Even as Egypt’s embattled government reforms itself, including the swearing in of Omar Suleiman as Vice-President today, President Hosni Mubarak continues to block Facebook and Twitter, elevating the social media sites into martyrs of a revolution. It makes me wonder, are such virtual outposts 21st century versions of the Founding Fathers?
Facebook, Twitter and their peers undoubtedly revolutionized the way the world communicates, and have proved integral in precipitating popular unrest in oppressive nations like Tunisia, where Twitter most recently helped take down longtime leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Clearly these trends have certain governments shaking in their proverbial boots, which explains why Mubarak ordered Internet providers across his country to hit the “kill switch” on Facebook and Twitter.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wasted no time in criticizing the virtual crackdown, and urged Mubarak “not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media.”
Mrs. Clinton’s remark wasn’t simply a diplomatic declaration. It was a testimony to how the concept of free speech has come of age, seeping into online territories and injecting new life into old democratic ideals.
The democratic revolution here in the States was inspired in part by the Age of Enlightenment, an era in which common men and women began to see that they had natural rights a government could not and should not trample.
Though the revolution succeeded in expanding freedom here—and inspired similar movements the world over—the “universal” democratic ideals inherent in the colonial rebellion were never fully realized, a fact made clear by colonialism in Africa and, more recently, the continued denial of equal rights for LGBT people.
Still, the revolution taught people everywhere they could be free, and while “moderate” governments such as Egypt’s have given their citizens more freedom than some other Arab states, the process was only half complete, a stopgap to true liberty.
Facebook, Twitter and similar sites are helping bridge that divide, sparking the next stage in a revolution the American Founding Fathers started back in the 18th century.
In that light, the men and women behind social media are more than just entrepreneurs. They are the 21st centuries answer to the Founding Fathers—MySpace, I suppose, would be a “founding grandfather”—by giving new life to three-century-old ideals.
Twitter co-founder Biz Stone this week wrote a blog post called “The Tweets Must Flow,” in which he insisted, “Our goal is to instantly connect people everywhere to what is most meaningful to them. For this to happen, freedom of expression is essential.”
He continued, “From an ethical perspective, almost every country in the world agrees that freedom of expression is a human right. Many countries also agree that freedom of expression carries with it responsibilities and has limits”
The same could be said about freedom of information, an ideal most recently celebrated by Julian Assange and his website, Wikileaks, and its spin-off rival, OpenLeaks, which are both trying to strike a balance between transparency and responsibility. No matter how one feels about such sites, the lesson is clear: governments no longer have a monopoly on the loci of power.
A few weeks back, I used 20th century theorist Hannah Arendt to discuss how the pro-Wikileaks web group Anonymous has helped changed the definition of power. Journalist Jeff Jarvis’ remarks on OpenLeaks dovetail nicely with that idea.
“It used to be that he or she who held secrets held power. Now he or she who creates transparency holds power,” he said. “The inspiration that’s occurring out of all this is very important. What it says to people in power and government and business is: ‘you can’t hide.’”
Twitter, Facebook and other open source sites are breathing new life in the Age of Enlightenment’s ideas. They are the next step in a revolution started in the 18th century, a revolution in which people reclaim power in its various forms to take firm hold of the rights American citizens and others have long enjoyed.
The Age of Enlightenment never truly ended. It just took a different form, gestating for a new era—the era of the Internet.