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The Dictator’s Dilemma

Sina Odugbemi's picture

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.

In the course of a talk that I gave on media and governance in Europe at the end of a January, I discussed the dictator’s dilemma in order to make two broad points. The first point is that if you want to strengthen media systems around the world today so that they might help citizens hold their governments accountable- there are many semi-permissive and non-permissive environments in the world, places where regimes will block your efforts with brutal bluntness- the only structural force that I trust is the fact that everywhere governments in search of economic growth are embracing the Internet and mobile technology. Whether these governments like it or not, these technologies are transforming their communication environments, their national public spheres in irreversible ways. And this transformation has an impact on the information citizens will have access to, the conversations citizens will be able to have, and the self-organizing that citizens will be able to pull off with greater and greater efficiency.

The second point I made is that many more organizations and businesses are engaged in media development at a deep, structure level than we are aware of. Organizations funding and spreading fiber optic networks, supporting broadband penetration and other forms of internet access, all claim to be doing these things in order to support economic growth. Yet, what they are doing is transforming the political terms of trade in all these contexts. All the main international financial institutions, and global media giants like Microsoft and Google, have initiatives around the world focusing on driving the spread of Internet access and mobile communication technologies.  My point is, whether they are conscious of this or not, they are all profoundly shaping public spheres. (By the way, I am very happy they are all doing this!)

At the meeting where I discussed the dictator’s or authoritarian dilemma, I encountered two main objections. A participant at the conference described views like Shirky’s and mine as overly optimistic, a kind of ‘IPAD Liberalism’ he called it: constitutional democracy spreads with the IPAD. The second objection was that the dictators and authoritarian regimes are fighting back, seeking to control access to the Internet, monitoring its use, passing tough new laws and so on. I think, ultimately, the objections amount to the same point: the mobile wave is not about to suddenly transform autocracies into democracies. And that is a point I freely conceded and freely concede.  Even in Clay Shirky’s influential piece, the title on the cover of Foreign Affairs continued thus: ‘Communications technology will help promote freedom – but it might take a while’.  As he says in the piece: ‘The more promising way to think about social media is as long term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere.’ And that is because:

Authoritarian governments stifle communication among their citizens because they fear, correctly, that a better-coordinated populace would constrain their ability to act without oversight.’

And that is the real point: constraints on the ability of authoritarian regimes to act without oversight will grow with the spread of these technologies. For, what these regimes fear above all is the power of public opinion, especially informed and mobilized public opinion. And that is what the mobile wave will bring to every corner of the earth…in the fullness of time.

You can count on that.

Photo by Peter van der Sluijs via Wikimedia Commons.
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