How Social Media Can Promote, or Hinder, Individual Liberty

In a new essay for the Templeton Foundation’s “big questions online” site, I explore how social media can promote individual liberty:

When Iranian dissidents took to the streets to protest irregularities in the 2009 election, some observers dubbed it the “Twitter revolution” for the role the social networking site played in coordinating the demonstrations. The State Department asked Twitter to postpone scheduled maintenance to ensure that pro-democracy activists in Iran would have uninterrupted access. Thousands of Western supporters turned their Twitter icons green in solidarity with the “green revolution.”

These protests failed to bring down the Iranian regime. And the next year, Malcolm Gladwell took to the pages of the New Yorker to pour cold water on the idea that social media had the potential to transform societies. He pointed out that for all their apparent decentralization and spontaneity, the most effective social movements tend to operate according to a carefully designed plan and to be put into action by intensely committed volunteers. The sit-ins and bus boycotts of the civil rights movement, for example, were carefully orchestrated from NAACP headquarters in New York. “The civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion,” Gladwell wrote.

But as I explain, Gladwell is over-stating his case. While social media can’t topple oppressive regimes all by themselves, it can be a powerful tool for motivating and coordinating social protests.

Unfortunately, social media isn’t always a force for good. In China, the government has figured out how to tightly control social media sites and make them part of the state’s censorship apparatus. Read more at Big Questions Online.