New media and mobile communication technologies are a double-edged sword. Like all tools, what matters most is how they are used.
The events of the Arab Spring are a prime example. In his 2013 book Distant Witness, NPR “senior strategist” and social media journalist Andy Carvin, notes that events in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria were all reported by citizens on social media. Thanks to networked activists and digital journalists, awareness of the events was vivid and widely distributed throughout the world.
But the mobile, social web—currently led by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—has even greater civic significance beyond journalism. Leah Lievrouw, in her 2011 book Alternative and Activist New Media, says that these tools have also been used for various forms of resistance, such as culture jamming, hacking, organizing social movements, and collective intelligence. These potential applications constitute a powerful weapon that can be used to help defend democratic ideals, as seen in the Arab world and beyond.
There is also a dark side to the power of new media technologies, however, as they have enabled governments and corporations to more effectively monitor and control large populations. In her 2012 book Consent of the Networked, Rebecca MacKinnon reports on authoritarian efforts ranging from censorship of online content to persecution for creating such content. Internet restrictions and shutdowns like those in Burma, China, Egypt, Iran and elsewhere can quickly—although not irreversibly—halt the momentum of networked campaigns. Perhaps more troubling are the countless instances of surveillance and informal control that are less visible. For instance, legal or not, digital forms of surveillance like “Deep Packet Inspection” are becoming commonplace—even in the U.S. So too are less formal controls like propaganda and cultural hegemony. Altogether, the use of digital weapons can disrupt democratic movements, especially if leveraged in cooperation with powerful corporations or committed citizens.
In the end, which side of these weapons gets sharpened and wielded most effectively will depend upon how we exercise our collective agency.