Last week, everyone was discussing the lessons taught by the Jasmine revolutions, especially that in Egypt. Liberal partisans threatened their opponents with the inevitability of democracy, whereas the henchmen of tyranny intimidated their audience by accusing so-called democracy of being no more than a cover for Chaos, Total Islamism and the West (whichever sounds worst). Igor Sechin was very specific, describing so-called “democracy” as a special operation powered by Google.
Meanwhile, social network users were worried that Facebook might be banned, Google might be left without its G, and Twitter be replaced with telegraph. And this would be logical. The ideologues and strategists of authoritarian regimes across the globe shared the same ideas: in order to avoid discussions on social networks, it is worth even sawing off the branch on which one is sitting.
In a packed bar at midnight on the eve of a non-working day, we were arguing whether Facebook could be banned in Russia. Looking at a young man standing by the bar, smoking a cigar, I said a firm: “No!” It was clear that, for this youth, his cigar, his friends activity feed on Facebook and the opportunity to go to a bar on the evening before a bank holiday are all parts of the same thing, his private life as a consumer, his freedom and lifestyle.
Indeed, the soft, semi-soft and semi-tough authoritarian regimes that, in the early 21st century, replaced the totalitarian regimes and rigid dictatorships of last century are normally based on a specific contract between the population and the ruling elites. The people, at least the most significant and active ones, enjoy full freedom to consume and have a private life, but only on the condition that they do not seek political representation or participation in state affairs and do not touch the established principles of wealth distribution. This helps authoritarian rulers to avoid a lot on violence, using it only against those who breach this tacit agreement.
Social networks were not designed as platforms for political activity. They are so overwhelmingly popular because they help users be more effective consumers, telling them what to read, what to listen to and where to go. Unlike advertising and television, which work like a pick hammer, social networks are much more subtle tools, helping consumers to fine-tune their options, find their specific niches in the ocean of proposals and social standards, and structure micro worlds with a consumer microclimate. They enable users to choose their own lifestyle – individual and social at the same time.
Yet freedom of consumption is not as innocent as it might seem: little by little, the focus shifts from the word “consumption” to the word “freedom”. As a result, political topics are becoming fashionable on Facebook, winning “likes” from girls, though Facebook is really more about vanity and coquetry. So, all of a sudden, politics are becoming an accessory of private life.
And what can the authoritarian government do about it? Breach the contract? Forbid coquettes to describe their breakfast and mommies to post the pictures of their tots? Strip the advanced consumer strata of their private life freedom? Their main pleasure, for which they can put up with the thievery of thieves and the lawlessness of law-enforcement officers? To ban Facebook today and iPhone tomorrow? How will it feel for those for whom the words “my Facebook, my iPhone, my iPod” are like a prayer or an anthem?
Well, perhaps the brutal linguist Igor Sechin could undermine such basic things. But what would be the outcome? It’s like putting a handful of snow behind someone’s collar and expecting them to continue a friendly walk. Speaking the language of politics, this would necessitate a completely different regime, with a completely different level of total coercion and control. And yet, despite control and coercion, the main danger would be that all these people, no longer able to twitter and post, would still cherish the revolutionary idea that: over there, THEY can do all this, and WE here CANNOT, for some reason! And this idea, simple and annoying as a vuvuzela, will eventually sweep away the regimes of any oil and gas thugs for certain.
On the other hand, what to do with authoritarian regimes? Indeed, the strengths and danger of social networks lie not in someone chatting about politics with their friends, but in social networks effectively ridding authoritarian rulers of their monopoly on communication. The main weapon of today’s authoritarian regimes, television, is losing its grip. Of course, its influence and coverage are still greater than those of social networks – but their monopoly is broken, and at some point, as in Tunisia, some event will break through information blockade, flashing through the social networks and becoming a nationwide trend. And the situation reverses overnight, with those on the TV being besieged: everything they say is now treated as intentional and malicious lies. Meanwhile, the monopoly on “real” information is passing to social networks, which are now becoming not just informers and agitators, but also grass-roots organisers. The situation is further aggravated by police officers, army colonels and even government ministers dreaming of escaping somewhere and all turning out to be long-term users of social networks. They use these same networks to understand what is going on.
The advantage of social networks is that they are apolitical, which is why authoritarian regimes find it so difficult to silence them. Today, they are part of the urban lifestyle, part of the everyday youth culture: the incessant voices of moms, the vibrating boredom of office workers and the glamour of fashionable club-goers all merge in this chorus. But there are three factors making social networks particularly dangerous for authoritarian regimes: first, there is no line between the public and the private here. Not just private things can suddenly become public, but also vice versa: public things can suddenly be perceived as being deeply personal. Second, networks overcome and effectively cancel out traditional hierarchies. And finally, network users see freedom as part of their personal home comforts. The trick is that networks cure people of their lack of self-confidence, complexes, inability to get oriented, lack of communication and information and, last but not least, release them from authoritarian rule, as it turns out. In general, networks do not meddle with the old “consumer” contract. Now, it is time for authoritarian regimes to act.