This post is highlighting content areas for The Future of Facebook project, a six-part video series exploring the impacts of social networking technologies on our lives and business.
Social networks are a tool for activism and civic engagement, as well as a means of control, manipulation, and surveillance.
What is the role Facebook will play in local and global political processes?
As futurist Chris Arkenberg put it, “Facebook really represents a battleground for ideas. It’s becoming an area for propaganda, for influence, for memetics, for advertising, for marketing. It is like any other public square: highly diverse and opinionated, potentially volatile and easily influenced by third parties.”
In an aspirational future scenario, we can imagine Facebook as a place that would encourage political transparency as well as civic engagement.
For political candidates, it would be a channel to communicate one’s platform, discuss issues in a fashion that is more peer-to-peer oriented, and understand public sentiment. For governors and officials, it would present an opportunity to be engaged in rapid feedback loops with one’s constituency by offering instant voting, or even creating referendum mechanisms to augment the government decision-making process. For citizens, we could make microdonations to support campaigns with the ease of a clicking a “like” button and express the actual needs and desires of communities.
As we’re seeing with Iceland’s bold move to crowdsource its new constitution, there is a level of public participation that is now possible via Facebook and other social media channels that transforms what we understand as governance.
At the same time, non-democratic societies are doing what they can to ban and block this potential. Giving a voice to the people is seen as a threat, and political transparency unfavorable. Tensions run high as activists use the same platforms for self-organizing as the secret police use to monitor activities, as has been reported in Egypt, Syria and Libya.
“We may be entering a period where we’re in an arm’s race between repressive governments and Facebook, says David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect. “In a repressive political regime, giving ordinary people this broadcast power is not going to make life easy for the leaders.”
In the most frightening scenario, Facebook becomes a convenient Skinner Box for governments to inject rhetoric, manipulate and influence its populations, as well as learn the alliances of dissenters.
“Having this kind of information of who trusts who can be very dangerous in the wrong hands,” explains social network analyst Valdis Krebs.
What responsibility does Facebook have to protect its users from mortal harm? Will they bend when governments demand deeper access in order to identify influencers and hubs of information? After all, mapping the social graph and controlling a population go hand in hand.
“Wouldn’t Stalin have loved Facebook?” Krebs asks. “I mean, you want to control a country, you want to control a people, you just have to find out who the key people are – and remove them.”
As political implications of a massive social network like Facebook become more obvious, the company will be faced with some tough decisions.
Will they act as a liberation technology, empowering collective action and showing a commitment to transparency, accountability, and exposing corruption and oppression? Will they serve as a tool for civic engagement and direct democracy? Or will they be forced into regulation, serving as yet another tool for governments to monitor and control the thoughts and actions of its people?
Do they have a choice?