Ben Halperin, Week 5

In this chapter, Glaisyer discusses the phenomenon of digital political activism. What I found most informative in this chapter is how he separates the phenomenon into open and closed societies. By doing this, readers can truly see the difference between the open and closed societies and how their governments handle the activism. An important point that is consistent across the board is that the closed and opened governments are both learning to use digital means to counteract or promote activism. Because of this, I tend to agree with Glaisyer, the importance of digital means is not what stemmed the protest, but rather the use of digital media is a product of the times.

There is a marked difference, as Glaisyer writes, between how open and closed societies utilize digital media. In the closed societies, such as Iran, Egypt, or China, the government’s methods of dealing with digital activism is more secretive and meant to counteract or stop activism. For example, in governments have been known to simply shut down the Internet or can more subtly slow it down to the point that nothing could be sent. Also, by using devices that are easily tracked (like cell phones or computers), Glaisyer claims that there are “more opportunities for comprehensive surveillance than had the tools not been used.” Therefore, although news can spread about a protest quickly, it can also be stopped as easily because the government can learn of an event as fellow protesters do. Then, because their messages are tracked, Glaisyer describes how activists could eventually “lose faith in the ability of technology to perform at key moments or to reach the maximum audience and to abandon messaging systems out of fear.” Other ways governments have affected the activists’ efforts are by using the forms of media themselves. For example, in Iran, fake accounts of leading dissidents are made to gain trust and learn information about fellow dissidents. Also, when people return to Iran, especially protesters, they are asked to log into Facebook, which would allow the Iranians to potentially track relationships between protesters. In China, the government pays people to put information in support of the government on the Internet. Although digital media allows for easy, effective and fast mass communication, the governments of closed societies are learning to counteract these efforts with the same vigor that the activists use to protest.

In open societies, a much different tactic is used. Instead of fighting the protest efforts, governments are embracing it. For example, in South America, sites are popping up that monitor government members’ decisions, their donations, and the status of bills and other legislation. Such sites allow for the interested public to track the government officials, so they can see if corruption exists. In other places, like Britain, sites were formed that allowed for forums for discussion, emphasizing the fact the government is to serve the people, with names such as TheyWorkForYou.com or WriteToThem.com. These ideas go a way in promoting transparency and open discussion, while still being government-monitored.

Because governments have found ways, either secretly or publicly, using the same means as activists to promote discussion or protests, I believe the importance of the social media platforms themselves is overrated. Further, Glaisyer brings up the point that, in history, different communication innovations have similarly impacted political discussions. For example, the printing press greatly altered political discussion, and such an invention can be used by all parties involved. My questions to the class are: do you agree with this stance? Is social media playing a larger role than I think? If not, how do you think activists can stay a step ahead of their governments? If so, what else must these governments do to either become more effectively involved in the discussions or to stop them completely?

Ben Halperin

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