Twitter Will Undermine Dictators.
#Wrong. Tweets don't overthrow governments; people do. And what we've learned so far is that social networking sites can be both helpful and harmful to activists operating from inside authoritarian regimes. Cheerleaders of today's rapidly proliferating virtual protests point out that online services such as Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube have made it much easier to circulate information that in the past had been strictly controlled by the state -- especially gruesome photos and videos and evidence of abuses by police and the courts. Think of the Burmese dissidents who distributed cell-phone photos documenting how police suppressed protests, or opposition bloggers in Russia who launched Shpik.info as a Wikipedia-like site that allows anyone to upload photos, names, and contact details of purported "enemies of democracy" -- judges, police officers, even some politicians -- who are complicit in muzzling free speech. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown famously declared last year that the Rwandan genocide would have been impossible in the age of Twitter.
But does more information really translate into more power to right wrongs? Not necessarily. Neither the Iranian nor the Burmese regime has crumbled under the pressure of pixelated photos of human rights abuses circulated on social networking sites. Indeed, the Iranian authorities have been as eager to take advantage of the Internet as their green-clad opponents. After last year's protests in Tehran, Iranian authorities launched a website that publishes photos from the protests, urging the public to identify the unruly protesters by name. Relying on photos and videos uploaded to Flickr and YouTube by protesters and their Western sympathizers, the secret police now have a large pool of incriminating evidence. Neither Twitter nor Facebook provides the security required for asuccessful revolution, and they might even serve as an early warning system for authoritarian rulers. Had East Germans been tweeting about their feelings in1989, who knows what the Stasi would have done to shut down dissent?
Even when Twitter and Facebook do help score partial victories, a betting man wouldn't put odds on the same trick working twice. Take the favorite poster child of digital utopians: In early 2008 a Facebook group started by a 33-year-old Colombian engineer culminated in massive protests, with up to 2 million people marching in Bogotá's streets to demonstrate against the brutality of Marxist FARC rebels. (A New York Times article about the protests gushed: "Facebook has helped bring public protest to Colombia, a country with no real history of mass demonstrations.") However,when the very same "digital revolutionaries" last September tried to organize a similar march against Venezuelan leader and FARC sponsor Hugo Chávez, they floundered.
The reasons why follow-up campaigns fail often have nothing to do with Facebook or Twitter, and everything to do with the more general problems of organizing and sustaining a political movement. Internet enthusiasts argue that the Web has made organizing easier. But this is only partially true; taking full advantage of online organizing requires a well-disciplined movement with clearly defined goals, hierarchies, and operational procedures (think of Barack Obama's presidential campaign). But if a political movement is disorganized and unfocused, the Internet might onlyexpose and publicize its vulnerabilities and ratchet up the rancor ofinternecine conflicts. This, alas, sounds much like Iran's disorganized green movement.