Will Facebook Remake the World?

This article was originally published in the Harvard International Review.

When I traveled through Eastern Europe in the wake of the 1989 revolutions, I carried a computer and a portable printer. I typed up my dispatches, printed them out, and sent them back to my employers by air mail. Even with the lag time of a week or more, my reports on conversations with activists, academics, and politicians remained fresh. Email, after all, was still rudimentary in 1990. The World Wide Web was still three years in the future. Blogs wouldn’t debut until four years after that. Change was rapid in Eastern Europe in 1990. But for both activists and observers, the printed word still carried enormous weight.

We were, after all, still at the tail-end of the era of samizdat, the self-published manuscripts that sustained the dissident movement in the Soviet Union and its restive satellites. Activists laboriously mimeographed critical essays and passed on the smudged and often difficult-to-read copies to their network of friends and contacts. When the Soros Foundation funded civil society initiatives in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, its most valuable contribution was copy machines, which got documents and flyers into more hands faster and more legibly.

At a conference I attended in Prague in 1991 sponsored by the conservative American Foreign Policy Council, the representatives from what were then still Soviet republics were thrilled to receive a “democracy kit”, a box of goodies that included a copy of the U.S. constitution. But what really excited the activists in attendance was the brand-new fax machine, which had only become affordable a few years before. Chinese activists during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 had used fax machines to circumvent government control and get their messages to foreign journalists. Their counterparts from Georgia and Armenia couldn’t wait to get their hands on this cutting-edge technology.

Today, the printed report, the copied flyer and the faxed document no longer seem to be the nervous system of political change. Faxes have been overtaken by email, newspapers by blogs, and reports by tweets. The global circulation of information has become faster and more compressed, as if someone had hit the fast-forward button on current events. Journalists, policymakers, and average citizens are hard-pressed to keep up with this often bewildering jumble of opinions and facts. The sheer acceleration and accumulation of data has also made the job of censors and resistant government officials more difficult, if not impossible.

The fast-forward button is still pressed down. With the advent of social networking sites like Facebook, pundits are heralding a new and revolutionary form of communication. Is Facebook a fundamentally new way of viewing and changing the world? Or, beneath all the hype, are these sites just a tool like any other in the activist, journalist, and civic toolbox?

Old Wine, New Bottles

To explain how the mind censors taboo thoughts, Freud resorted to a hydraulic metaphor. If water is dammed in one place, it will show up somewhere else. Similarly, the fears and desires that we dare not think about consciously, Freud argued, appear in our dreams. Like water, they find a way to leak out.

When governments suppress dissent, those taboo views will find an outlet. If they can’t be said in public, they will appear in private; if they can’t be expressed on paper, they will be whispered in back alleys. Dissenters will use whatever means are available and appropriate to disseminate their ideas. In these cases, contrary to Canadian communications theorist Marshall McCluhan’s famous dictum, the medium is not the message. The medium is incidental. Russian intellectuals used mimeograph machines, Chinese students used fax machines, and Iranian dissidents used blogs. Dissidents will fall back on passenger pigeons if birds are the only mechanism for getting their message out. But the message remains the same regardless of the medium.

Facebook and Twitter are the latest in a long line of media by which we send out messages to our friends, family, and the world. According to one interpretation, these new means of communication are the functional equivalent of their predecessors. When government censors prevented the publication of critical works, activists turned to samizdat. When the government cracked down on blogs, activists used Twitter and Facebook to organize demonstrations. Same impulse, different means.

The apparent political neutrality of social networking has been one of its advantages. No one can misinterpret the purpose of a huge anti-government banner. In a country where virtually all smudged, self-produced documents offer critical perspectives, all mimeograph machines become suspect. But Facebook seems so innocuous. The vast majority of the content consists of silly photographs, self-conscious ramblings, and tests of one’s knowledge of The Simpsons. How could such a medium bring down a government? Those who study Internet activism call this “the cute-cat theory of digital activism.” It’s one thing to confiscate a mimeograph or fax machine. It’s quite another to shut down a site that is used by so many people to post pictures of their pets.

So, when activists turn to Facebook, they are exploiting an existing technology whose seeming innocuousness transforms it into a Trojan Horse. The majority of its 400 million users worldwide treat Facebook as a revolutionary way of keeping up with the lives of others. Activists view social networking from a primarily utilitarian point of view: the latest kind of hammer to hit the same old nail.

As we hammer away at these familiar nails, though, are we also somehow forging new identities in the process?

Turning Us Inside Out

No technology is neutral. We can’t help but change in response to the communicative tools that we use. The invention of writing, for instance, meant that we no longer had to memorize lengthy poems as the ancient Greeks once did. While we gained the ability to record information for posterity, we lost the ability to retain that information inside our brains.

Our modern technologies are no different. Television has helped transform us into an image-obsessed society. The Internet has put vast intellectual resources – as well as conspiratorial nonsense – at our fingertips and intensified our tendency toward attention deficit disorder. Blogs have given everyone with a computer a potential global platform for his or her viewpoints and revealed so much of what was once private. These are not just tools. They are transformations. In this sense, then, Facebook is not just the latest tactic that activists are using to spread their message. Facebook is, subtly and not so subtly, changing the message.

Facebook has differential impact, however, on its users. The older generation, however computer-savvy it might be, generally uses Facebook instrumentally, as just another tool for communication. The over-40 set doesn’t quite understand why anyone would use Facebook to reveal so much private and often banal information, which in previous eras would have gone unrecorded or been relegated to a secret diary. Yet people under a certain age don’t think twice about posting information that could one day jeopardize a job application, destroy a budding romance, or simply prove utterly embarrassing to one’s future family and friends. These everyday revelations are all part of a different set of social relationships that makes privacy an increasingly antiquated and even politically suspect notion (as in, “what are you trying to hide?”). Transparency has become a norm not only for governments but for individuals as well.

This public-private divide is a matter of social and academic interest in places like the United States. In a country like Iran, however, the changing consciousness of the younger generation will ultimately have explosive political impact. The country’s recently aborted Green Revolution was not really a response to the economic situation in the country — after all, the economy rose nearly 7 percent over the previous year and poverty levels declined. Nor did it put forward radically new politicians since the reformers are the present or former members of the political elite.

Rather, the revolution was fueled by a desire for a more liberal society. The Iranian state has attempted to legislate what is often considered private morality: mandating the use of headscarves, determining what kind of music people can listen to, and policing the Internet. Many Iranians, particularly young Iranians and women, simply want to have more control over their private lives and want what their Facebook friends in other countries have. In Iran, Facebook isn’t just another way of communicating — it is a model that young Iranians want to realize in the non-virtual world.

Or let us consider Egypt, where Facebook is the third most popular website after Google and Yahoo. A rather small portion of the Egyptian population is connected to the Internet. The ones who are younger, more educated and more upwardly mobile form an influential group. In a country where the government restricts freedom of speech and assembly, Facebook functions as a place to sound off and air grievances , just like a virtual Tiananmen Square or Hyde Park,.It also serves as the equivalent of the “flying universities” of the Polish dissident intelligentsia, which were lectures on politics, economics, and culture that young Poles attended in living rooms in the 19th century and again in the 1970s because the strictly controlled university grounds were off-limits. Many young Egyptians join Facebook for non-political reasons and then get politicized online. Facebook serves in some sense like the “involvement fair” at a college where new students discover all the different activities going on at their institution. The Free Speech Movement that took place in physical space at Sproul Plaza at Berkeley from 1964 to 1965 is now taking place online in Egypt and other countries.

But Facebook is not just a revolutionary tool in tightly controlled countries. Iceland likes to bill itself as the world’s oldest democracy, since its parliament has been in operation since the 10th century AD. But here, too, Facebook has played an important political role. After the government essentially declared bankruptcy in October 2008, outraged citizens used Facebook to mobilize demonstrations and protests. Nearly 50 percent of the population over the age of 13 has Facebook accounts. Iceland is a small country with a population of just over 300,000, comparable to that of Pittsburgh. When it captures a large enough segment of the population in a small enough polis, Facebook can function like a virtual town hall.

What also makes social networking fundamentally different from previous tools like fax or mimeograph machines is its decentralized interactivity. Everyone, not just the ruling class or the proletariat, can potentially acquire the means of production. And the flow of information is two-way (actually, multi-way). If political action is about empowerment, then social networking allows people to own the process through interaction with other activists. Leadership is restructured horizontally, problems are solved through crowd-sourcing, and everyone can shape the agenda. We are transformed from atomized individuals with constrained private lives to networked actors in the public sphere. We are literally turned inside out.

Wide vs. Deep

So far we’ve only covered Facebook’s role in organizing rough referenda on whether governments are legitimate or not. Facebook seems to be an ideal platform for the replacement of governments, as it combines two key attributes: networking and grievance amplification. One can easily join groups through Facebook that focus generalized discontent on a single, clear objective. Less clear, however, is whether Facebook can go beyond the politics of regime change and have a more finely grained impact on politics. If Facebook can serve as a virtual town hall in places like Iceland, can it expand or deepen established democracies?

Except for those who steadfastly fear the tyranny of the majority, most democracy practitioners and theorists advocate more civic participation. Social movements and reformers have gradually expanded the franchise to the poor, women, African Americans, and so on. One potential next step, when all barriers to voting are removed, is building deliberative democracy, in which the electorate increases the quality of its participation instead of simply its quantity. Deliberative democracy involves substantive discussion of issues through community meetings, conflict resolution mechanisms, and in-depth polls. According to the Civic Practices Network, the aim is to “cultivate a responsible citizen voice capable of appreciating complexity, recognizing the legitimate interests of other groups (including traditional adversaries), generating a sense of common ownership and action, and appreciating the need for difficult trade-offs.”

Facebook certainly does a good job of instilling a sense of common ownership and action. In terms of the other attributes of deliberative democracy, however, it comes up short. After all, Facebook is not a deliberative medium. Its interface emphasizes quick status updates and thumbs-up or thumbs-down evaluations. Conversations spill out horizontally across multiple participants. But in-depth conversation is scarce. With the popularity of Facebook as a cell phone application, communication is further reduced to the shorthand of text-messaging. Of course, many Facebook and Twitter messages are links to long and in-depth essays, but the Web in general militates against longer content because of the presumed attention span of readers and the pressure to keep web-surfing.

Perhaps more critically, Facebook’s encouragement of interest-group formation runs against the grain of deliberative democracy. For better or for worse, interest groups have focused the political power of groups with shared concerns: gun owners square off against gun control advocates and military contractors and arms controllers congregate in their own corners. To have political impact, interest groups tend to limit the parameters of in-group discussion and debate, and do not encourage much dialogue across interest groups except for the purposes of forging alliances to achieve specific political goals. Facebook appears to strengthen such interest-group politics. Drawn into groups of like-minded individuals, Facebookers have their opinions verified and rarely challenged. True, these technologies can permit a widening of interests – through discovery of new topics or new friends or new groups. But after the initial engagement, path dependency tends to kick in: conservatives receive notices of other conservative groups to join, liberals are friended by other liberals, vegetarians get the latest meatless recipes, and so on.

Deliberative democracy is about talking with people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet and with whom you wouldn’t necessarily agree. It is also about engaging an issue from multiple angles. In gathering birds of a feather, Facebook can upend unpopular governments. But its transformative aspects don’t tend toward deliberative democracy.

Deliberative democracy is, of course, only one path of political development. It might be argued that regardless of technology citizens in complex societies can’t engage in in-depth deliberation on all the major questions that require public engagement. We don’t have the time or the capacity to vote in daily referenda. The further refinement of interest-group politics through the affinitive functions of social networking – the entrenchment of niche politics – allocates “portfolios” to citizens much as our elected representatives acquire specific competences through their committee appointments. In this regard, Facebook and Twitter are rather conservative technologies that reinforce the status quo of interest-group politics.

There is, finally, an all-too-obvious dark side to social networking. The film The Lives of Others depicted the perpetual surveillance of East German society under the secret police (Stasi). Privacy was nearly impossible in a society in which friends, neighbors, and even loved ones were drawn into the Stasi’s web of informants. Facebook turns this world of surveillance on its head. We now voluntarily offer up this information. We have become our own best informants. This information, visible to “friends,” is also potentially available to marketers. In some dystopian future, unscrupulous governments might also tap into this goldmine of information.

Governments and communications firms already have an alarmingly incestuous relationship. Google, for instance, cooperates with the Chinese government to provide a restricted set of search terms. More troubling is the U.S. government’s agreement with AT&T to divert duplicate copies of all data from its main switching facilities to the National Security Agency for screening and analysis. In Utah, the NSA is constructing an enormous edifice that will store and analyze a septillion pages of text (that’s one followed by 24 zeros). Since it has replaced email for many young people and maps social networks, Facebook will be a tempting source of information for the NSA’s data mining operations.

And so we have come full circle, from activists using Facebook to bring down governments to governments potentially using Facebook or its ilk to keep tabs on the population. Just as the desire to express taboo opinion will find outlet through the best available technology, so too does the governmental desire to monitor the population. Facebook, where citizens go public and governments go private, will indeed transform our politics in this century – dramatically by taking down governments and subtly by changing our very consciousness.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.