Lou Heldman, a social media strategist at WSU and former publisher of The Wichita Eagle and Kansas.com, says it's difficult for a government to limit the reach of social media.
Photo: Joe Kleinsasser
PODCAST: Dissidents use social media to spread unrest
Mar 21, 2011 11:05 AM | Print

This WSU Newsline Podcast is available at http://www.wichita.edu/newslinepodcast. See the transcript below:

You're listening to the podcast edition of the Wichita State University audio newsline. Learn more about WSU — the home of Thinkers, Doers, Movers and Shockers — on the Web at wichita.edu.

It's always been a challenge for governments to suppress political dissidents, but it's even more difficult now in an age of Twitter, Facebook, texting and cell phones. If you doubt the impact of social media on governments, consider recent political uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Iran. Lou Heldman, a social media strategist at Wichita State University and former publisher of The Wichita Eagle and Kansas.com, says it's difficult for a government to limit the reach of social media.

Heldman: "The problem for governments trying to limit communication is that it's a 24-hour, 365-day-a-year job that can never stop. As new communication technologies are coming online, it becomes harder and harder to keep it suppressed."

According to Heldman, the reality is that governments have to deal with the explosion of social media.

Heldman: "Media is becoming more global, social, mobile and visual. Governments are having to deal with the impact of more communication tools in the hands of citizens."

Heldman says today's communication tools are threatening to repressive governments.

Heldman: "Repressive governments are threatened by communication tools in the hands of dissidents. Going back to the Soviet Union, there were always examples of governments trying to shut down communication and dissidents finding their own way to get the message around."

While it's clear that political dissidents are using social media to spread their message, Heldman says, the communication tools aren't causing the political uprisings.

Heldman: "Social media isn't the match that begins these uprisings. They stem from longstanding grievances. But it is an accelerant. It provides a megaphone to those who oppose the government."

Of course, the same social media tools used by political dissidents also can be used by governments against dissidents, according to Heldman. In Iran, police eagerly followed the electronic trails left by activists, which helped them make thousands of arrests in the crackdown that followed.

Heldman: "This is a two-way street. Governments can easily follow the path through social media created by dissidents. In Iran, where there was an uprising last year, partially based on use of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the government was able to trace back the people who sent the messages, and a number of those are now in prison."

Heldman says democracies also face challenges in dealing with social media.

Heldman: "Democracies themselves are having a difficult time dealing with the realities of new technologies. Wikileaks is a perfect example of how rapidly secret documents can spread."

Widney Brown, a senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty International, said the popular networking services, like most technologies, are politically neutral. She said, "There's nothing deterministic about these tools — Gutenberg's press, or fax machines or Facebook. They can be used to promote human rights or to undermine human rights."

Thanks for listening. Until next time, this is Joe Kleinsasser for Wichita State University.

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