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How Do You Say “Freedom of Speech” in Social Media-ese?   Leave a comment

The Economist’s “Babbage” blog just posted a great introduction to a thoughtful Foreign Affairs feature by Clay Shirky on The Political Power of Social Media.

Time matters. Freedom of speech on the Internet before social media is different from of speech on the internet with social media. Freedom of speech before Wikileaks published quite a few confidential comments by members of diplomacies is different from the same after those comments were published.
Ask Mr. Shirky, who does point to Wikileaks as one of the places where valuable political conversation and coordination happens, likely before the recent highly visible wave of leaks.

Luckily, this coincidence fully supports Mr. Shirky’s very point: to determine how the Internet helps freedom and civil rights, and to help this process, focus on long-term (“environmental”) actions and effects, rather than short-term (“instrumental”) pressure to fight individual censorship acts such as tracking and punishing bloggers, or blocking access to international news.

Much better to support access to conversation than access to information: it allows long term mutual education and sharing, and it enables networked coordination, independent from hierarchies. Freedom of speech here is more about building an environment for civil organization and collaboration than individual tools. Conversation (“debate”) in these environments is what historically has shifted the balance of power between civil society and governments.

I find this notion a very effective simplifying tool to assess the value of media, including social digital media, for building freedom. Do check out the original article for much deeper and richer insight.

Update: for a likely more sobering view, see the Economist’s review of Evgeny Morozov’s book “The Net Delusion“. Based on the review, the book appears to support Mr. Shirky’s recommendation  mostly by highlighting how much the Internet can actually help authoritarian regimes track and crush opposers.

According to the review: <<“The internet”, Mr Morozov argues, “has provided so many cheap and easily available entertainment fixes to those living under authoritarianism that it has become considerably harder to get people to care about politics at all.”>> Perhaps even more importantly for how democratic governments and communities can contribute: <<Authoritarian governments are assumed to be clueless about the internet, but they often understand its political uses far better than their Western counterparts do, Mr Morozov suggests.>>

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