The true believers who credit Facebook and Twitter with singlehandedly enabling regime-toppling revolts in Egypt and Tunisia and the Green Revolution in Iran give social media too much credit, Ambassador David J. Smith said Wednesday.
But those who say social media hasn't fundamentally changed the way democracy movements operate in repressive states are also off the mark, Smith said during a Web chat hosted by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
"Social media are enablers -- more than tools but less than causes -- of unrest, which may or may not result in revolution," Smith said. "They interact with traditional social networks synergistically, possibly leading to new levels -- size, tempo and frequency -- but also possibly leading to confusion, backlash and reactive use."
He later added: "Be careful about painting social media as an independent actor. It cannot create change or revolution. However, it is an incredibly powerful enabler."
Smith led a round of U.S.-Soviet defense talks in September 1989 that allowed for the continued deployment of ballistic missile defenses through the fall of the Soviet Union and has been a nuclear and foreign policy adviser to numerous Republican lawmakers and campaigns. He is now director of the Georgian Security Analysis Center in Tbilisi and has been a senior fellow at the Potomac institute since 2005.
Smith rejected the idea that social media had lowered the bar for dissent, leading to revolutionaries who aren't really willing to put skin in the game.
"There have always been various levels of commitment," he said. "People who risk their lives are a minority. That was true during the French Revolution as it was in Tahrir Square."
He also rejected the notion that social media has dumbed down revolutionary movements, limiting them to gripes that can be expressed in 140 characters or less.
"Revolutions are created by ideas," he wrote in the chat session. "Social media communication may be 140 characters, but there must be something beneath [it to] build upon social forces and act with traditional social networks."
Smith warned that dissidents shouldn't confuse U.S. government support for Internet freedom and encouragement through social media with a commitment that goes beyond words. But that's no reason U.S. officials should keep their mouths shut, he said.
"I think it is irresponsible to tell people that we will do something that we will not do, as we did in Hungary in 1956," he said, referencing an uprising against the communist-controlled Hungarian government, which the Soviet Union crushed while the U.S. did not intervene.
"[But] is not irresponsible to help people yearning for freedom," he continued. "What they're willing to do is not our call from our comfortable living rooms. Be careful of aiding oppression by saying that information could get someone hurt."