By David Riveros Garcia, ICNC-SI Class of 2016

A few years ago, states were caught off-guard as citizens used social media to organize, inform, and challenge power structures all over the world. In hindsight, the anecdotes of state response to social media usage in countries like Egypt during the Arab Spring sound silly. In retrospective, who would realistically think that cutting Internet access could effectively shut off a movement? But let’s be honest, do we not assume similar things about the seemingly “omnipotence” of social media?

Social media as a tool for mobilization goes almost unquestioned in terms of importance for nonviolent movements. Perhaps so much so that we seldom take the time to think strategically about the possible problems that could arise as a result of its use. Our discussion during the breakout session on Civil Resistance and Social Media made us reflect on the many factors we often skip from consideration when engaging with social media.

Throughout the session we realized that, indeed, we communicate faster, we can coordinate better, and we are able to disrupt harder by using social media tools. But authoritarian governments have learnt how to censor us quicker, apply smarter surveillance, and transmit propaganda more effectively. The story of Arzu Geybullayeva, a journalist from Azerbaijan and one of the session facilitators is a living example of what can go wrong when social media is taken lightly—and how dangerous it can quickly get as a result. Great intentions based on flimsy assumptions can and do backfire.

Authoritarian regimes have evolved and adapted as much as civil society in terms of their mastery of social media. Nevertheless, civil resistance movements have consistently been recognized for their innovation and creativeness in engaging with the establishment. Ultimately, however, a tool is just as good as the person—or in this case, people—who use it. Being aware of social media limitations and challenges is paramount as a first step towards innovation in its use.