Many commentators mistakenly interpreted the Arab Spring in 2011 as a harbinger of democratic movements everywhere, and now the pendulum of punditry seems to have swung hard in the opposite direction, says Sheldon Himmelfarb of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Contrary to this doom-saying, however, opportunities for citizen participation in political processes have never been greater, thanks to the ingenuity of a new generation of activists and technologists, he writes for Foreign Policy:
Three recent studies of “peacetech” tools have documented their use and promise, as well as their limitations. The first, “Citizen Participation and Technology,” released in May by the nonpartisan National Democratic Institute (NDI), reviewed nine international programs with which NDI collaborated in countries such as Uganda, Mexico, and Egypt. The programs attempted to leverage technology to improve citizens’ participation in politics.It found, broadly, that technology is expanding this participation and is changing the relationship citizens have with organizations and public institutions, even in places where these effects might not be obvious.
“According to New York University professor Clay Shirky, social media is a tool that strengthens the public sphere — and a robust and active public sphere is necessary to increase political freedoms around the world and to create political change,” Himmelfarbd notes:
Larry Diamond, a founder of the liberation-technology program at Stanford University, echoes this sentiment and points toward a highly controlled society — China, where citizens have used microblogging site Weibo to identify corrupt officials — to best understand this phenomenon…For experts like Diamond and Shirky, the Internet’s decentralized architecture, the spread of cell phones, and the sheer popularity of social-network applications have combined to produce a revolution in social activism. Others, however, have taken issue with this. Writer Malcolm Gladwell, for example, has argued in the New Yorker that a crucial distinction exists between traditional activism and its online variant. Social media, he says, is effective at building loosely affiliated networks, which are the opposite in structure and character of effective social-change movements of the past.
“It is too early to tell the outcomes of today’s violent conflicts that are spawning the chorus of calls for more inclusive governments,” he argues. “But this is certain: The public sphere is growing. And in a world where 3 billion people are expected to enter the global middle class over the next two decades and have greater access to technology in their daily lives, the power of technology-enabled citizen networks to pressure governments and large institutions to act is only going to grow — putting new potential to prevent wars and solve humanity’s most pressing problems within reach, if not in our grasp.”