In an influential article in Foreign Affairs entitled ‘The Political Power of Social Media’, published in January 2011, Clay Shirky described the dictator’s dilemma, also called the conservative dilemma, as follows:
The dilemma is created by new media that increase public access to speech or assembly; with the spread of such media, whether photocopiers or Web browsers, a state accustomed to having a monopoly of public speech finds itself called to account for anomalies between its view of events and the public’s. The two responses to the conservative dilemma are censorship and propaganda. But neither of these is as effective as the enforced silence of citizens. The state will censor critics or produce propaganda as it needs to, but both of those actions have higher costs than simply not having any critics to silence or reply to in the first place. But if a government were to shut down Internet access or ban cellphones, it would risk radicalizing otherwise pro-regime citizens or harming the economy.
Many dictatorial or authoritarian regimes are sitting right on the butt-hurting horns of that dilemma right now. What is driving it is, of course, the explosive growth in mobile technology worldwide, what Michael Saylor, in a book of that title, calls The Mobile Wave. Cell phones, smart phones and internet access are driving into more and more corners of the world. For a current run-down of the mind-boggling statistics please see this Pew Research Report: ‘Emerging Nations Embrace Internet, Mobile Technology’. And for current reporting on how the dictator’s dilemma is playing out in some contexts please see ‘How Emerging Markets’ Internet Policies Are Undermining Their Economic Recovery’ from Forbes.