In his literary classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell introduced to the world Big Brother. Big Brother was the enigmatic yet, dictatorial ruler of Orwell’s fictional state of Oceania. He is the master of propaganda and a brilliant communicator. He is a product of the well-run Ministry of Truth. He represented power in a world where everything is monitored and controlled. He sees your actions, he hears your words, he even can control the way you think. He is the oppresive government personified. And Big Brother was indeed, the personification of a government who uses it power to “control” the people, monitor their actions, “manipulate” the truth, and “oppress” civil liberties.
In 2011, the people of Egypt and Tunisia were successful in overthrowing their respective dictators. These two revolutions’ success were largely credited to social media. But as an article in ZDNET aptly puts it, there are two critical masses which were responsible for the successes of the two revolutions. First was the mass of people actually ON the ground, in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. The second were the millions of observers, pundits, and supporters around the world which monitored the situation via social media channels. This second group is what the article called: “a sort of leaderless digital watchdog, an unwavering force that ensured the international eye would not stray from Egypt” And indeed, this global digital watchdog was the one responsible for putting more pressure on the Egyptian dictator, Mubarak and it amplified the sentiment of the few thousands of Egyptians into the social pages of millions around the world.
The article gave a good analogy to the massive global interest on the domestic political situation of one small country which goes: “All too often, political turmoil is only highlighted in the mainstream when it’s well under way rather than in its infancy, and to use an analogy that’s slightly inappropriate in its levity, the level of popular interest outside the region is often akin to that of an audience member who walks into a movie theater halfway through the film. No real emotional connection is made to the subject matter, interest peters out quickly, and the political situation disappears from the mainstream media.”
“But in Egypt, which was in the spotlight from the start because news outlets had already begun covering the situation in Tunisia, the audience outside Egypt was treated to the full story from the revolution’s earliest hours. The Twittering masses were captivated and would not be satisfied until there was some kind of conclusion to the story. This is a story with a beginning, a plot, a cast of characters (witness the rise in prominence of then-detained Google executive Wael Ghonim over the past two weeks), and the global desire to produce a satisfying end.”
I do not know about you but this sounds pretty Big-brothery to me. Only this time, it is the (digital) masses spread across the world in a borderless space who does the monitoring and indirectly dictates what should be the ending of the film. This point-of-view might be too radical for some but the phenoma that recently happened is a toned-down analogy of Big Brother.
What happened was because of social media, the 200 Twittering people in Egypt became more powerful than the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who were actually for Mubarak. Clearly, the cable news media were only covering anti-government sentiments and not highlighting the individuals who might be satisfied with the regime.
What I am afraid of is this powerful global digital watchdog might come to a point of interefering with domestic affairs (which it did for a time being in Egypt); that this event is a way for us to pressure our ideals to others by amplifying the sentiments of a handful of locals. What would stop you and me from imposing democracy to the rest of the world in the guise of supporting the cause of a few local Twitter users?
Clearly, social media is a poweful thing. The CCTV-monitored and government-controlled world we are all afraid off has transformed into a global monitoring movement by the digital mass. And when this digital mass decides on something, even the toughest of dictators must succumb. With the powers of social media must come extreme caution because before we know it, we might become the Big Brother we are fighting against.