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Democracy is online not in the streets

by admin January 19, 2010

On Jan. 12, democracy watchdog group Freedom House released a chilling report about global repression. It says freedom and civil liberties are declining for the fourth year in a row. This is “the longest such stretch of negative data in the history of freedom in the world,” according to the report.
But apparently the world is also relatively well off, “the overall state of freedom in the world remains quite positive by any historical measurement,” the report says. Things could be better, but that’s always the case. At least compared to the levels of freedom during the Cold War, we’re doing alright.

What’s particularly disturbing is the apathy Freedom House found in the Western world. The report cites a survey, published by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, that says for the first time since the Second World War about half of America is embracing isolationism. Half of America; that’s a lot of people and makes this survey hard to believe.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” Charles Dilke, a 19th century English writer, is quoted as saying. Surveys are quagmires by nature and can be misleading. While most of the mathematical calculations are be done by computers, surveys depend on people giving honest answers, and data entry is subject to human error. Compounded with the inherently limited sample size of any national survey we are left with a perfect storm of misrepresentation.

Don’t get me wrong, not all statistics are falsehoods. But outside of laboratory conditions they are highly suspect. Aside from the failures of surveys as a cause to question this report, the activity of social communities on the Internet is another indicator that Freedom House needs to take a closer look before publishing scary statistics.
The Internet has made the world smaller. Chat rooms and email facilitate international communication, but networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are what really bring far off lands right into your living room. Within minutes of the earthquake in Haiti everyone with a smartphone knew it had happened and shortly thereafter celebrities started petitioning for Red Cross donations.
During the post-election troubles in Iran, when news about what was going on was scarce, two New York Times reporters found a Twitter stream that kept followers up-to-date with protest information. The stream belonged to opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi. On June 15, the day the article was published, Moussavi had 7,000 followers on Twitter. Moussavi’s Facebook group was even more impressive, boasting 50,000 members.

Throughout the election users showed their support for the Iranian people as tweets with the tag #IranElection came pouring in in various languages. People also made their profile pictures green (the official colour of the Iranian fight for democracy) in a demonstration of solidarity with Iranians fighting for freedom.
The Guardian reported on a similar phenomenon when New Zealand decided to crack down on illegal downloaders – of music, movies, games, and other copyrighted material – in February 2009. Amendment 92a was introduced; it sought to enable the government to cut off the Internet connection of a “repeat infringer” even if he or she had not been convicted of a crime. In a protest response, a significant number of members of different social networking sites turned their profile pictures black.

While modifying your profile picture or creating a Facebook group isn’t the same as a march down main street, it still makes a point. The way youth protest has not disappeared, it has simply changed.
There are more than 21 million Facebook users between the ages of 35 to 65 according insidefacebook.com. However, that’s nothing compared to the estimated 32.8 million users between the ages 17 to 34. Now these numbers are probably not 100 per cent accurate either, but since the sample pulls data from users’ accounts there is a smaller margin of error.

Facebook’s largest demographic is young people, so it only makes sense that they are the ones protesting. Most readers of this paper are part of this demographic. We grew up alongside the Internet, watching it change and develop from childhood onwards. But now the Internet and us, supposedly, are all grown up. We embrace it as an integral, complementary part of our daily lives.
While we may not be swarming the streets in protest, it’s because we’re too busy storming the web. When the next scandal or disaster hits, look online for the outcry.

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