Smart Dictators Should Embrace Social Media, Not Turn Them Off

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 29 2011 12:38 PM

Smart Dictators Should Embrace Social Media, Not Turn Them Off

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Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

In another blow to the sinking theory that social media made all the difference for the Arab Spring’s revolutions, a new study suggests that Twitter, Facebook, and their ilk can be bad news for political action.  Navid Hassanpour, a grad student in political science at Yale, argues in “Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest: Evidence from Mubarak’s Natural Experiment” that social media can be distracting. As the New York Times puts it:

[A]ll the Twitter posting, texting and Facebook wall-posting is great for organizing and spreading a message of protest, but it can also spread a message of caution, delay, confusion or, I don’t have time for all this politics, did you see what Lady Gaga is wearing?

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Savvier political leaders take advantage of that last bit, as Evgeny Morozov, a New America Foundation fellow, argued in his recent book The Net Delusion. Russia, for example, has invested heavily in entertainment that Morozov says can keep citizens mollified: “From the government’s perspective, it’s far better to keep young Russians away from politics altogether, having them consume funny videos on Russia’s own version of YouTube, RuTube. … Could it be that the vast online resovoirs of cheap entertainment are dampening the enthusiasm that the Russian youth might have for politics, thus preventing their radicalization?” Hassanpour would suggest yes. He, like Morozov, is intrigued by research that suggests East Germans who had access to West German entertainment during the Cold War felt less anti-Communist sentiment. Bread and circuses, indeed.

Read more on the New York Times.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies.