Since the rise in the use of new media, authoritarian regimes have been confronted by a wave of opposition. The surge of digital, computerized and networked information as well as communication technologies has facilitated those seeking to shed light on government oppression. Social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as well as countless others have catalyzed protest movements in elections across the globe. From Iran, to Moldova and even local elections in Russia, the public has utilized these resources to shed light on fraud and abuse.
Autocratic governments are now being successfully countered by those resisting oppression using little more than a cellphone. As Chris Spence, the Chief Technology Officer at the National Democratic Institute explained in last week’s Helsinki Commission briefing, “Twitter Against Tyrants: New Media in Authoritarian Regimes” : “These technologies paired with effective methodologies can help organizations make significant contributions toward advancing the democratic process in authoritarian states.” The use of new media technologies provide oppressed societies with a voice that might not otherwise be granted to them.
However, it must be highlighted that new media is a tool. Anyone can use it; even those who tyrannize their own people. Evegeny Morozova, Yahoo! Fellow at Georgetown University explains, “I am increasingly concerned with both how well authoritarian government have managed to adapt to the Internet threat and how poorly some digital activists, journalists, and even policy-makers understand the risks of trying to promote democracy via the Internet.” Morozov explains a litany of possible ways that new media can backfire.
For example, new media will empower all political forces and not just the ones we like. Authoritarian governments have gotten quite adept at controlling cyberspace and they are “eager to build short-term alliances with digital groups that share their goals.” Furthermore, government sponsored cyber attacks exert indirect psychological pressure on civil society, discouraging participation. What many often ignore is that “new media often has adverse unexpected consequences” and it is a tool that can be used to achieve beneficial and detrimental results.
As Nathan Frietas, adjunct professor at New York University states,
In many cases, the authoritarian states’ power proves too formidable for new media technology to have a meaningful impact. While we can instantly know about the smallest conflict in any part of the planet, there is often very little that the internet can do to help those in harms way.
New media in and of itself does not solve oppression. It is the actions taken by those who abhor oppression that affect change, new media only helps reveal the need for action.