The price of freedom in the age of social media platforms

TAIPEI - In less than six months, Taiwan's plaza of freedom on Ketagalan Boulevard has twice seen crowds over 100,000 strong. Rallying for a nuclear-free energy policy and over a soldier who died after being subjected to harsh exercise regimes as part of wrongful disciplinary punishment, protesters came out in force without the mobilization of the old political forces behind most past mass demonstrations. The peaceful and apparently apolitical rallies were praised as examples of Taiwan's mature democracy and as signs of a civil movement awakening.

All movements require tools for organisation, mobilization and agenda promotion. Before the Internet, these tools were expensive and were generally in the hands of the rich, the powerful and the resourceful. Now, thanks to Facebook and microblogging platform like Twitter and Plurk, people can exchange opinions, rally for support and organise literally almost free of expense, except for Internet connection fees and negligible electricity costs. The low financial cost of social media campaigning has been a major contributor to the new trend of civil movements in Taiwan and around the world.

While this new technology is undoubtedly good news for freedom lovers around the world, it is not a godsend. With calculated compromises and careful use, social media can do much greater good than harm in the spread of freedom. But it can also be a Faustian deal in some extreme cases.

Social media websites mostly have transnational appeal but they are fundamentally business entities based in sovereign states and are therefore subjected to financial and national political realities. One might get the sense that Internet and social media services are nationless utilities, but they are in the end profit-seeking companies. Activists who took advantage of social media sites such as Facebook in the US Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, were using a service financially supported or facilitated in part by the very Wall Street they rallied against.