The expansion of online social networking has given citizens unprecedented ability to share information, create communities and organize social movements. From a governmental perspective, this could be quite a challenge as social media may be used as a platform to directly challenge the government. It is also a ‘Wild West’ in which misinformation could spread and hatred incited quickly with little means for regulation. Currently, while there are measures to mitigate the challenges posed by social media, they are still in their infancy and likely, very limited in their effectiveness. At the same time, the benefits of social media hardly offset the challenges, and hence it is reasonable to argue that social media poses more of a challenge to governments than not
The widespread reach and unregulated nature of social media is perhaps the biggest reason governments find it a challenge. According to the International Communication Union, there are more than 3 billion Internet users worldwide. Most will have access to social media of some sort—such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn. This means that large segments of the population could be influenced by the use of social media for communication, either directly or indirectly. These platforms are difficult to regulate as there are very few existing laws governing social media, and it is difficult to enforce rulings when the platform’s owners are based in a different country. The sheer volume of information on those platforms also makes it impossible for regulators to keep close watch on everything. The most famous use of social media to challenge governmental authority is perhaps the Arab Spring of 2011, where social media was used to rapidly spread awareness of and coordinate the protests. The uprising led to the overthrow of Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya respectively, and civil war in most others. Notwithstanding the fact that those governments were oppressive and an uprising may perhaps be justified, the fact remains that the use of social media could turn the people against their leaders with unprecedented intensity and speed. Similarly, in China, Facebook was used during the July 2009 Urumqi Riots by the minority Muslims in Xinjiang which led to the deaths of almost 200 people and almost 2,000 injured, in turn leading to the ban of the social media platform nation-wide. However, even on alternate, highly-censored platforms, many users have found sophisticated ways of going around censorship and regulation—the use of Virtual Private Network (VPN) technology allows users to access apps and websites which are officially banned, and the creative use of words and phrases have been able to circumvent regulation. For instance, netizens in China use “May 35th1989” to refer to the date Tiananmen Incident—“July 4th2019”—which itself is a banned phrase as the incident remains taboo. For governments who want to preserve stability and control over its citizens, social media poses a serious challenge as a means in which uprisings could be quickly and widely coordinated and gain a high public profile.
Even when social media use does not lead to mass revolt, it could still pose a challenge as an arena in which dangerous ideas circulate. Terrorist groups such as ISIS regularly upload threatening videos and propaganda messages on social media, leading to ‘self-radicalisation’ among citizens abroad. Foreign governments may also use social media to interfere in the affairs of another nation—a gross violation of the norms of international conduct, where it is generally agreed that countries would not intervene in each other’s domestic affairs. In August 2019, the New York Timesreported that China was using LinkedIn to recruit spies in the US, by posing as businessmen or academics inviting American targets to travel to China for an academic conference or presentation, or a business opportunity. From there, the Chinese agents start building a rapport with their targets and slowly convince them to hand over state secrets. The US is also a victim of Russia’s use of Facebook to interfere in the 2016 Presidential Election that saw the election of Donald Trump—at the time perceived by Russia as their preferred candidate. Exacerbating these problems is the proliferation of “fake news”, which many experts suspect not only influenced the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential Election, but the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK as well. In Singapore, the government passed a new piece of legislation in 2019—the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act—proving that social media poses a serious enough challenge to governments hoping to protect their citizens from malicious content. Additionally, profit-oriented social media companies have a stronger interest in earning profits than adopting responsible behaviour. For instance, users are particularly vulnerable to confirmation bias as online algorithms detect users’ personal opinions based on their online behaviour, and upload relevant posts on their news feed accordingly. Since most people currently receive their daily news from social media platforms, this means that society may become more polarised. Therefore, the unregulated but highly populated ‘Wild West’ of social media poses a huge, and likely difficult to solve, challenge for governments as dangerous information circulate widely and quickly among their citizens.
The challenges posed by social media to governments may be negligible if they provide them with substantial benefits; however, that is unlikely to be the case. Politicians may find social media useful in helping them directly communicate with their voters. This makes leaders closer to the ground and more relatable. An extreme case happened in Turkey in 2016, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to survive a military coup by appealing to his supporters via a live stream on FaceTime. More typically, politicians use social media to upload photos of milestone events, inform followers of upcoming events, and have a direct line of communication with the public. However, their actions are also heavily scrutinised—any misstep on social media, no matter how slight, could cost them politically. Social media now acts as a check and balance against the government—something like a ‘Fifth Estate’ or watchdog exposing governmental wrongdoings. For instance, in 2011, American congressman Anthony Weiner was forced to resign after a sexually suggestive photo he sent to a woman via Twitter was leaked to the public. With the ease in which misinformation can be spread through fabricated or outdated photos, or situations taken out of context, even the most honest and upright government would likely hold some reservations over the positive aspects of social media. Ultimately, most governments would conclude that social media ultimately poses a net challenge, and is largely a necessary evil that has to be managed.
In summary, social media is largely a challenge to government as a widely used by highly unregulated platform in which forces of disruption could spread like wildfire. Citizens may be driven to rise up against their leaders, or have their views distorted by outside propaganda. Such problems are threats to national security, and despite the benefits social media brings to governments in connecting with the people, it is safe to conclude that most governments rightly perceive social media as largely a threat that produces only some positive side effects.