Social media not to be ignored

From the social-media powered revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya to unfulfillable struggles in some Middle East countries, all of which have been coined as “the Arab Spring”, there clearly is a need to consider the power of social media tools they give to people. So far, some governments have freaked out and looked for ways to curb the growth of online access or “nip it in the bud”, so that people won’t think of using social media to reinforce change.

Ain’t I suggesting that they appear scared of social media or “people” now? Likewise, the royal government of Cambodia publicly warned its people against “Cambodian Spring” this year. Some people reckon that it is just a matter of time before change takes place. As we all know, its getting more difficult for any government to do anything arbitrarily. Or their evil action will be tweeted in a frenzy of rage – by people on social media.

Not just Cambodia alone has reacted to this big thing that exploded in the middle east in late 2010. Some countries like China, Vietnam and even Russia have responded unfavorably toward social media after they saw what happened in that part of the world.

In my humble opinion, any government who truly loves freedom (of speech), wouldn’t need to impose more restrictions on people’s lives.

At International Youth Forum Seliger 2012 I attended in August, 2012, the workshop on “social media” I conducted touched on some debates that go around social media since its birth. Around 20 participants from Armenia, Russia, Slovenia, Czech Republic, China, India, Nepal and Cambodia participated in the debates.

What came up as a surprise during the workshop was the discussion over the Internet restrictions in China and a few countries. Furthermore, most of the participants questioned whether each government has a right (albeit legal or moral) to ban online websites or shut down the Internet. In China, “Great Fire Wall” was actually created by a Chinese expert who has hired many “young” people to filter information deemed critical to the government. This is what I was told by a Chinese graduate student I met in Germany.

Countries like Vietnam and Cambodia have increasingly been charmed by the draconian control which the very big country has imposed on its people, justifying what they do with the excuse of “national security”. As a consequence, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube in China have been banned. Instead, China has seen social media clones in replacement of Facebook and Twitter. In Vietnam, Facebook has been banned while Cambodia has for years drafted its first cyber law draft, scaring bloggers and online activists. The United Nations has so far supported the rights to access to online by condemning the shut down of Internet in any country if it happens.

“Access of Internet is a human rights.”

 Whether we like to believe it or not, when people allow any government to impose more control over their lives, these governments take more than they are supposed to. Like in Cambodia, the purpose to stop pornography sites has been revealed as the strategic plan to silence critical websites and blogs. As a result, (a blog which often bashes the Cambodian government) has been blocked by some ISP providers which were silently ordered by the government to do the blocking.

Check out the short video done by Krishna Heng about the Social Media workshop

So one of the questions raised during the workshop points out if a government, besides the legal rights, can acquire the moral rights to shut down the Internet or some websites when it believes that its for the national security? In Iran, morality has been made into the law. The religious leaders have power over the law-making process and therefore criminalizing “immorality”. In Cambodia, adultery law which was passed in 2008, imprisons and fines those who have marital affairs. Since when has the government had the right to control whom we love and sleep with? Do you want other people or the government to tell you what to do with your life? The answer can only “yes or no” not “yes or no, but.”

When the government is entitled to all legal and moral rights to punish people, doubtlessly one’s country can fall into chaos. Legal rights alone is enough to enable any government to punish anybody. Without further elaboration about legal or moral rights, a few participants from Armenia, however, think differently and want the government to step in when they are needed. But the question remains, what can justify the government’s power to shut down the Internet or impose restrictions on it, for example, in China?

I opine that whatever works for one country might not work for others, considering the different experiences that each country has gone through. Armenian citizens themselves want to shut down social media sites. Why? The Armenian participants told us during the workshop that that seeing examples in Egypt and Syria, panic from social can cause problems in the countries.

“Armenians are tired of going into war. We need peace.”

It is not the right moment to say that it is right or wrong. Two important elements that the judgment should be based on if one has to decide, include political and economic sides of it. What political gains does any government make by imposing restrictions on the Internet? What economic gains? It drives home the point that nonetheless social media give a special and unique power to people who can use it for certain purposes, as participants agreed, such as communication with family and friends, dissemination of knowledge and information from organizations and companies, (personal or professional) branding and undeniably “change” that won’t happen overnight.

Sean Michael Thomas, an international journalist and anchor at Russia Today (RT) television, who gives lectures at Seliger2012 this year, also echoes the same understanding toward the importance of social media and stresses that it has been integrated into people’s lives. Hence, it should not be ignored by individuals.