Emily Evans | April 17th 2012 | @Innovation
There is a lot of talk about the power of social media to empower dissidents, particularly since the Arab Spring. It’s really exciting to imagine the ways technology could help drive social progress, and the impact of the internet on oppressive governments is already more interesting than just Twitter being used by protesters to organise themselves. What effect do social media really have on dissidence?
There was an article a few years ago in The Economist about speaking truth to power. It was in the same issue as an obituary for Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and it asked: how many people do today what he did then - threaten brutal authorities by speaking the truth? It points out that it’s not just oppressive regimes that make it difficult for people to proclaim the truth, sometimes democracy is the problem. In a society where people are oppressed, the brave voice of one individual can ring out in the silence. In a democracy where everyone is allowed to express their view, the power of each voice is diluted, and many are just drowned out in the crowd.
You could replace the word democracy with social media here – the effect is the same. Social media are democratic: they allow for a noisy plurality of voices. Following the logic of this article, social media could actually make it harder for the truth to ring out because the voice of truth gets lost in the cacophony. In fact, I don’t look at it quite that way. I think it’s more accurate to say the truth takes on a different quality in the context of social media.
Solzhenitsyn’s version of speaking truth to power involved putting a compelling and authoritative truth out into the world, in the form of his book indicting the Soviet system. It’s very difficult for a single narrative to shine out in a society where the internet allows many other narratives to jostle for attention. His kind of speaking truth to power is not possible in the digital age, because his version relies on there being one, clear, authoritative version of the truth. That doesn’t exist in the world of social media. In the world of social media, mutually-exclusive perspectives co-exist and no one version of the truth gets worshipped. In the world of social media, the truth is plural, subjective and ambiguous.
So what does speaking truth to power look like in a world where the truth has these characteristics? I think it looks like the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement. These protests challenge authority, but they present no fixed, clear truth of their own to replace it. The Arab Spring protests were mostly driven by people’s desire for more freedom, but protesters came from different religious and cultural points of view so there were diverse visions for what should replace the oppressive regimes. The Occupy protests are characterised by a loathing of inequality, but the people involved have a multitude of views about the nature of the problem and the best solution.
These recent protest movements have been inspirationally powerful so it’s certainly not impossible to speak truth to power in the information age. It’s just that now we must deal with a more realistic version of the truth – it’s multiple, indefinite and confused. If we accept that social media change the truth from something clear, fixed and authoritarian to something nebulous, ambiguous and shifting, how will they change the way we challenge the oppressive powers in society? Hopefully they’ll create a generation that doesn’t think in black and white terms, who understand that the truth isn’t simple so solutions to big problems can’t be simple either. When we realise that the world is complex and ambiguous, perhaps we’ll be less likely to try to apply simplistic solutions. When we realise there isn’t just one true perspective on events, perhaps we’ll be more open to debate and compromise.
*In some ways it’s more aesthetically pleasing to imagine a simple, compelling voice of truth ringing out in the confusion. But one of the evils of authoritarian regimes is their unwillingness to permit alternative viewpoints, so it doesn’t seem quite right to challenge one form of authority (a dictator) with another (a version of the truth that claims authority as the “right” one). And anyway, that version of dissidence comes with a big risk, as The Economist points out:
“Ideas should not be suppressed, but nor should they be worshipped. Kennan was right to call (Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s) “Gulag” a powerful indictment of a regime. Remember, though, that in 1848 two well-meaning intellectuals published another powerful indictment of a system, and their “Communist Manifesto” went on to enslave half mankind”.