Nitze Scholar Discusses Social Media, Internet Influence in Politics

The internet has radically changed modern life in ways unimagined even a couple of years ago.  Over the last few months, the world has witness these radical changes in the form of revolution and social upheaval.  As a response to the recent uprisings in the Middle East, many have began to explore the role of social medial in the political sphere and how these cultures have use it for the advancement of their political agendas.

One person who has been exploring this topic closely is this year’s Nitze Senior Fellow, Nicholas Thompson.  Michael Taber, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, introduced Thompson, who is also the grandson of the late diplomat and Board of Trustee member Paul H. Nitze, to a crowd of approximately 60 students, staff, and community members.

While the topic and discussion remained serious, Thompson did spend some time joking around. The line “this is the largest group of people besides family reunions that can pronounce my grandfather’s name” received laughter from the audience.

As a senior editor at The New Yorker and a contributing editor at Bloomberg Television, Thompson has been studying the current crisis in the Middle East in great detail. He explained to the audience that an increase in technology would most likely lead to an increase of democracy and freedom.

By using examples like the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, Thompson described how the citizens of these countries used social media like Facebook and Twitter to organize themselves effectively.

The internet is becoming “the great liberalizer,” he said.  It allows people to find others who believe in the same causes. When people discover others who believe the same thing they do, it invokes a higher level of passion.  “You see support of your ideas by other people which then intensifies your own passions” said Thompson. “Once you see you are not alone, it is easier to become embolden by the additional support.”

The internet also has no “gate keeper;” therefore, governments no longer have control over information within any country.  Thompson explains that “By creating anonymous blogs, pages, and websites, the state no longer has a monopoly on information.”

Once information flows freely to the people, the government has a harder time upholding the veneer of the state.

However, Thompson then explored the reason and ways internet may actually harm the causes of revolutionaries.  “It is very easy to create the illusion of activism on the internet” said Thompson, “revolutions are started by those who have strong connections with others that they will be willing to die for.”

Even though a revolutionary group may have millions of followers, there is little tying these people together.  The internet causes people to work less and create weak connections amongst each other: two traits that usually lead to fail revolts.

Thompson also said conversations are  less developed and intelligent.  Since a person can hide behind their computer and anonymous name, they can say anything that pleases them.  This leads to arguments that spiral out of control as the passions of the participants overtake their reason.

The internet is also seen as a less serious forum for interaction.  “People who are on the internet for 10 hours are not looked highly upon,” said Thompson, “especially when they are on LOLcats.”

At the end of the talk, there was no answer about whether the internet is good or bad. Thompson concluded that he did not know. “The internet gives more power to the youth since they understand the new social tools of the day,” said Thompson.

“However, the internet makes us more tribal.” Since people read the articles and blogs that agree with them, they are more likely to only receive half the story or one side of the argument.

The talk was well received by those present.  It was “fascinating, deeply knowledgeable,” according to Julia Bates, who continued by saying that it will make her think about the new role of social media. Sophomore Marty McGowan seconded that comment by saying it was a “very informative talk, relative to the political movement of the day.”

There was also praise for Thompson and his speaking style.  “He was extraordinary well-spoken and delightful to listen to,” said first-year Claire Kortyna.


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