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'Democracy Isn't Just A Tweet Away' - Gedmin In 'USA Today'

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  • Jeffrey Gedmin's Keynote Speech At George W. Bush Library

In a column for "USA Today", RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin writes about the limits of social networking technology in bringing about revolutions, and warns that advances in digital technology have also afforded authoritarian regimes new ways of monitoring and silencing dissent.

This article is adapted from a speech Mr. Gedmin delivered at a conference co-sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute and Freedom House on Cyber Dissent and Democracy. (Listen to the speech)

Democracy Isn't Just a Tweet Away

Jeffrey Gedmin | USA Today

April 23, 2010

Social media — texting, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube — have been transforming the way we think about many things, especially political power and protest. Enthusiasts speak of Twitter revolutions. Small countries have had these: Moldova in 2009, Kyrgyzstan this year. Is Iran or perhaps China next? You cannot stop the people anymore, says the conventional wisdom.

Well, not so fast.

It's true that authoritarians can no longer maintain a monopoly on information. Social media are empowering large segments of society like never before. "Fence-sitters" are emboldened by friends and like-minded souls to join social movements and political protests. But our thinking about social media and democracy movements needs a reset.

For starters, let's not get carried away by the hype. Iran is a case in point. We celebrated the early success of the Green Movement and marveled how young Iranians were able to stand up to the regime with the help of social media. When government forces murdered a young woman named Neda last summer, graphic amateur videos posted to Facebook and YouTube spread virally, shocked the world and seemed to galvanize the Iranian people. So what happened?

Battlefield dominance

The Green Movement hasn't disappeared. It's still there. But the regime achieved battlefield dominance in the technosphere over the past year. Iranian authorities have used a range of technologies to block, surveil and infiltrate social media. One young Iranian I met in February in a neighboring Middle East country told me he and his friends were having a hard time getting accurate and reliable information about when and where to go for Green Movement protests. Pro-democracy advocates were intimidated from joining key rallies last fall when warnings were tweeted and posted to Facebook about snipers pre-positioned on the roofs of buildings. The rumors turned out to be false. Through disinformation, it seems, Iranian intelligence services were able to disband demonstrations before protesters ever arrived on the scene. Brute force has played its role, too. Thousands have been arrested. It's the regime's technological edge, though, that has likely made the critical difference in hindering the Green Movement's progress.

Other heavy-handed governments are catching on, too. Countries like Russia and China have been standing up well-trained, handsomely financed cyber militias. Tyrants, it turns out, like Twitter, too. Innovative cyber dissidents will eventually sort this, perhaps with a technological assist from the United States.

But there's a bigger problem than states engaging dissidents on the social media battlefield. This has to do with understanding the limits of the technology. Twitter (or its next variant) will continue to bring protesters to the town hall square. Protesters may even succeed in toppling corrupt, autocratic regimes. But Twitter won't tell the opposition how to govern, how to develop democratic institutions or how to inculcate and defend the values, habits and behaviors that belong to democracy. These things require an immense amount of intellectual, conceptual and political work. And patience. This is especially so in countries that have little or no experience in democracy.

For instance, on a recent trip to Afghanistan, the leader of a mosque in Kabul told me he rejects Taliban rule and wants his country to be a democracy. He conceded at the same time, though, that it's difficult to know exactly how democratic institutions should look in an Afghan context. He's right, of course. Afghanistan is a tribal, largely illiterate society. American or European models cannot be simply transposed.

What next for Iran?

In the case of Iran, if the regime were to fall, then what? How would religious factions and secular elements reconcile? How would a more liberal, pluralistic post-mullah Iran balance forces of modernity and tradition? Such questions are anything but academic. If sanctions against Iran fail and we are faced with the prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of this current regime, don't be surprised if the United States opts for a policy of robust support for the democratically minded opposition.

Don't be surprised either if some of the utopianism about social media starts to fade. That's not a bad thing, but rather a call to action. Promoting democracy is an American interest, and the U.S. needs to make adequate resources available to match the commitments made by authoritarians. The private sector must hold up its end of the bargain, too. Google's new approach to China is encouraging. We need patience and, above all, must assure that we're as long on substance as we are on the gadgetry.

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