered that behind every tweet or blog there is a human being. Revolutionary activity wouldn’t cease to exist if the internet disappeared. The ousting of Mubarak in Egypt is a case in point: the internet was shut down, but the revolution continued regardless.
The internet’s part should not be overstated in such instances, but neither should its role be overlooked as it continues to alter the way our societies function. Social networking is today a global phenomenon, because it is easy to use, and easy to connect to.
It is also non-discriminatory. Once you are connected, you become part of a network, which spans almost every country, religion, race and class in the world. Thus, people who may never have been able to come into contact are able to communicate with one another. One of the most interesting features of movements, such as the Arab Spring and Occupy, is the diversity in political opinion and socio-economic background of the participants. These are not the narrow, politically introverted revolutions of the past, but truly mass movements on a global scale. Occupy has occurred almost simultaneously in over 80 countries around the world. The Arab Spring has seen three established military dictatorships overthrown in the space of three months, and a further fifteen countries affected by a range of protests. Without an online presence during these international events, their debates and consequences would never have gone global.
But for every positive thing achieved by the internet, there must be a negative. Social networking as a means of communication and organisation has been implicated in both the London riots and this summer’s Oslo and Utøya attacks. In both cases, as with Occupy and in the Middle East, social networking was merely a tool, and cannot be held responsible as a cause or starting point.
However, it is important to recall the negative aspect of this debate. The internet itself contains as much violent, prejudiced and inflammatory material as you could care to access - sites like YouTube contain videos of everything from rape and mutilation to criminal activity, and a swift Google search of the British National Party (BNP) will give you the top 10 racist groups in your area. The inevitable result of this is increased monitoring and censorship in many countries.
European law dictates that any social media behavior that incites violence is enough to warrant a trial. This issue has attracted a great deal of attention recently, due to ongoing court action against youths involved in the London riots. Facebook messages sent by youths encouraging rioting and looting were used as evidence, and some received prison sentences. Although few would disagree with the looters’ punishment, one can imagine the public outcry had the Tunisian revolution failed, and trials been held for those who used Facebook to send messages encouraging protest and violence.
Context is key when considering these issues, but it is always hard to draw a clear line (especially in a democratic state) between a government proactively preventing criminal activity and a state disregarding freedom of expression. Should governments have the right to censor potentially dangerous or inflammatory material on the web? If so, which definitions of those words will be used? Or, should the internet be a place of complete freedom - in which case we carry the risk of it being used to express and organise extremism.
The former approach has already been implemented by some countries. The US government has already invested heavily in internet monitoring technology in a bid to stop terrorism; China has a ruthless system of censorship; and many of the regimes still standing in the Arab world have imposed strict restrictions on which services that can be accessed.
At the time being, the internet is being censored and controlled to various degrees, but the debate is still so fresh that there has been little time to develop a clear road map for dealing with the rights and wrongs within its realm. Nonetheless, it is a vital issue to consider. How the internet has been used and the role it can play in the provision of liberty will define its use in the future.
Emma Elliott-Walker is Comment Editor at the Journal.
Daniel Keller is Feature Editor at the Journal.