The Shortcomings of Social Media in Democracy Building


English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in the 19th century that the pen is mightier than the sword. The same could be said for social media in the 21st century. As former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine bin Ali, and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi know so well, dictators are powerless against a grassroots media blitz. 

But now that the Middle East's dictators are being knocked down one by one, the challenge of building up democratic government remains. Unfortunately, the influence of social media on democratic state building will be limited. The grassroots impact of social media, while effective for anti-government protest, does not provide the structure necessary to build democracy.

Social media certainly has a time and a place. On one hand, social media provides the tools for democracy: organization, social space, and communication. Individual citizens can continue to communicate instantly and participate in the public discourse. Politicians can increase publicity of campaigns, and public interest groups can advertise their policy positions. Tweets such as, “ElBaradei rally today at noon,” are the types of messages that can increase political participation through mass mobilization. These messages were successful for organizing anti-government protests during the past six months, and they can continue to be utilized for democracy-building activities as well.

In addition, social media can provide the anonymity necessary to challenge authority. Hypothetical Tweets such as “SCAF shuts down voting early,” or “Judge receives bribe,” are the bits of information that can transcend government censorship, educate the public, generate public outcry, and keep politicians more honest. Because many Arab countries lack a viable, independent media, the role of individual reporting takes on increased influence.

However, increased awareness and public scrutiny can only go so far. Democratic government requires much more than just Tweets and Facebook support groups. As Malcolm Gladwell describes in an essay in The New Yorker, social media is excellent at increasing participation through networks, but it is inadequate for structuring hierarchies, such as a government. The passive relationships of social media do not provide the rules, regulations, and procedures necessary for democratic government.

And this is where the impact of social media ends. Only strong leaders and strong institutions can build democracy. But Arab societies lack serious democratic leadership and institutions. The only hope for Arab democracy is brave, bold, and selfless leaders who can inspire their people, transcend political divisions, and avoid corrupt influences.

It is the courage of people that fuels revolution and democracy. As Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy says of the protestors in Libya, “Facebook allowed you to see [the revolution]. Facebook allowed [the protestors] to connect. But at the end of the day, it's their courage to go out on the street and topple those regimes that must be saluted, before we salute anybody else.”

So while social media may be good at getting large numbers of people to show up at protests and voting booths, it is not sufficient to generate good governance. Building democracy will thus require more direct participation by individual citizens who are willing to take bold and courageous action. For this reason, the transition to democracy promises to be a longer, more difficult process than the revolutions. And a successful outcome is far from guaranteed.

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