The growing influence of technology on politics
The recent disturbances in Iran, where tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets protesting economic stagnation and the overthrow of the theocratic regime, once again highlight the importance of technology in coordinating political movements, as happened during the so-called Arab Spring between 2010 and 2012.
Once it became clear that protesters were mainly using Telegram, which has more than forty million users in a country with eighty million inhabitants, to coordinate their activities, the government used Twitter to call on Pavel Durov, founder of the company, to close a group on the instant messaging app that was calling for violence using Molotov cocktails towards the police, a request the company accepted after verifying this, citing its policy of not promoting violence. But after opponents of the regime set up other groups, the government has responded by temporarily restricting access to the whole internet, and also blocking Instagram and Telegram, which have been used by Iranians to share news about the protests.
The interface between politics and social networks is becoming increasingly sophisticated. In an increasingly connected world, total shutdowns of networks, as happened recently in Congo, are not only unpopular, but difficult to maintain for long, while at the same time, applications are becoming increasingly aware of their influential role and agreeing to government requests, even in the case of tools such as Telegram with strong encryption systems that prevent government monitoring.
In the political arena, social networks already play an important role, requiring companies to make complex decisions. In the same way that Telegram decided, after inspection and verification, to close a group allegedly coordinating violence, Facebook last week decided to close the page of the pro-Russian leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has four million followers, supposedly after the US Treasury Department included him on a list of people whose overseas assets it was embargoing. The decision is striking, given that other leaders, such as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and several members of his government are on the same list, but remain active on Facebook
In 2009, after the so-called “green movement” in Iran, the US government asked Twitter, which was then being used by protesters, to postpone a temporary maintenance shutdown so as not to interfere with its use by the insurgents. Since then, new social networks have emerged and the new interface between governments and companies seems to be becoming significantly more complex, with myriad interests at stake. As social networks become increasingly influential, they become important players in the political arena.
I predict this will be one of the most discussed topics in 2018: awareness by the social network companies of their mounting influence. Once a political protest reaches a certain momentum, it probably no longer needs the social networks, as may be happening in Iran. But beyond our support for or opposition to a government, the idea that its future may depend to a large degree on the decisions of social networks and their owners’ interests or those of their governments… is disquieting to say the least.
(En español, aquí)