The Meedan Blog Archive

TED Global 09: Are social media tools for liberation or repression?

We asked Meedan adviser and TED fellow 2009, Dr Shereen El Feki, to blog TED Global 2009 from Oxford, UK.  Here, in her first post, she describes how internet expert Evgeny Morozov posed challenging questions for the future of participatory media like Meedan.

The theme of this year's TED is "The Substance of Things Not Seen"--more on that as the week unfolds. What is pretty evident, however, is just how well TED is weathering the global economic crisis. I haven't seen the numbers, and I don't have previous experience of TED events, but if the catering this year is anything to go by, TED is riding this storm nicely.

I, myself, am a beneficiary of its success. This year TED awarded 25 Global Fellowships--the chance for bright, young, yet impecunious, sparks to attend the global conference in Oxford(which normally costs a couple of thousand dollars), as well as training in public speaking (TED is, after all, famous for its talks). I was lucky enough to receive a fellowship--an expected boon in these straitened times. The other Global Fellows (there are separate cohorts associated with the other TED events in California and this year, India as well) are a fascinating bunch--more on them as well as the conference progresses.

TED proper kicks off tomorrow, but there have already been a number of interesting presentations. Today, there was a recording of the BBC World Service's discussion programme, Forum, featuring three participants from TED--an astronomer, a cyber-culture specialist and a futurologist--an eclectic mix.

A couple of points of interest to Meedanis:

Evgeny Morozov, the internet expert talked about the dark side of the technology. Westerners tend to assume that open platforms such as Facebook and YouTube will eventually liberate people living under authoritarian regimes. But the reality is that these developments can just as easily be used as tools of repression. Opposition to the recent Iranian election results was one of his examples. While the Iranian people were busy tweeting their views, organising protests on Facebook and getting messages from Western supporters, all this cyber activity helped the government to pinpoint dissidents and their network of contacts. As Morozov summed it up: "In the past, you used to have torture people to get this information; now you can just look at their Facebook site."

Morozov also talked about what he calls "slactivism"--the perverse effect that joining up for hip, yet ineffectual causes on Facebook may give people the illusion and satisfaction of action, thereby pre-empting further "real-life" activity which might be much more effective. And if people are blowing off steam on social networks, will they lose the fire to take it the streets? "If young people have access to this new world of information and entertainment their parents never had, are they really going to risk losing it by overthrowing the government?" Morozov asked.

Timely questions, indeed.