If the revolution will not be televised, it will probably stream on YouTube.
During his first official visit to China, President Barack Obama told an audience of students in Shanghai that he is a “strong supporter” of social media websites like Twitter.
“The more freely information flows,” the President explained, “the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable.”
China’s administration, having tried unsuccessfully to block the nation’s 350 million Internet users from accessing Twitter back in July, reportedly is attempting to censor Obama’s comment. It did not go unheard, however, inspiring one Chinese blogger to tweet: “I will no[t] forget this morning, I heard, on my shaky Internet connection, a question about our own freedom which only a foreign leader can discuss.”
The Great Firewall of China, as it’s known, is under siege.
“One of the reasons that I won the presidency,” Obama went on to say, “was because we were able to mobilize young people like yourself to get involved through the Internet.”
Obama’s presidential campaign, you will recall, made unprecedented use of websites like Facebook to coordinate rallies and popularize his candidacy. By election day, Obama had 380 percent more supporters than John McCain on both Facebook and MySpace, 403 percent more subscribers on YouTube and a staggering 2,444 percent more followers on Twitter.
Age aside, Obama’s use of technology signaled a profound generational gap between him and McCain; ultimately, between Democrats and Republicans.
And the power of social media to tip political scales does not stop there. An exceptional example of Twitter as the apparatus for change can be found in the events following the much-disputed re-election in June of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Predictably, as enraged Iranians took to the streets to protest what is overwhelmingly regarded as a fixed election, the government kicked foreign media out of the country.
Unpredictably, many middleclass Iranians, camera phones in hand, documented the protests and police-inflicted violence anyway.
CNN and other news networks, by way of Twitter and YouTube updates, were able to analyze and broadcast footage of the riots around the world in near-real time.
Not unlike the Chinese government, the Iranian government attempted to shut down text messaging services on the day of the election and later shut down Facebook and cell phones altogether in an attempt to muffle dissent and minimize the global community’s knowledge of the uprising.
And not unlike the Chinese people, many Iranians downloaded free Internet proxy software developed by the banned Chinese spiritual group Falun Gong to circumvent the state’s censorship of the Web.
The U.S. Congress has also authorized the spending of $50 million over the next year to increase the broadcasting of uncensored media in Iran as well as to invest in anti-jamming technology to ensure that the information reaches the 40 percent of Iranians who currently have access to satellite television.
The proliferation of technology, it seems, may render totalitarianism obsolete.
But the death throes of a losing war are never without tragedy.
In a desperate attempt to hold back the floodgates of progress, the Iranian government has set up a 12-person unit of the Revolutionary Guard to police the Internet. They have installed 6,000 Basij militia centers in elementary schools to “re-educate” Iranian youth. They have detained over 100 journalists, activists and former officials associated with the June protests and have been imprisoning — sometimes executing — them in what have been widely characterized as show trials.
The Iranian people, however, do not seem likely to back down.
“The Iranian population is overwhelmingly literate and young,” explains Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Iranian expert and professor at Syracuse University. “Previous efforts to reinstall orthodoxy have only exacerbated the cleavages between the citizens and the state.”
Despite a deep Islamic faith and ancient Persian customs, Iran is a modernized nation: Its population is educated, urbanized and wealthy in comparison to the rest of the region. While many Iranians, including the poor, grip tightly to Islam, they do not necessarily feel that it should define their politics.
In other words, Iran possesses the preconditions conducive to democracy. And social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube may be the mechanisms that speed this shift toward democratic rule that is not Westernization but rather Iranization.
If nothing else, unfettered access to the Internet and social media makes disinformation much harder to disseminate — it’s considerably more difficult to convince your people that the West wishes to destroy Islam when Obama is addressing them on YouTube and offering America’s friendship.
Of course, there are downsides to unrestricted access to the Web. Obama cites the possibility of terrorists being able to better organize their plots against America online.
A more tangible abuse of the social media came earlier this year from the Facebook-savvy Sarah Palin who, in a blog, erroneously accused the President of proposing death panels as part of health care reform. In so doing, she was able to derail much of the meaningful debate surrounding universal health care, and terrified a not-so-computer-literate pocket of the American public into believing that the President wants to kill their grandparents.
“But,” Obama assures us, “the good outweighs the bad.”
Or we could all just unfriend Sarah Palin.
Cody Gault is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stakes Is High appears alternate Fridays this semester.