John Palfrey argues that social media sites have played a huge role in the prodemocracy surge—but states have also been very good at using technology to suppress their people.
First in Tunisia, then in Egypt, now in Libya: technologically savvy protestors are making extraordinary use of the Internet and digital media to support mass movements against autocratic governments. The Twitter hashtag #jan25 and its corresponding date in history will mark a change in how those seeking to cling to power will look at networked digital technologies for the coming generation.
But before we get too excited about the future of global democracy, we should put the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa in their proper context. One context is regional. The other is historical.
The regional context is crucial. The way that activists, and relatively passive citizens, for that matter, use digital technologies in civic life is very different in different parts of the world.
In the United States, the way the Internet has driven sociopolitical change has been limited. Technology visionaries like Chris Hughes, the Facebook cofounder and a leader of then-Senator Obama's presidential campaign organizing efforts, use these tools to improve classic offline campaigning tactics, like door-knocking and get-out-the-vote. Since the election, Hughes has turned his efforts to organizing groups to give more generously to philanthropy through a site called Jumo. This kind of sophisticated usage of the Internet in well-established democracies is effective, but not (yet) transformative. Perhaps our discourse is richer for the contributions of bloggers and others writing in what Yochai Benkler calls the "networked public sphere." But the kind of change that we see in long-standing (I hesitate to say "advanced") democracies is, so far, marginal.