Tony Blair: Social media 'instrument to protest'

As social media increasingly give people voices, government must communicate differently and not "put a lid on them", says former British prime minister.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor on

SAN FRANCISCO--Social media has given rise to freedom of speech and expression, and is instrumental in inciting revolutions and protests, as the world moves toward democratic government systems. To stay relevant,  political leaders must communicate with their people differently and not "put a lid on them", urges Tony Blair, former prime minister of Great Britain.

During his closing keynote at RSA Conference 2012 here Friday, Blair said the role of social media in orchestrating protests and revolutions has been "fundamental", creating situations where long-time serving governments neither understand nor have the capacity to cope with. And while it has brought out the voice of the people, social media has not been of aid to governments and politicians, he pointed out.

Blair cited the revolution in the Middle East, particularly the Arab spring which had begun through social media. Governments there had ruled "for a long time" and ruled repressively, giving rise to a battle between modern-minded people who wanted open economies and societies, and groups who had extreme views of society and backward view of how the economy should function, he noted.

He added that in a democracy, the pre-dominant political system is "not just a system about voting" but also an attitude of mind, and people will continue to use social media for freedom of expression and views.

He also noted that as social media was "a great liberating thing" for the people, and any government that tried to "keep a lid on its people, will find the lid blown off by social media".

Political leaders must engage in a different dialogue with their people and cannot afford to simply say "that's the way it is" because people will challenge it, Blair advised.

"Social media can create waves of intense opionions and if you're not careful, rationalism gets swept away. This liberating tool is one that needs to be handled with care," he said.

Call for citizen privacy, government confidentiality
Commenting on the Internet giving rise to laws around rules of evidence and laws around privacy giving advantage to hackers, Blair stated that people need to be able to communicate confidentially. Yet, there are criminals who threaten this need, creating damage and risk, and giving rise to cyberattacks, theft of commercial intellectual property and breach of privacy.

"That's got to be clear rules drawn up around this to allow common sense of situation," he said. "You must have the ability to prevent crime and protect those who use this to devastate the effect."

He also advised governments seek inputs before implementing policies because not doing so is "one of the stupidest things" governments can do.

Blair also noted that the Wikileaks incident had been "bad and disgraceful". He cited that if politicians were in a peace negotiations, they would like to be able to speak frankly because they were dealing with issues of extreme sensitivity. As such, governments must know they can operate confidentially to a certain extent.

"There will be oversight of your services that allows a proper system of accountability to be put in place," he said. "in government there's a need for a certain level of confidentiality. Not to protect that is foolish."

Ellyne Phneah of ZDNet Asia reported from the RSA Conference 2012 in San Francisco, USA.

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