Social Media: Enemy of the State or Power to the People?

CAIRO, EGYPT - FEBRUARY 03:  An anti-government demonstrator holds a sign during clashes on February 3, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.
CAIRO, EGYPT - FEBRUARY 03: An anti-government demonstrator holds a sign during clashes on February 3, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. Initial protests against the government were organized on internet social media. The Egyptian army positioned tanks between the protesters during a second day of violent skirmishes in and around Tahrir Square in Cairo. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Pierre Omidyar is the founder and chairman of eBay; and publisher and CEO of First Look Media.

At a recent series of events in Beijing hosted by the Berggruen Institute, I was asked to speak about social media and the potential harm and good associated with it.

My view is pretty straightforward -- I believe that social media is a tool of liberation and empowerment. That may seem fairly audacious when a good portion of the Western world is using Facebook and Twitter to post pictures of what they had for dinner or take quizzes on what TV character they may be. But the freedom to communicate openly and honestly is not something to be taken for granted. In countries where traditional media is a tool of control, these new and truly social channels have the power to radically alter our world.

In my eyes, social media is one of the most important global leaps forward in recent human history. It provides for self-expression and promotes mutual understanding. It enables rapid formation of networks and demonstrates our common humanity across cultural differences. It connects people, their ideas and values, like never before.

As for critics of this view, I remind them that social media is in its infancy. Essentially, we're in the days of Alexander Graham Bell talking to his assistant Watson across a rudimentary wire. Once we truly learn how to harness this new technology and these new ways of communicating, we will feel the full impacts of social media.

From mobilizing young voters here in the U.S. to the roots of the Arab Spring in the Middle East, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and others have played not just an important role, but also an instrumental one. As just one example, take the Iranian Revolution 35 years ago. Since that time, the American media has painted a grim and simplistic view of the country. Through the nightly news and other news sources, we came to know it as a theocratic, anti-American country.

Yet in the course of a few months in 2009, as thousands gathered in Tehran to protest the presidential election, something in our worldview changed. For the first time young people in America were connecting with young people in Iran, and realizing they had far more in common than they'd ever thought. Americans became invested in the Iranian outcome because ties had been forged through real time accounts on cell phones and laptops. Consequently, our government began to see popular American support for the uprising there and later in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other countries. People in those countries saw Americans not just standing idly by, but for the first time engaged in their battles and supporting their efforts. Through it all, traditional media struggled to keep up with the powerful exchanges happening in Twitter feeds and blog posts. A truly new and free form of global personal communication was born.

Recently, I saw firsthand the fear that some governments have about truly empowering their citizens through these new technologies. In China, the government of President Xi Jinping has expressed concern about the real power that social media has to spread information. Hundreds of bloggers across the country have been detained and intimidation tactics have ramped up. Microbloggers have been threatened with three years' jail time for posting "false" information that is viewed at least 5,000 times. Can the Chinese government accept social media's inherent offer of liberation or empowerment? Or will government "management" of social media reduce it to a modern version of state-controlled media?

The chilling effect is palpable -- driving some underground and forcing others to seek different avenues to communicate. What the government fails to realize is that people will not stop communicating; they will always find new ways to do so. The power of truth and the reach of social networks can be a threatening combination for those with something to hide.

The important work now is keeping these networks public and open. As some governments see both their power and potential, they are clamping down. In some scenarios, with expanding control and the use of government-employed contributors, social media could become yet another tool of oppression.

I've seen firsthand the power of human connections online forming communities of interest. They are self-monitoring, with their own norms and expectations. From the printing press to the telephone to the Internet, each of these tools has been a way to organize and activate -- to give people the voice they want and deserve. Forward-thinking governments will listen to those voices and empower them. Others will be fearful of the voice of the people and remain on the losing side of history.