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The price of freedom in the age of social media platforms
Publication Date : 08-08-2013
In less than six months, Taiwan's plaza of freedom on Ketagalan Boulevard has twice seen crowds over 100,000 strong. Rallying for a nuclear-free energy policy and over a soldier who died after being subjected to harsh exercise regimes as part of wrongful disciplinary punishment, protesters came out in force without the mobilisation of the old political forces behind most past mass demonstrations. The peaceful and apparently apolitical rallies were praised as examples of Taiwan's mature democracy and as signs of a civil movement awakening.
All movements require tools for organisation, mobilisation and agenda promotion. Before the Internet, these tools were expensive and were generally in the hands of the rich, the powerful and the resourceful. Now, thanks to Facebook and microblogging platform like Twitter and Plurk, people can exchange opinions, rally for support and organise literally almost free of expense, except for Internet connection fees and negligible electricity costs. The low financial cost of social media campaigning has been a major contributor to the new trend of civil movements in Taiwan and around the world.
While this new technology is undoubtedly good news for freedom lovers around the world, it is not a godsend. With calculated compromises and careful use, social media can do much greater good than harm in the spread of freedom. But it can also be a Faustian deal in some extreme cases.
Social media websites mostly have transnational appeal but they are fundamentally business entities based in sovereign states and are therefore subjected to financial and national political realities. One might get the sense that Internet and social media services are nationless utilities, but they are in the end profit-seeking companies. Activists who took advantage of social media sites such as Facebook in the US Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, were using a service financially supported or facilitated in part by the very Wall Street they rallied against.
The situation is even more complex for people outside the US, where most major Internet companies were based. The recent US surveillance controversy shows the US government's extensive access to personal information and communication metadata from American telecommunication and Internet firms. A way to look at it is that people outside the US are outsourcing communication and social campaigning machinations to (often US) firms, and are paying for the services not with money but with something much more valuable — their private information.
Of course, traditional media outlets can also be entrenched in special interests. Media companies chase public support and eyeballs but most of them do so to acquire the readership or ratings needed to attract advertisers. Old media can be used for propaganda or to support pigeonholed ideologies, but the bad influence mostly flows from the media to the public. The danger of social media, on the other hand, comes from the data that streams from the users to the companies' digital silos.
Not much is free in this world and something as valuable as freedom is certainly not. The rise of social media turns a new page in the history of democracy and its use should be welcome. But the apparent low expense and neutrality of social media services (different from most traditional media) masks their real cost. People should read the price tag carefully before use.