These are precarious times for governments around the world: Social media has led to an explosion of information sharing.  Text, pictures, and videos flow freely over the information highway; trying to contain it has proven impossible.  Technology will only get faster and internet access will be ubiquitous: within this year, many of us will have internet access faster than cable modems on our phones.

Governments are scared, even in the US. They struggle to understand social media and the movement of technology, leading them to react by blocking sites like Facebook and Twitter. They should embrace technology rather than fear it. Attempts to control information will drive even more extreme activities and cause governments to miss out on valuable opportunities. Here are three reasons why.

1. Blocking access leads to more extreme networks

According to Dr. Jennifer Brinkerhoff of George Washington University, who has spoken at several security conferences regarding digital diaspora networks, extremist networks tend to become more liberal as their membership grows.  The idea is that a network might start with an extreme point of view, but as they grow, that point of view becomes more centric.  Extreme points of view are replaced with more centric, mainstream views.  It’s a regression towards the mean, a well understood concept in statistics, being applied to social networks.

The bottom line? Governments should allow networks to expand to dilute extremism.  It’s a no brainer: block a social network and what you have left is a groups of angry tech savvy young people that can circumvent the firewall anyways.  Now they are just especially angry and bent on revenge.

2. Social Media does not cause revolutions

Does "Liking" count as activism?

Prominent writer and New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece about how social media can’t provide what social changed has required.  He recognized the revolutionary impact of social media on information sharing but argues that the key elements for change are groups on the ground that have already existed before, and despite, social media.  He cited several social revolutions that occurred long before social media, like the civil rights movement.

The bottom line? Though social media enhances the transfer of information and speeds up popular support, it is not the underlying cause of revolutions.  Governments should be less concerned about social media and more about resolving the reasons why its people are unsatisfied.

3. There’s a major opportunity cost for blocking out the world

The globe has gotten a lot smaller with the proliferation of the internet.  We can befriend and have conversation with people from across the world thanks to social networks (think pen pals on steroids).  With technology pushing globalization, countries need to be participative rather than reclusive.  China’s “Great Firewall” will ultimately prove to be a mistake as it blocks Chinese citizens from exposure to innovations and opportunities from around the world.

Vietnam has the opportunity to differentiate itself from China and communicate to the rest of the world it is willing to be a participative and open player.  Open access to social networks will also allow Vietnam to take advantage of an incredibly valuable expatriate network and reverse the “brain drain” from the country.  The 3 million Vietnamese living overseas generate around $80 billion in GDP, equivalent to the entire country of Vietnam.

The bottom line? In a globalized economy, it is foolish to shut your people from the rest of the world.  The overseas community is critical to the development of Vietnam.  It’s simply good for business.

 

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6 Comments

    1. Bao, the first two points establish the social networks are less of threat than governments believe (lowering cost) and the last establishes a strong strategic benefit (increasing reward).  Together, they make the point that social networks have little cost and high value.

      The data is from Census 2010.

  1. Right on, James. I’d love to get that 2010 census data too–unable to pull it on the census.gov site. In any event–agree w/ your points 100%. In fact, I would argue that social media (and free media in general) is not only a challenge to Vietnam’s autocratic political system, but to Vietnam’s rigid, paternalistic culture as well. It will give young people the chance to speak their minds—something that Vietnamese elders don’t always appreciate, whether in Hanoi or Orange County. Also, on your point that FB does not create revolutions–George Friedman of Stratfor.com wrote the same. Hitting ‘like’ on your FB doesn’t do anything—it is having the moral courage to put your a** on the line and stand up for what is right—that is what causes a revolution.

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