Many questions raised by this Evgeny Morozov’s article who goes beyond the usual “the web is making democracy inevitable” tune. Social networks can be used by protesters around the world, but once governments pass the door they become a source of information on dissidents, with potentially dramatic consequences:
But that isn’t what happened in Belarus. After the first flash mob, the authorities began monitoring By_mob, the LiveJournal community where the activities were announced. The police started to show up at the events, often before the flashmobbers did. Not only did they detain participants, but they too took photos. These—along with the protesters’ own online images—were used to identify troublemakers, many of whom were then interrogated by the KGB, threatened with suspension from university, or worse. […] Social media created a digital panopticon that thwarted the revolution: its networks, transmitting public fear, were infiltrated and hopelessly outgunned by the power of the state.
Controlling your privacy on social networks is quite complicated – mostly because it goes against the fundamental needs of advertising, and is therefore not encouraged. Bad privacy management can have consequences:
Social networking, then, has inadvertently made it easier to gather intelligence about activist networks. Even a tiny security flaw in the settings of one Facebook profile can compromise the security of many others. A study by two MIT students, reported in September, showed it is possible to predict a person’s sexual orientation by analysing their Facebook friends; bad news for those in regions where homosexuality carries the threat of beatings and prison.
But everthing’s not lost:
[…] the internet can if used properly give dissidents secure and cheap tools of communication. Russian activists can use hard-to-tap Skype in place of insecure phone lines, for example. Dissidents can encrypt emails, distribute anti-government materials without leaving a paper trail, and use clever tools to bypass internet filters. […] Second, new technology makes bloody crackdowns riskier, as police are surrounded by digital cameras and pictures can quickly be sent to western news agencies. Some governments, like Burma and North Korea, don’t care about looking brutal, but many others do. Third, technology reduces the marginal cost of protest, helping to turn “fence-sitters” into protesters at critical moments. An apolitical Iranian student, for instance, might find that all her Facebook friends are protesting and decide to take part.
Conclusion: social medias are, like all innovations, a double edged sword:
Yet while the internet may take the power away from an authoritarian (or any other) state or institution, that power is not necessarily transferred to pro-democracy groups. Instead it often flows to groups who, if anything, are nastier than the regime. Social media’s greatest assets—anonymity, “virality,” interconnectedness—are also its main weaknesses.