It seems we’re barely over the euphoria about social networking systems, which were said to bring on revolutions. Now we’re scared half to death about mass surveillance on the internet and its ability to suppress dissent.

Not that such concerns are new. In Discipline and Punish, the philosopher Foucault writes of “disciplinary societies” modelled on Jeremy Bentham’s prison design, the panopticon. Bentham’s concept enabled screws to see what every prisoner was up to, while keeping the screws invisible. Foucault suggests that all hierarchical institutions like the army, schools, hospitals and factories have evolved historically towards this form. Other social critics say it particularly fits the internet.

And it does seem this potential nightmare was tailor-made for internet denizens. In the wake of the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks, Tom Brignall of Tennessee Tech warned of the potential for a “new panopticon”. The FBI was using a program named Carnivore to monitor e-mail randomly, he said. Brignall added: “The panopticon as a conceptual structure can be applied to any physical structure that provides the ability of those in a position of authority to monitor the ‘inmates’ without the ‘inmates’ knowing when they are being monitored. What is unique within the structure of the Internet is that it allows multiple layers of observation to occur such that the ‘inmates’ can become the observers of other ‘inmates’. In such a situation, no one knows who is the observer and who is the observed.”

Great: a computer system that enables us to scab on each other. Fears of this kind of detailed control are familiar enough. George Orwell’s 1984 was based on real societies, mainly the eastern bloc states.

While learning German in high school, I was given a pen pal from East Berlin. This meant I could later visit and assess East Germany’s fake socialism at first hand. It didn’t seem too bad at first, as long as you avoided looking at the notorious Berlin Wall. Then one day a Stasi agent confronted my pen pal on campus about our correspondence. Smirking, face to face: “You are writing to an American”.

He wanted to flaunt his power and the power of others like him. And so he might – East Germany was spy heaven. Not only did the state recruit perhaps half the population to spy on the other half; the Stasi even planted someone inside the West German cabinet, which is pretty good spying.

When the right time came for a democratic revolution, however, none of this mattered. The spooks went out of business. An East German broadcaster went to air, with a coded radio message in the form of a nursery rhyme: All my little ducklings, swimming on the lake. It was the signal for Stasi spies to make themselves scarce. The people of East Germany were in the streets; the Berlin Wall was coming down, so the Stasi files would soon be opened. Mass action had succeeded.

Since the exhilarating Arab spring, Egyptian activists have often spurned the claim that social media powered their revolution. It came from grassroots organising, mass action and good old fashioned class struggle, they insist. Similarly, they shrug off arguments that secret police can stop a revolution. They point to the fact that as the masses took to the streets, the Mubarak regime shut off the internet and mobile phone networks. Clearly Mubarak didn’t think internet surveillance could save him, and in the big scheme of things the cyber shutdown made little difference.

Researchers from George Washington University found that new media “did not appear to play a significant role” during the 2011 uprisings.

Social media’s main contribution in Egypt – and likewise in Iran – has probably been to get the story out to the world via YouTube and blogs. TV networks then turned the bloggers they liked (well groomed, middle class, politically moderate) into celebrities. And false claims and disinformation spread via the internet just as fast as valid information.

Meanwhile the main struggle was being fought out in streets and workplaces.

The Black Panther Party used to say, “The power of the people is greater than the Man’s technology”. It isn’t always; you have to mobilise. But if we build movements on a sound political basis, we can prevail.