As we witness truly historic events in the Middle East brought about in part by citizens empowered by social networks, we are also seeing disturbing trends that may yet result in social networks becoming a force for evil. 

A client recently pointed out how timely this sentence was from my recent report on social innovation networks:

“Even state and local government services are not immune as disgruntled citizens quickly assemble and make their voices heard, potentially to the point of toppling unpopular leaders.”

Indeed, the title of Tom Watson's (author of Causewired) Valentine’s Day blog post carries a clear message, "if you want to liberate a government, give them the Internet." This quote comes from Wael Ghonim who helped use Facebook to coordinate government opposition in Egypt. What’s clear from Tom’s post, and others like it, is that social networks are transforming the ability of citizens to mobilize around a cause. In the case of repressed populations this can lead to government transformation —— though we have yet to see if the result in Egypt will be greater freedom through a Western-style democracy, or greater repression through an Iranian-style liberation that represses freedoms even further.

Even in the US, where freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution, we can see the potential for the government to use social networks to intimidate and attack its citizens. NPR reported this morning that the federal government appeared in court to defend its request for information about the online habits of people of interest to the state. There’s a fine line between “seeking information” and the repression of free speech. It’s notable that one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, used the new technology of his era to distribute anonymous attacks on his political enemies.

Perhaps more disturbing is the potential for repressive regimes to use our emerging social and corporate networks to aid in the repression of free speech. Sophisticated governments are able to quickly identify opposition elements through social networks and neutralize them. While there is a balance between oppressing free speech and thwarting groups that countenance illegal activities to further their cause, it seems to me that freedom of speech is a freedom to be prized above a false sense of security.

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