It is almost universally agreed upon that individuals and groups have a right to their freedom of expression and freedom of the press. These freedoms are essential to a strong civil society and are critical in any democracy. Social media is very obviously intertwined with these freedoms, as it provides an outlet for individuals to connect, communicate, and express their voices and opinions.
There are many positive benefits to social media. Here at Tulane, we get emails of every crime reported in the nearby area. In the greater New Orleans area, we have gotten text messages with “water boil advisories” when the water is unsafe to drink. These benefits have been seen on a global scale as well. The Zapatista group in Mexico was able to spread their message through the use of the Internet, and gained a lot of international attention, thereby holding the Mexican government accountable to their demands. Social media was critical in the organization and mobilization of individuals in the Arab Spring, and helped shape democratic ideas globally.
However, social media is not always used for the greater good, as exemplified recently in Myanmar. Until recently, Myanmar was under military rule, where there was tight censorship and limited access to telecommunication technologies. This ensured that the vast majority of citizens in Myanmar remained “in the dark” about what was truly happening in their country. The International cites a publication of the UN Human Development Index with figures regarding ICTs in Myanmar: in 2010, one of every 100 citizens owned a computer, less than 300 owned mobile phones, and only 13% had electricity. It currently ranks as the second to last country in the world for Internet connectivity.
However, with the new leadership of President Thein Sein, this is all beginning to change. The President hopes to implement reforms to allow for more freedom of expression. The government plans to provide mobile access to the majority of the population by 2015. Moreover, last month, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt visited Myanmar to launch the new page www.google.com.mm. However, since that original visit, Schmidt has had pessimistic predictions for the future of the Internet in Myanmar.
He recently posted on his Google+ page the following quote.
As the police state has withdrawn, always present religious tensions have erupted with burning of homes and some murders. With popular support, the government then responded with the Army to restore order. In the same way, we are entering a dangerous period for the Internet in Myanmar. What happens when a religious group falsely claims damages from others.. will the Army be sent in too? The country cannot even agree on a press freedoms law for the newspapers, and freedom of political speech is a one year old concept.
The group that has largely been oppressed and had severe violence inflicted on them recently are the Rohingya people, an Indo-Aryan ethnic group. Many in the country have used social media to organize against this group. The International, writes that “the newfound access to social media has been blamed for the swift increase in violence”. The Myanmar case demonstrates an example of where social media has caused extraordinary violence and oppression.
Of course, there is a flip side to this — the group Anonymous has used Twitter to expose what they call a genocide of the Rohingya people. The hashtag #RohingyaNOW was hit a peak of 24,000 tweets per hour. The Daily Beast posted an article on this, for further reading.