Dissent and protest have for long found refuge in the streets and alleyways of the Internet. Now, the addresses are more prominent and the voices louder, making authoritarian governments uneasy.
The latest example is the “Facebook movement” in Egypt. Thousands of young Egyptians “hang out” at the popular social networking site. Protests against high food prices, strikes by textile workers and political action in general are some of the uses to which Facebook is being put in Egypt. More so as the Egyptian government does not tolerate much protest from its citizens. For 25 years, the country has been under emergency rule. Under such conditions, the Web offers a refuge that does not exist in the real world.
It’s not protesters alone who have turned Facebook into a tool for action; even oppressive regimes can do that. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao put Facebook to good propaganda use during the recent, horrific earthquake in Sichuan. Lacking the usual outlets that a democracy has to vent anguish, the Chinese regime makes good use of the Internet. Wen’s Facebook page, for example, has a medley of his pictures, video clips of quake scenes from Sichuan and assorted information. What it does is to create a “normal” image of the head of one of the most oppressive governments in the world. Apparently, it has worked: By late May, there were more than 13,000 “supporters” for his page and thousands had posted comments, mostly friendly.
Is this the stuff of the future? Yes, if only for the number of young people who are likely to make use of it. By 2006, China had 263 million children below the age of 15. In the next 10 years, this cohort will move to youth and, given China’s lack of commitment to democracy, the only viable vehicle for protest is the Internet, circumscribed though it may be. Egypt is no different; a majority of its residents are under 30 years of age.
This was not unanticipated. In their book, Empire, published in 2000, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri explained the rise of such networks and political effects of such “virtualities”. In a world dominated by powerful communication technologies and oppressive regimes, people will use what they can lay their hands on.
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