Well, it depends, as they say. “Both” is of course the only correct answer. If you’re an optimist, you would say that:
- Social media make it easier for people to mobilize and coordinate their activities in the event of anti-authoritarian protests; to publish alerts in case of police attacks etc. They are a useful tool in strengthening resolve and confidence, given the fact that people will only turn up at potentially dangerous protest marches when they feel confident that a very large group will turn up (see here).
- Free speech is of course greatly enhanced by the internet, including the right to information (the passive side of free speech).
- The internet improves the marketplace of ideas; see here.
On the other hand, if you’re a pessimist, you would say that:
- The internet and social media allow governments to monitor dissidents. For example, an authoritarian government can track dissident groups through Facebook profiles and friend networks, through Twitter communications and email etc.
- Those governments can also use the internet to distribute propaganda, while stifling dissenting voices (they have the hardware, the software and the access to providers necessary to censor the internet).
- Terrorist groups also have been successful users of the internet, particularly through video messages and videotaped atrocities.
- There are the obvious privacy concerns. Etc.
The question therefore isn’t “good v. bad” but how to promote the good effects while minimizing the bad ones. In any case, internet euphoria about “twitter revolutions” and such seems very simplistic.