The Potential and Limits of Twitter Revolutions

23 june 2012

Can Social Networking Ensure Democratic Development?

Svetlana Babayeva is RIA Novosti Senior Analyst. 

Resume: The mechanisms of well-functioning society to assure transparency, accountability and healthy replacement of those in power can only originate and exist in real life. Otherwise, democracy will remain virtual, as well. A Twitter revolution can engender a Twitter democracy. But little change in the material world.

Social networking is portrayed today as the critical factor for accomplishing an ideal democratic future. However, if the success of democracy depended only on the free circulation of information, just a dozen or so autocracies would remain on the planet. Unfortunately, a free society is not similar to a free flow of information, and other components are required to achieve a stable democracy.


Today, Western officials – especially those willing to foster liberalization throughout the world – embrace the view that the new media and social technologies facilitate interpersonal communication and encourage a broader discourse. Social interactions, accompanied by disputes, tensions and changes of political figures, build up the people’s belief that they are not just pawns. An individual, hence, finds evidence that his public consciousness actually matters and involves himself more actively in the life around him. Self-governance only works when responsible citizens can understand the choices at hand and make informed decisions based on diverse trusted information.

This, in turn, requires a variety of sources to communicate among themselves (what we call horizontal networking), as well as between them and the government (vertical networking) to verify, synthesize and work out the flow of information. With these channels becoming increasingly dysfunctional or even suppressed, and the content itself unreliable, the information reliability is interrupted or distorted. Thus social technologies cause the elites’ responsibility towards society. The authorities’ continued disregard for the irate vox populi may eventually lead to an intense social outburst, as occurred in the Middle East.

Other experts believe that new technologies can facilitate social change, but cannot create it. The formal government approach is, in fact, to promote facebooking, twittering and other person-to-person media more broadly in order that people act on their impulse to change the world around them.

This approach highlights a direct linkage between freedom and information flow, where the latter is deemed as the sole precondition for the former. Virtual freedom entails real freedom.

That’s why Americans embrace the blossoming of social networks and their uncensored existence. This attitude clearly reflects the nation’s innate desire for freedom and better life all over the world. Based on their national background rather than any experience abroad, Americans have a strong conviction that an open conversation, though in a virtual space, will eventually positively affect real life. Free information will help users shape undistorted views; discussions will give rise to social solidarity and readiness to improve the ‘real’ world.

The Arab Spring is frequently referred to as such a case, though these countries are at the beginning of their path and where it will lead them is yet to be seen. At the same time, the tumultuous months of protests in Iran haven’t compelled the regime even to cough, much less to collapse. Information, then, is not the only factor in determining a regime’s dismantling, although this isn’t vigorously debated. What social paradigm may replace an autocracy that has been swept away is debated even less.



Research in autocracy, which until recently primarily focused on the phenomena of Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, the most brutal totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, posed the question: What were the driving forces allowing these regimes to exist so long and successfully and, as in the case of the Nazis, to attain power legally through elections and parliamentary means?

John Hallowell in his Moral Foundation of Democracy concludes that one of the remarkable features of modern dictatorships is that they arise as mass movements and are based on broad public appeal.

In this context, another question should be posed: If a dictatorship or autocracy is based on the distinct will of the majority, what is its key difference from democracy?

The difference is obviously rooted not in the concerns of the majority, but in the treatment of minorities, whether their attitudes are presented in public discourse and taken into consideration by that majority. The second principal difference is whether a political model empowers its citizens not to support indifferently (or better to say, silently) the existing fundamentals, but to have a hand in the process of transforming the society they live in.

Actions, not words distinguish a real democracy from one in name only.

The issues of democracy, its boundaries and challenges have been scrutinized in the U.S. from the constitutional outset, particularly since the debates between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson over the role of populace in the political process. The most educated people of their time, Adams and Jefferson were familiar with the warnings from the age of Thucydides to Rousseau about an eventual devolution of democracy into autocracy.

In grave conditions, such as during economic or military crises, a majority of people lean towards a more authoritarian style of governance, assuming that a heavy-handed policy will alleviate their misfortunes. Even stable democracies can be susceptible to such a menace. Anatol Lieven, a prominent British scholar, disserting on the turbulence in Europe and the U.S., recently warned: “Such a crisis would rightly be seen as the result of a catastrophic failure not only of Western economic policy but of Western democratic governance. This is reflected in different ways in the shambles of Greek and Italian politics and the endless half measures of the European Union. It is also reflected in the creeping paralysis of the U.S. system, created not only by the savage bitterness of relations between the Republicans and Democrats, but also by the inherent and seemingly unremovable flaws in the U.S. Constitution. In both Europe and the United States, the economic decline of large parts of the population is leading to growing extremism in politics. In Europe, it is leading to the rise of rightwing anti-immigrant parties. In the United States, the radicalization of the Republican Party manifested by the Tea Party movement is especially worrying because it shows that the conservative middle class is no longer capable of analyzing or explaining its increasingly desperate economic condition in rational terms.”

Given these predilections, what social groups can keep the nation from pandering to a majority’s will that is not necessarily wise or responsible? How to avoid rash, short-term connivances, in order to preserve greater goals?

In the case of the U.S., the upper strata of society with their judgments over the moral and social foundations have traditionally constituted the whole framework allowing, at the same time, the nation to emerge. To some extent, they followed the principles of Montesquieu that everyone can vote, but not everyone can be elected. There was a constant search for equilibrium between the conventional pillars of society and innovations for the future such as broader political rights, better government accountability and more transparent economic relationships.

Notably, at the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. faced formidable social and political tensions from a growing domestic radicalism and unrest. This was followed by decisions to demolish the powerful trusts, to end the “bossism,” and to have direct elections of senators along with expanded electoral rights.

A prominent Russian researcher, Dr. Vladimir Sogrin, while analyzing the concessions made by the elites, especially during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, wrote that “adoption of the necessary political and social reform meant for them [the elites] a consent to those changes in the social contract with the nation, in which concessions to democracy and to the lower and middle classes simultaneously became a guarantee for the preservation of the foundations of the American order... There was a compromise from which the elites had won more than lost.” These concessions, he adds, were more “economically profitable than confrontation” would have been.

In facing and resolving these kinds of conflicts, a nation at times conserves its social contract and at others modifies it, responding to the challenges society puts forth. The institutions of the government and social networking, thus, are gradually adjusted, involving citizens more broadly and efficiently in their governance and creating new channels for dialogue. With this greater flexibility comes a new capacity to deliberate solutions that make the nation more stable and prosperous without eroding its foundations.

However, when there is neither public consensus on basic values, nor even such values per se – something that often happens in transitional societies or in those societies where the existing moral framework dissipates for some reason – there arises entropy. When a society is morally distracted and economically dissatisfied, a real threat of chaos appears, creating fertile ground for the appearance of long-term authoritarian rule, whose legitimacy will be based on the majority’s will. Erich Fromm wrote in 1954: “It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth… The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make them virtuous, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truth....”

These errors nonetheless help justify and strengthen the regime’s legitimacy, which is based allegedly on mass appeal, but really on the passive support of citizenry who lack the will to take part in governance or even to make their own independent judgments, which is understandable. Once realized, these judgments may be further shaped, promulgated and set forth, thus presenting a threat to the ruling elite. It is much more convenient to keep the populace generally unaware and yet satisfied in its basic needs while ignoring or eradicating the voices of malcontents.

This strategy allows such elites to feel safe and simultaneously reinforces the incentive to stay in power indefinitely. Respectively, with time a regime increasingly focuses on self-preservation and self-replication. However, it actually follows the path to self-destruction, as its nature erodes into a hypocritical pretence. The system’s ability to influence society slopes to zero. Goal-setting increasingly deforms, moving away from the country’s real needs, whereas errors increase, reducing the opportunities to correct them.

American political scientists Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba underscored in The Civic Culture that if one’s belief in one’s political capacities is not revalidated from time to time, it is likely to vanish.

However, despite the most sustained Western delusions, such a system will not dissipate immediately. Living examples prove that it can function for a long time.


Unfortunately, researchers are not prophets. They give at times a brilliant analysis of how a system functions, but rarely why it continues to work so well and for such a long time. They present ample arguments for the regime’s fragility only after it has already collapsed. We did warn, they say, but in reality, they did not; they didn’t know, didn’t expect, didn’t predict. Moreover, it’s more apropos in Western political circles to talk about the fragility and near doom of world autocracies than of their stability and good prospects. They rarely admit that hopelessness can long endure.

Russian liberal economist and former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar in his book Collapse of an Empire points to the short lifespan of autocracies. “Authoritarian regimes that are stable for a period exceeding 75 years (a lifetime of three generations) are very rare in history. In this respect, Rome, from which Europe took its imperial tradition, is an exception.” However, 75 years is an extremely long period in today’s dynamic world that moves in tempo of months, if not days.

Why does an autocracy persist for so long? The reasons may differ; and the first involves what Thucydides defined as mutual fear. In the 4th century BC he wrote: “In an alliance the only safe guarantee is an equality of mutual fear.” However, this means not only the fear of being oppressed for free thought or insubordination, but the fear of being deprived of even those minor accommodations the ordinary people enjoy in this unfair distribution model. Authorities, familiar with these concerns, in turn, often exploit these fears to their own advantage.

This leads us to the second factor in authoritarian longevity, namely the facets of a social contract. Rousseau would be very surprised to find how his theory of an agreement between rulers and populace is interpreted in autocracies, and so would Americans, who think that such an agreement can be based only on democratic procedures. Not necessarily.

This presumably is one of the key differences between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes – the latter does not interfere in the private lives of its citizenry, allowing them to do almost anything they want, except for engaging in political activities. The tacit social contract looks like this: the authorities don’t pry into the private affairs of the populace, and the populace doesn’t pry into the political life of its elites.

Such a model quite successfully existed in Russia for a decade from Putin’s first presidency until almost the end of Medvedev’s term. The first crack, to the authorities dismay, appeared in December, and the consequences of the recent protests are yet to be seen. At present, we can see that the patience among the wealthy social strata has been exhausted and their frustration has spilled out onto the streets. We see that it is becoming unfashionable for Facebook and Twitter users to remain silent, just as it was deemed bad taste to show one’s temper in previous years, when the Internet was a place to practice some type of internalized escapism, where one could casually chat with fellow believers and forget the harsh life realities.

For some time, social networks may again become a kind of safe haven. After three months of protests, public activity is now fading, and although the state of Russian society will not return to its former somnolence, it is still hard to foresee when a new outbreak will occur and what shape it will take. Much will depend on the steps the authorities undertake. Will they interpret the recent public outcry as a sign of society’s genuine demand for change, or will they take it as an attempt of “State Department agents” to tear down the system of power in Russia?

The authorities’ ability to launch a broader public dialogue can largely determine how successful this new presidency will be for Putin. So far, the government has been unwilling to abandon its practice of monopolizing all civic activities. On the eve of Russia’s Independence Day, the Russian parliament passed a new legislation that dramatically increases penalties for administrative violations during public protests. The bill was specially crafted to rein back street activity, and it took just a few days for the lawmakers to pass it. This heavy-handed law is a clear signal to the public that the authorities consider the demonstrations to be violations of public order rather than a legitimate demand for change.

However, according to many experts, such steps by the government may have an effect opposite of calming the situation. The anti-protest law will rather have a backlash and a civic revolt may again break out in autumn.

The third reason for the authoritarian longevity is the lack of opposition inside the country. And this is not only because the opposing voices and figures are eradicated. Sometimes the opposition may be split or it may pursue its own selfish goals. It may also not enjoy broad social support because of the lack of a popular message or even mistrust among its leaders. One should also remember that opposition is not necessarily positive, nor constructive.

The fourth – and perhaps the primary – reason for long-enduring stability is the role of the elites who prefer to follow in lockstep with their leader rather than oppose him. Personal safety, wealth and upper social status emanate from adherence to the rules of the game, and this gives strong incentives to keep the system operating. Given the choice to oppose or to submit, the upper classes will most certainly choose the latter. The power, then, is based less on fear than on benefit.

It is worth noting here that the nature of modern autocracies has changed substantially in the last two decades, particularly after the collapse of the communist bloc and its messianic ideology.

Bulgarian political analyst Ivan Krastev with his first-hand knowledge of autocracies argues in his Paradoxes of the New Authoritarianism: “The new authoritarian regimes’ lack of any real ideology explains their tendency to view themselves as corporations.” Unlike totalitarian models of the past, including the very recent past, “the new authoritarian regimes do not want to transform the world or to impose their system on other countries. So the axis of conflict today is no longer the free world versus the world of authoritarianism.” That is one of the reasons, he continues, why “the democratic world is reluctant to confront them.”

It would be therefore a mistake to assume that the collapse of such a model can occur rapidly. It might drag on for a long time, particularly with sufficient money and/or fear to fuel its mechanisms.



Under what circumstances does this authoritarian hold tend to shake and weaken?

Under one scenario a leader’s increased inability to perform his duties may compel his subordinates to find someone dependable whose leadership would guarantee a continuity of such a regime. Or instead they might find someone to rectify the most outrageous faults of the system, while preserving its fundamentals. In the second scenario, certain groups of the elites, whose loyalty has subsided, may decide that they would gain more from the destruction of the order than from its preservation, and so they undermine it.

Such crossroads may be seen now in North Korea after the death of Kim Jong-il. The country, a rare case in the history of modern autocracies, outlived the death of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the dictatorship, and allowed his son to take over the reins, which now fall into the hands of his son, Kim Jong-un. In fact, the world surrounding this reclusive authoritarian dynasty has changed since the father came to power. It will be clear in the coming years whether the country has the potential and the will to follow this path and accept the third generation dictator. North Korea may opt for the Chinese scenario with its meticulous economic transformation, followed by even more careful and protracted political softening.

The third scenario for the authoritarian collapse involves a growth of social unrest, threatening to turn into long and massive protests that could undermine the regime or at least draw a stream of new supporters to the opposition. In this case, the fear of exclusion from the elite ranks no longer dominates, being replaced by other forms of fear, and these elites may find it more advantageous to join the protesters rather than go on showing their loyalty.

The examples can be found in different periods of history, from the late Roman Empire to the French Revolution, from the late Soviet Union to the recent events in the Middle East. The model lacking the pillars of solid public support is doomed sooner or later.

The last scenario leaves open the question of what political model can come in place of the broken autocracy. Many Western politicians believe that the people’s desire for freedom will secure the arrival of democracy. Meanwhile, over the past two decades, only Eastern European countries have been able to transform their authoritarian models of governance into sustainable democracies. There are indeed other preconditions, such as society’s preparedness for self-governance and the maturity of the public institutions. That’s why less optimistic researchers witnessing the collapse of one-ruler systems often recall Thermidor (from the French Revolutionary calendar; now referring to post-revolutionary retrogressive turnabout) and warn about the unlikely chance of a real democracy blossoming from the wreckage of authoritarianism. Yegor Gaidar explained “the fundamental problem” occurring after the collapse of authoritarian regimes: “There is no guarantee that permanent democratic institutions will follow.” More likely, a new version of authoritarianism will arise, more sophisticated, perhaps even more flexible at first, but eventually no less penetrable or enervating. 

* * *

The world has indeed transformed dramatically over the past 20 to 30 years, and especially in the past decade, as the technological innovations (created, in fact, by Western, liberal economies) have become accessible in dozens of countries for millions of people with the advent of laptops, cell phones, and the Internet. Information reaches its users worldwide in a nanosecond, and people are exponentially more informed about the universe around them than even five or seven years ago.

However, the technological change does not mean that the world, its institutions and particularly its people are bound to change with the same speed. Indeed, the advent of cars, TV sets and jet engines in the previous century greatly changed people’s day-to-day life, but it did not make the world more democratic, or more secure. Likewise, there is good reason to believe that social networks that impact our daily lives today can hardly turn the repressive mechanisms into democratic drivers. Social networks provide an opportunity to share information and opinions. Discussion, either real or virtual, can encourage people to wake up and remember of their human dignity, as happened in Russia last winter when social networks were used to exchange views and indignation, arrange meetings or even call for restraint. Yet it was not Twitter that brought people to the streets in major Russian cities, but an event in real life. Ballot rigging in the parliamentary election and the authorities’ unwillingness to respond became a catalyst for long-growing discontent and eventual anger that spilled out of its virtual bounds.

Similarly, the mechanisms of well-functioning society to assure transparency, accountability and healthy replacement of those in power can only originate and exist in real life. Otherwise, democracy will remain virtual, as well. A Twitter revolution can engender a Twitter democracy. But little change in the material world.

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