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Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.
Legal Scholar

Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.

Business ethics expert; senior fellow at Harvard’s schools of law and government; former General Counsel for General Electric; former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services.)

Fear and the Internet

Question: Through the effective use of online social media, a small group of political amateurs were able to organize and instigate street demonstrations across Egypt that now threaten to topple the Mubarak regime. How does their success change our notions of what leadership in the Internet age is all about?

Like nature, the Internet is an implacable, impersonal force. In moments of popular revolt, it can be used both to overcome fear and to create it.

In both Egypt and Tunisia, the Web appears to have played an initial role in organizing demonstrations against autocratic regimes.

But, before people can organize they must conquer fear---the fear of being arrested, imprisoned, tortured and killed by an unaccountable government with near absolute power. This is story as old as time.

The Internet can help people shed their fear in at least two ways. It can stoke anger in tens of thousands through its immediacy and its imagery. It can tell stories and show pictures of individuals who have died as a result of government attacks on their human decency and dignity, and it can ridicule symbols, like seaside villas, of governmental rot and corruption. Towering anger may crush paralyzing fear.

The Internet can also help people gain strength in numbers. For those living in Egypt a month ago, venturing out in tens or hundreds to protest the government's violence and corruption would have risked being taken away to an uncertain fate by the Egyptian security forces. But when tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands can be simultaneously connected by the Internet, then they can march together at a specific time and place knowing that they will not be alone---creating the strength of the community to counter the fear of the individual.

Yet, an authoritarian government is not powerless in the face of the Internet. It can, as Egypt did, shut down the Web (although not before the protests had gained great momentum), with "work-arounds" reaching far fewer people. It can wage a constant censorship war (as in China).

Moreover, as an increasing number of commentators have noted, autocrats can also use the Internet to sow disinformation among the people--to grow the weeds of discord among a broad coalition joined in opposition to the regime but divided by many social and economic characteristics (secular vs. Islamist, Muslim vs. Christian, old vs. young, rich vs. poor, professional vs. laborer). In a widely dispersed medium like the Internet, an autocrat's propaganda and Big Lies will not monopolize communication--but they can certainly create confusion, division, rumor and fear just because the Internet is so widely dispersed, without any "authoritative" source of information.

The constant battle over the use of popular media (powerful speakers, the penny press, the mainstream press, radio and television) between the leaders of revolt seeking to mobilize "the people" and the leaders of repression seeking to mislead, pacify or terrorize "the people" has played out in dramatic fashion in the revolutions and social movements of the past two centuries. Propaganda was, of course, taken to hideous heights in the Nazi and Stalinist dictatorships.

Why shouldn't this historic battle continue in the medium of the Internet? Yes, its "democratic" form is a great boon to leaders of revolt, who can avoid the dead hand of state-controlled press and TV. But leaders of repression, beyond "finger-in-the-dyke" censorship, are likely to develop the black arts of Internet propaganda and disinformation.

Both shocking truth and carefully crafted lies may go viral in all directions.

Return to all panelist responses

By Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.

 |  February 8, 2011; 10:20 AM ET
Category:  Pop culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The blessing and curse of social media | Next: Speaking the digital vernacular

Comments

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I agree that the Internet has been used as a tool for the people of a nation to rally their ideas together to overcome fear, and also as an ally to authoritarian governments when they desire to limit the flow of ideas. But while planting disinformation online spreads confusion and division among the online activists, it is the absolute power of the government that should be feared. The exercise of power by autocrats like Mubarak, in the form of shutting down the Internet, has the potential to quench burgeoning movements and silence the oppressed. Online speech catalyzes the collection of ideas and mobilizes the people to act much faster than ever before in history. Shutting down the Internet, however, will also fuel anger. Disinformation can hinder the advance of small-scale movements, but when there is enough anger towards the government, even the government cannot stop the ideas that initially gathered momentum online and can only spillover into real demonstrations by the people.

Posted by: mirandawang19 | February 11, 2011 11:24 AM
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Perhaps the greatest challenge for internet consumers is that there really is no accountability; people can put whatever they want on the internet. For leaders, this can be both problematic and an asset. People can criticize their leaders however and whenever they want. They don't even have to use facts or speak the truth. Manners and decorum can go out the window. However, the fact remains that people won't always know who to trust. It is one thing to read a blog about how awful a leader is; it is quite another thing to let that blog define your actions. Where the internet may have the most success is in inflaming opinions that already exist, in telling people what they want to hear.

Such issues become quite different when applied to social media. The negatives for a leader remain very much the same. Lies said on Facebook have only social repercussions; what would count for libel in the Washington Post is completely permissible for a status update. However, when your friend posts a status update about how bad a leader is, or directs you to a link detailing his crimes, or tweets about a protest event, you take notice because of the personal connection you have with your friend. This is no random blogger with who knows what axe to grind, but a person who you know well enough to understand his motives and to empathize with his views. With the relative safety for the poster still in place, and the element of mistrust taken away for the reader, movements can begin to crystallize in ways that we're only beginning to understand.

Posted by: Henry_Hancock | February 11, 2011 12:11 AM
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Perhaps the greatest challenge for internet consumers is that there really is no accountability; people can put whatever they want on the internet. For leaders, this can be both problematic and an asset. People can criticize their leaders however and whenever they want. They don't even have to use facts or speak the truth. Manners and decorum can go out the window. However, the fact remains that people won't always know who to trust. It is one thing to read a blog about how awful a leader is; it is quite another thing to let that blog define your actions. Where the internet may have the most success is in inflaming opinions that already exist, in telling people what they want to hear.

Such issues become quite different when applied to social media. The negatives for a leader remain very much the same. Lies said on Facebook have only social repercussions; what would count for libel in the Washington Post is completely permissible for a status update. However, when your friend posts a status update about how bad a leader is, or directs you to a link detailing his crimes, or tweets about a protest event, you take notice because of the personal connection you have with your friend. This is no random blogger with who knows what axe to grind, but a person who you know well enough to understand his motives and to empathize with his views. With the relative safety for the poster still in place, and the element of mistrust taken away for the reader, movements can begin to crystallize in ways that we're only beginning to understand.

Posted by: Henry_Hancock | February 11, 2011 12:09 AM
Report Offensive Comment

Perhaps the greatest challenge for internet consumers is that there really is no accountability; people can put whatever they want on the internet. For leaders, this can be both problematic and an asset. People can criticize their leaders however and whenever they want. They don't even have to use facts or speak the truth. Manners and decorum can go out the window. However, the fact remains that people won't always know who to trust. It is one thing to read a blog about how awful a leader is; it is quite another thing to let that blog define your actions. Where the internet may have the most success is in inflaming opinions that already exist, in telling people what they want to hear.

Such issues become quite different when applied to social media. The negatives for a leader remain very much the same. Lies said on Facebook have only social repercussions; what would count for libel in the Washington Post is completely permissible for a status update. However, when your friend posts a status update about how bad a leader is, or directs you to a link detailing his crimes, or tweets about a protest event, you take notice because of the personal connection you have with your friend. This is no random blogger with who knows what axe to grind, but a person who you know well enough to understand his motives and to empathize with his views. With the relative safety for the poster still in place, and the element of mistrust taken away for the reader, movements can begin to crystallize in ways that we're only beginning to understand.

Posted by: Henry_Hancock | February 11, 2011 12:07 AM
Report Offensive Comment

Perhaps the greatest challenge for internet consumers is that there really is no accountability; people can put whatever they want on the internet. For leaders, this can be both problematic and an asset. People can criticize their leaders however and whenever they want. They don't even have to use facts or speak the truth. Manners and decorum can go out the window. However, the fact remains that people won't always know who to trust. It is one thing to read a blog about how awful a leader is; it is quite another thing to let that blog define your actions. Where the internet may have the most success is in inflaming opinions that already exist, in telling people what they want to hear.

Such issues become quite different when applied to social media. The negatives for a leader remain very much the same. Lies said on Facebook have only social repercussions; what would count for libel in the Washington Post is completely permissible for a status update. However, when your friend posts a status update about how bad a leader is, or directs you to a link detailing his crimes, or tweets about a protest event, you take notice because of the personal connection you have with your friend. This is no random blogger with who knows what axe to grind, but a person who you know well enough to understand his motives and to empathize with his views. With the relative safety for the poster still in place, and the element of mistrust taken away for the reader, movements can begin to crystallize in ways that we're only beginning to understand.

Posted by: Henry_Hancock | February 11, 2011 12:06 AM
Report Offensive Comment

Perhaps the greatest challenge for internet consumers is that there really is no accountability; people can put whatever they want on the internet. For leaders, this can be both problematic and an asset. People can criticize their leaders however and whenever they want. They don't even have to use facts or speak the truth. Manners and decorum can go out the window. However, the fact remains that people won't always know who to trust. It is one thing to read a blog about how awful a leader is; it is quite another thing to let that blog define your actions. Where the internet may have the most success is in inflaming opinions that already exist, in telling people what they want to hear.

Such issues become quite different when applied to social media. The negatives for a leader remain very much the same. Lies said on Facebook have only social repercussions; what would count for libel in the Washington Post is completely permissible for a status update. However, when your friend posts a status update about how bad a leader is, or directs you to a link detailing his crimes, or tweets about a protest event, you take notice because of the personal connection you have with your friend. This is no random blogger with who knows what axe to grind, but a person who you know well enough to understand his motives and to empathize with his views. With the relative safety for the poster still in place, and the element of mistrust taken away for the reader, movements can begin to crystallize in ways that we're only beginning to understand.

Posted by: Henry_Hancock | February 11, 2011 12:05 AM
Report Offensive Comment

Perhaps the greatest challenge for internet consumers is that there really is no accountability; people can put whatever they want on the internet. For leaders, this can be both problematic and an asset. People can criticize their leaders however and whenever they want. They don't even have to use facts or speak the truth. Manners and decorum can go out the window. However, the fact remains that people won't always know who to trust. It is one thing to read a blog about how awful a leader is; it is quite another thing to let that blog define your actions. Where the internet may have the most success is in inflaming opinions that already exist, in telling people what they want to hear.

Such issues become quite different when applied to social media. The negatives for a leader remain very much the same. Lies said on Facebook have only social repercussions; what would count for libel in the Washington Post is completely permissible for a status update. However, when your friend posts a status update about how bad a leader is, or directs you to a link detailing his crimes, or tweets about a protest event, you take notice because of the personal connection you have with your friend. This is no random blogger with who knows what axe to grind, but a person who you know well enough to understand his motives and to empathize with his views. With the relative safety for the poster still in place, and the element of mistrust taken away for the reader, movements can begin to crystallize in ways that we're only beginning to understand.

Posted by: Henry_Hancock | February 11, 2011 12:04 AM
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The challenge for a modern-day leader is to overcome the logical fallacies that social media and the internet manufacture. As Mr. Heineman notes, it is possible (and much easier) for virtually anyone to organize gatherings by invoking emotions through vivid imagery, even if the information is misleading or simply untrue. Emotional appeal has the uncanny ability to subvert rational thought, and it presents a formidable challenge. From a leader’s perspective, it is certainly an option to “pull the plug” on the internet; however, in a democratic nation such as the United States, transparency is one of the most important elements to legitimacy. So much of the leader-follower relationship is trust, and social media can help authenticate messages from the leader to combat the widespread misinformation. The key is in utilizing this channel effectively.

An authoritarian government’s ability to sow dissension amongst protesters will materialize just as easily as people have coordinated demonstrations. The question is whether new and effective means of communication can be developed at a faster rate than these governments can monopolize social networking sites and other areas of the internet. This will be an entirely unconventional conflict – one that is not necessarily a battle amongst two forces, but a game of “cat and mouse.” The only question becomes, who is the cat, and who is the mouse?

Posted by: MarkBrundage | February 10, 2011 4:11 PM
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