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When the town square is online, power lies with the people

Hands up if you’re on Twitter. EPA/Al-Masry Al-Youm

In the age of information, we no longer need to leave the house to shape democracy. We’re heading towards a world in which the traditional sites of protest are sitting alongside online forums, which are becoming an extremely powerful democratic tool.

Tiananmen Square, 1989. DesEquiLIBROS, CC BY-NC-SA

During the Tiananmen Square protests, the Chinese regime was acutely aware of the threat posed by thousands of unarmed students and workers occupying a public space, so it sent in soldiers and tanks to take them on. The most powerful image from the time was taken on 5 June 1989, when a young student, later nicknamed the Tank Man or Unknown Protester, armed only with two plastic bags was able to stop a column of Chinese tanks.

He was able to do it because common knowledge is an extremely potent weapon: everybody was watching, and everyone knew that everyone was watching, and everyone knew that everyone knew that everyone was watching and so on. That left the Chinese government exposed. When public space meets common knowledge, power can shift from established authority to the people.

While the public space is an important political tool, it only works as such if the political power is in the crowd – the foundation of democracy. Without that crowd, Tiananmen and Tahrir are just squares. A ruler’s power naturally consists only of the power he or she can invoke, and when this is done in the presence of the crowd, the crowd becomes an unstable reactor core with its own dynamics, determined by the public space’s inherent laws.

In the information age, public space is different. Protesters still meet in symbolic locations but activism is happening in the public space of the internet far more frequently. It is practically a daily event these days. Public space must now be understood as a special information structure rather than a physical place. In this sense the blogosphere, social media such as Facebook and media platforms like YouTube are the public spaces of the 21st century – for better or for worse, as with the physical public spaces of old.

Unlike Tiananmen square, or the Berlin Wall or Tahrir Square, anyone can access the centrally located public space on equal terms at any time and from almost any place. They can then communicate information and views in such a way that they become an inevitable part of society’s common consciousness. On a basic level, that’s how memes spread but it’s also how important political messages and powerful misinformation spreads too.

Add the speed and global reach of information technology and social media to the already potent mix of public space and information, and you have a very commanding weapon that makes missiles and warships look somewhat clumsy.

If these common channels of information are turned into target packages so as to hit, say, a financial market, traffic control systems or power supply, then any power structure can be toppled, or at least seriously undermined, in an instant.

The common value and raison d’être of the public space is the opportunity it gives each individual to demonstrate almost infinite powers and knowledge to the society that surrounds them. That’s how one person is able to stop a column of tanks – they combine common knowledge with public space.

During the 2011 Arab Spring, the mob’s annexation of central public spaces and squares worked as the root that nurtured rebellion. Modern information technology then played off that public space to fuel the uprising. That collision between common knowledge and public space perhaps accounts for one of the most important differences between the rebellions in Egypt and Syria. The Syrians had public spaces in the traditional sense but lacked access to the modern kind, or at least the regime tried to prevent or limit access to information about what was really going on.

Those who are able to control the information considered common knowledge among citizens are the ones holding real power. In the case of Egypt, the state ultimately lost the battle to contain information as it leaked out from the country via social media and underground networks.

Perhaps mindful of this power, Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently banned Twitter in the country.

Everyday democracy

The common value of communication, which only public spaces can provide, is, however, not limited to fighting despots and regimes. In modern democracy, public spaces, the blogosphere, crowd opinion aggregators and social media platforms play a constant and fundamental democratic role if they are used correctly – not to stimulate bias, echo-chambers, lemming effects and other unfortunate irrational group behaviour, but to allow users and citizens to freely, and on informed basis, deliberate, decide and act.

In these public spaces, citizens recognise each other simply by existing in the same place. The simple representation in public space of all society’s citizens in all their shapes and sizes establishes a public signal, which inscribes itself in our common consciousness. Everyone has a voice to the public now, everyone is on that score equal on Twitter, but of course, a voice to the public should always be used thoughtfully and with great care.

Upper-crust and famous figures, homeless people, religious minorities, the elderly, school teachers, white-collar workers, account managers and students all have a right to a place in democratic consciousness. If we are not all represented, then we have removed the basic prerequisites for democratic debate – equality, freedom and mutual respect.

The common value of the public space is therefore a fundamental value for our democracy, whether speaking of Tiananmen Square, Brandenburger Tor or Liberation Square in Baghdad. And modern democracies are perhaps even more sensitive to the power of the modern public space than they were to the uprisings that used to only happen on the street.

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