Russia has jailed the editor-in-chief of an independent news website over a retweeted joke. The incident marks a new low for free speech under President Vladimir Putin, grappling with nationwide protests after the arrest of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny last month. It is also an eloquent expression of just how unsettling and threatening Twitter, TikTok and the like have become for authoritarian governments.
Smartphones and affordable internet connections are creating public squares that the world's least permissive regimes battle to control on their own terms, but where dissident voices can coordinate, build communities and keep resistance alive. Even China, which has a tighter grip than most thanks to a Great Firewall introduced more than two decades ago, struggles with pockets of online discontent. It's no coincidence that Putin picked on Big Tech in his Davos speech, or that in India, where protesting farmers have attracted messages of solidarity from popstar Rihanna and climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, the government has sought to block the Twitter accounts of activists and other opposition voices, and restricted web access. Myanmar's generals too rushed to temporarily ban Facebook after a coup, before choking off the internet altogether.
The role of social networks and messaging services, particularly those with end-to-end encryption, has become increasingly visible in anti-government protests of the past few years, from Hong Kong and Chile's leaderless demonstrations to student-led movements in Thailand and mass rallies in Belarus — and not just for basic coordination. Social media has also helped marchers learn from each other across borders, as with the Milk Tea Alliance uniting like-minded activists in Asia. Myanmar's protesters share Thailand's Hunger Games salute, and more.
It's spreading the message at home, too. In Russia, opposition leader Navalny circumvented his blackout on state television by using YouTube for his anti-corruption campaign, to great effect. He is still dismissed by officials as a "blogger" but has just the tools to get through to the cohort everyone is fighting over: The apathetic. His video of an ostentatious seaside mansion he linked to Putin has been viewed over 100 million times, even after Kremlin denials. His courtroom addresses, shared widely, have been galvanizing. It's all left the Kremlin on the backfoot.
Moscow has long allowed more freedom online than, say, Beijing. Harassed, opposition voices in the media, especially investigative journalists, have retreated there. But authorities have been tightening their grip on dissent. Trying to quash demonstrations after Navalny's detention on his return from treatment in Germany for the effects of a nerve-agent attack, Moscow ordered social networks to remove videos and other posts, and suggested it could disconnect itself from the global internet, if needed. It's a threat that comes with a hefty economic expense, though the Kremlin seems content to bear it for now. One study put the immediate cost of internet shutdowns in Belarus to muffle post-election protest last year at $336 million for 218 lost hours. The longer-term impact, not least from the brain drain triggered, is far steeper.
Social media has been a mobilizing instrument for a decade, even if its exact role, say in the Arab Spring, is debated. The difference now is it is far more widespread, with most of those now online having arrived in the last decade, and serves a broader range of purposes, from distributing information to crowdfunding medical treatment. More time online is spent on social media than ever before.
Of course, it isn't always — or necessarily — a democratic catalyst. Disinformation can and does spread like wildfire, as it has over WhatsApp in India, where it has incited mob violence, or over Facebook in Myanmar, where it has been used to encourage attacks on the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has used Facebook as a weapon against critics. Conspiracies have spread too over mainstream and other networks in the United States, culminating in the expulsions that followed the Capitol riots last month. That's prompted valid questions over censorship, the power of exposure and the need to police these agoras.
Even when pro-democracy protesters are preaching their cause on Twitter or YouTube, the world's wolf warriors are fighting back, as with Chinese diplomats' active engagement or state-supported media in Russia.
It's true no one protests solely because of social media, nor will it alone topple dictators. Yet it's unquestionable that these networks are becoming a destabilizing force for authoritarian governments. In part, that's because their power is diffuse, feeding scattered grievances and gathering disparate people. That's far more difficult for non-democratic leaders to handle, given a tendency to turn to blunt tools when other means of staying in power — like perceived popularity — begin to fade. For a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Brutality, once broadcast, only radicalizes more.
It speaks to the isolation of authoritarian regimes too, as with Bangkok's royal and military elite, caught off-guard by the social media pull of figures like 42-year-old, selfie-taking opposition figure Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. It's pitting those in control of the old media against those in control of the new. Myanmar will test how far networks can help draw out the discontented — there was no internet at the time of the 1988 coup. Russia will show whether social media can keep protests alive until September's parliamentary elections.
The debate on the link between social media and protest remains lively. One study published by economist Sergei Guriev and others, though, is worth the attention of the world's strongmen. It showed people's confidence in their leaders tended to decline as 3G mobile networks expanded. Digital censorship did blunt the effect, but turning back the internet clock is increasingly challenging. Another conclusion matters more: The fall in approval was stronger where traditional media were censored, and the web was not.
Much of the world's darkest disinformation is spread online, and not enough is done to contain it. It's consolation, at least, that it's making dictators uncomfortable too.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.