Can social media still be good? Maybe if you live in a dictatorship.
Call it the Cuba exception
Internet traffic to Cuba plummeted to zero several times on Sunday, when citizens in multiple cities protested in the streets against their communist government and the severe economic hardship that has hit the country in recent months.
The likely explanation for the outages is regime censorship. Public protest is very rare under the Cuban police state, but that state may have made a self-sabotaging miscalculation two years ago: After years of strict limits on public internet access that only slowly liberalized, Havana permitted 3G mobile phone service on the island.
Since then, Cubans have been able to access social media as well as encrypted communication applications like Telegram far more easily, and their use of these services has exploded. Sunday's protests were in part the fruit of that change, as demonstrators organized themselves online and used social media to share images of the gatherings, including police brutality against their peers. That publication of the regime's "repressive response" is "a public-relations nightmare for an authoritarian state sensitive about its international reputation," The Washington Post notes, making it impossible for officials to do their usual blame-shifting to the United States.
My take on social media, particularly as it relates to politics, tends to be quite negative. I've argued that Facebook is "unfixable," because it "runs on human emotion, and its single most efficient fuel" is political rage. I've made the case that needlessly publicizing our every political perspective can make us unjustifiably dogmatic and "unreachable by persuasion." I am very wary of allowing my children on social media once they are old enough to navigate it.
But when I think about what life is like under Cuba's communist government — or similarly oppressive states in North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, and elsewhere — I think my perspective on social media might well be different there. If I lived under a regime so authoritarian, so grossly and consistently abusive of its power, I suspect I'd be thrilled to gain access to Twitter or Telegram.
And that has me mulling a hypothesis: Maybe social media is good (or, at least, a net political positive) in places with very bad governance and bad (a net political negative) in places with good governance. Maybe social media is like an effective medicine for a specific illness with bad side effects: Sometimes it's the fix you need — but if you don't have that illness already, it will make you sick.
Turkish sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who has watched "dissidents use digital tools to challenge government after government," has written on the net-positive effect social media can have in repressed societies. Social media can have a "role in breaking down what social scientists call 'pluralistic ignorance' — the belief that one is alone in one's views when in reality everyone has been collectively silenced," she explained at MIT Technology Review. It can foment rebellion if "people who were previously isolated in their dissent [find] and [draw] strength from one another."
But what happens when you have a good (or comparatively good) government? What if you have a reasonably free and functional country? For all its problems — and I assure you I'm aware of them, as it's literally my job to point them out — I'd place the United States in that category. Our government's treatment of its people, though unlawful and/or unethical often enough, is in a wholly different realm from the behavior of brutal regimes like Kim Jong Un's North Korea, still-communist China with its horrific abuses of Muslim minorities, or, yes, Cuba, where the gross national income per capita is about $9,000 per the most recent figures I found and journalists and critics of the state are subjected to political imprisonment as well as "beatings, public shaming, travel restrictions, and termination of employment."
When people like us take our politics to social media, it still tends to foster public anger and conflict. It still encourages division and discontent. But all those effects are much less needful here (and when they are most needful, as with, e.g., our government's facilitation of war crimes in Yemen, it is too commonly the case that hardly anyone pays enough attention to be angry). Is it, perhaps, like taking that harsh medicine for an illness you don't have?
The Tufekci quote above recounts her views from about a decade ago. She goes on in the same essay to argue that, with time, bad governments learn to subvert or even eliminate the net-positive effect social media can have for oppressed people in that initial moment of access Cubans presently enjoy.
States learn to use social media for their own propaganda, to censor more subtly than shutting down the entire national internet (so that some illusion of freedom remains), to spread misinformation and divide would-be dissidents, to engage in mass surveillance and arrest protesters before the protest even begins. Thus did Facebook help "Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte with his election strategy," Tufekci writes, and the social network "was even cited in a [United Nations] report as having contributed to the ethnic-cleansing campaign against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar."
If the hypothesis I'm considering here — that social media can be a net political positive in some worst-case scenarios of governance — is right, that devolution Tufekci describes means it's only right temporarily, whatever the outcome of protests like those in Cuba. If demonstrators succeed in getting the freedom they want, their relationship to social media will become more like ours, conducive to unjustified rancor. If they don't succeed, their still-oppressive government will learn to use social media for its own ends.
Maybe sometimes social media can be medicine, but maybe its sick-making side effects are a matter not of "if" but "when."