Social Media as Government Watchdog

Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal: “Two new data points for the debate on whether greater access to the Internet leads to more freedom and fewer authoritarian regimes:

According to reports last week, Facebook plans to buy a company that makes solar-powered drones that can hover for years at high altitudes without refueling, which it would use to bring the Internet to parts of the world not yet on the grid. In contrast to this futuristic vision, Russia evoked land grabs of the analog Soviet era by invading Crimea after Ukrainians forced out Vladimir Putin‘s ally as president.
Internet idealists can point to another triumph in helping bring down Ukraine’s authoritarian government. Ukrainian citizens ignored intimidation including officious text messages: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” Protesters made the most of social media to plan demonstrations and avoid attacks by security forces.
But Mr. Putin quickly delivered the message that social media only goes so far against a fully committed authoritarian. His claim that he had to invade to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea was especially brazen because there had been no loud outcry, on social media or otherwise, among Russian speakers in the region.
A new book reports the state of play on the Internet as a force for freedom. For a decade, Emily Parker, a former Wall Street Journal editorial-page writer and State Department staffer, has researched the role of the Internet in China, Cuba and Russia. The title of her book, “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are,” comes from a blogger in China who explained to Ms. Parker how the Internet helps people discover they are not alone in their views and aspirations for liberty.
Officials in these countries work hard to keep critics isolated and in fear. In Russia, Ms. Parker notes, there is also apathy because the Putin regime seems so entrenched. “Revolutions need a spark, often in the form of a political or economic crisis,” she observes. “Social media alone will not light that spark. What the Internet does create is a new kind of citizen: networked, unafraid, and ready for action.”
Asked about lessons from the invasion of Crimea, Ms. Parker noted that the Internet “chips away at Russia’s control over information.” She added: “Even as Russian state media tries to shape the narrative about Ukraine, ordinary Russians can go online to seek the truth.”
But this same shared awareness may also be accelerating a decline in U.S. influence. In the digital era, U.S. failure to make good on its promises reduces the stature of Washington faster than similar inaction did in the past.
Consider the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the first significant rebellion against Soviet control. The U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, said: “To all those suffering under communist slavery, let us say you can count on us.” Yet no help came as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, tens of thousands were killed, and the leader who tried to secede from the Warsaw Pact, Imre Nagy, was executed.
There were no Facebook posts or YouTube videos instantly showing the result of U.S. fecklessness. In the digital era, scenes of Russian occupation of Crimea are available 24/7. People can watch Mr. Putin’s brazen press conferences and see for themselves what he gets away with.
The U.S. stood by as Syrian civilians were massacred and gassed. There was instant global awareness when President Obama last year backed down from enforcing his “red line” when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons. American inaction in Syria sent a green light for Mr. Putin and others around the world to act with impunity.
Just in recent weeks, Iran tried to ship Syrian rockets to Gaza to attack Israel; Moscow announced it would use bases in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua for its navy and bombers; and China budgeted a double-digit increase in military spending as President Obama cut back the U.S. military.
All institutions are more at risk in this era of instant communication and awareness. Reputations get lost quickly, whether it’s a misstep by a company, a gaffe by a politician, or a lack of resolve by an American president.
Over time, the power of the Internet to bring people together will help undermine authoritarian governments. But as Mr. Putin reminds us, in the short term a peaceful world depends more on a U.S. resolute in using its power and influence to deter aggression.”