Last week, UN Secretary General Ban delivered the keynote address at the Global Colloquium of University Presidents, in which he made the pointed remark:
“Some dictators in our world are more afraid of tweets than they are of opposing armies.”
Being a mere 86 characters, that quote made its way through the Twitterverse in fairly short order, with some glib derision in response.
The Secretary General’s quote in context was really about the power of youth, especially given the dramatic increase in access to information and communications technologies (ICTs) in the global south. Others were quick to point out that the remarks shouldn’t be taken literally.
But I think they should. The flip side of the “youth-empowerment-for-a-better-world” coin is the very real and demonstrated relationship between youth bulges and political violence—to include rioting, terrorism, and armed conflict. We also know that the interconnectedness made possible through ICTs and mediums like Twitter have allowed for truly grassroots and (generally) peaceful movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere to marshal out repressive governments.
Of course, Amnesty and others have used mediums like Twitter to campaign for human rights defense, often with success.
In places where hundreds of thousands or millions of disaffected youth, lacking sufficient opportunity or access to power, are distributed across an entire country, I’d offer that the interconnectedness of that demographic—and by extension, their Tweets—can indeed pose a much larger threat to political regimes than foreign armies.
For years, and as a product of demographic dynamics I won’t get into here, the Middle East’s youth bulge was viewed with trepidation by social scientists and policy makers, with few seeing likely benefits. At best, populations in these countries would be likely to force changes in governance and regimes and at worst, armed opposition and civil war: in either case, bad news for “stability” in the strategically important region.
As I’ve written before, Tweets have no inherent value or even power. It is the interconnectedness made possible through a 140 character medium that has power. The ability of youth to forge connections should cause fear by repressive regimes. Barring a near-extinction event, interconnectedness between people will only increase over time.
Though Twitter will not be around forever, the divergent paths of resistance to disempowerment and oppression will never disappear: peaceful transformations of governments that respect individual rights, or violent ones.
In Tunisia and Egypt, the peaceful uprisings aided by social networking have not ended human rights abuses. In Syria and Bahrain, social networking has not led to peaceful transformation and respect for human rights. But in capitols around the world, repressive regimes fear the power of the disempowered made possible through communication.
They may think they fear the power of the Tweet…but as repressive regimes always have, they actually fear the Tweeter.