The Digital Disruption

The video is painful to watch. Amid screams of fear and pain, a Syrian girl at a school in Aleppo is forced to hold her classmate’s legs in the air. With a disconcertingly casual expression, their teacher hits the classmate’s feet repeatedly with a stick.

This video is at the center of a scandal in Syria. Although Facebook and YouTube are banned there, the video has gone viral and has gained over 4,000 fans on its page. After bloggers and the local news media took notice, the Syrian government investigated and recently announced the firing of the teachers involved.

Syrian activists have used connection technologies to encourage protest before. Last June, mobile phone users used blogs and social networking sites to coordinate a boycott of Syrian telecom providers over high prices.

However, the foot-beating incident is the first time activists have leveraged these technologies in a successful human-rights campaign. It illustrates that in repressive societies like Syria, where activists have to worry about getting caught, they increasingly operate Web sites rather than offices, gain followers rather than staff and use open-source platforms rather than relying on grants.

The technology that has allowed millions to share photos and information is fast becoming the latest tool in political activism.

The story is not always positive, of course, especially when the activists are unable to conceal their identity or, even worse, are infiltrated. Just weeks after the successful movement in Aleppo, the opposite happened in Damascus, where a 19-year old female Syrian blogger was arrested by authorities for “spying” — all too often the government label for dissent.

But the fact is that connection technologies will make the 21st century all about surprises. Indeed, new technologies and the desire for greater freedom are already changing politics in the most unlikely places. In 2008, Oscar Morales, an unemployed Colombian engineer, used popular social networking, video and Internet-based telephone services to orchestrate a massive demonstration against the FARC, Columbia’s Marxist insurgency.

In Iran last year, a small number of citizens used proxy and circumvention technologies to get information out of the country and onto YouTube, Twitter and other platforms. Although they only had a small role in organizing the protests in Iran, these tools were instrumental in seizing the world’s attention.

Inspiring as these stories are, connection technologies do not always empower citizens in positive ways. Connection technologies can benefit the human-rights activist and the terrorist alike. But whether these technologies will be used for good or ill is not the most important question. The most important question is how they will affect relationships between individuals and states. Not all governments will manage the turbulence of declining state authority the same way.

While much remains uncertain, it seems clear that those best suited to cope with this maelstrom will be free-market, democratic governments — and autocratic powerhouses such as China.

In the developing world, partially connected and still-connecting states will face a different set of opportunities and challenges. The stakes are high for states with weak central governments, underdeveloped economies and disproportionately young and unemployed populations. In these countries, connection technologies are breaking down the barriers of age, gender and socioeconomic status. While not removing the risks associated with activism, connection technologies are expanding the traditional realms of civil society, creating new spaces and new tools.

However, many governments in partially connected societies are wary. The sudden influx of connection technologies will threaten the status quo, leaving already fragile governments in potentially unstable positions. This is particularly true for those struggling to maintain political legitimacy. Anything that questions the status quo, the ruling party or the facade of stability poses a threat.

There are also the so-called failed states, which, while small in number, are globally significant. Chaotic and unable to act consistently, they are natural havens for criminal and terrorist networks that may have local grievances but harbor regional and global ambitions. Although connection technologies can be outlets for innovation in these countries, they also enable the exportation of criminal and terrorist behavior.

Around the globe, nonprofit groups and individual activists face new opportunities. Through technology, they will continue to shape government and corporate behavior by promoting freedom of expression and protecting citizens from threatening governments.

However, they will have to adjust to the new environment in which they operate. This means, among other things, they will have to ensure that efforts to expose wrongdoing do not strengthen governments apt to make nationalistic appeals; work behind the scenes when appropriate; and use technology in the private sector for their own ends.

Continuous innovation will pose difficult challenges for people and governments the world over. Even the best-informed and most active users of technology will find themselves caught in a blur of new devices and services. In an era when the power of the individual and the group grows daily, those governments that ride the technological wave will clearly be best positioned to assert their influence and bring others into their orbits. Those that do not will find themselves at odds with their citizens.

Eric Schmidt, chairman and chief executive of Google and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas and an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A longer version of this article appears in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs.