New Internationalist

Social Media, Anti-Social Ends

The all-new No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance is out this month. Author Robin Tudge analyses censorship and political control in the growing social media landscape. 

Social Media, Anti-social Ends

The popular uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East started with the overthrow of Tunisia’s authoritarian government. But was it a ‘Twitter revolution’ or a ‘Facebook revolution’ (or indeed a Wikileaks revolution)? Which company has the greater claim, Google cannot say. Yet, one might think it's the greatest revolution of people power, democracy and human rights seen since the Berlin Wall fell. With uprisings razing across two continents, social media has undergone some sublime feat of corporate rebranding. Facebook and Twitter have become synonymous with the democratic aspirations and empowerment of people worldwide, wherein those millions of brave citizens risking their lives by overthrowing decades-old dictatorships have become free extras in an epic viral marketing exercise, propagated by social media. 

Well, that’s when social media isn’t being used to crush opponents. Egyptian police used Facebook and Twitter to track down protesters’ names before ‘rounding them up’, and Egypt’s military never really lost control. 

Elsewhere, police forces use Facebook to pettier ends. New Delhi police’s Facebook page allows tens of thousands of citizens to denounce and upload photographic evidence of traffic violations, enabling the issuing of hundreds of tickets. But social media is so easily used for remote monitoring to pre-empt dissent. Hence, British and European police forces need not spend time and money with potentially embarrassing infiltration efforts a la Mark Kennedy. Instead, under the direction of the UK’s National Policing Improvement Agency, some 3,500 police and detectives are being trained to track social networking sites for allegations of domestic violence, rape and honour crimes, as well as any political movements considered a likely danger.

Anyone can legally and freely follow a Tweet thread with all its opinions, plots and real-time updates. Indeed, the Inspectorate of His Majesty specifies that the British security forces should focus on social network surveillance as protestors use them via mobile phones to plan – and change plans – ‘in minutes… police officials in charge should plan their actions with the possibility in mind.’

And both protesters and police use social media to spread their messages. During the siege of Fortnum & Mason and the battle of Trafalgar Square, protesters’ were met tweet for tweet by the Met making its case for coshing and kettling. A more sustained campaign is the US Military’s $200 million Operation Earnest Voice. Avatars working on Facebook et al act as ‘sock puppets’ to spread positive propaganda across extremist, non-US-based networks. At first, it countered extremism in post-Saddam Iraq but has since expanded to anywhere or anyone considered to be extremist, like anti-war or anti-arms industry protestors or environmental activisits.

Up to the early 1990s, telecommunications monitoring was dominated by ECHELON, a global network dominated by the US, with support from the UK, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand intelligence agencies. But globalisation and the Internet have enabled global monitoring to become less of a clandestine state enterprise than a privatised matter, and services from Google Alerts to www.buzzcapture.com enable any entity to monitor to some extent who and what is being said about certain subjects.

Meanwhile, the 2001 Patriot Act allows the US government to demand all the data that passes through the clutches of US companies working abroad. Facebook is a US firm, with nearly a tenth of the world’s population profiled. We must assume that updates and data are routinely filtered through CIA, NSA or FBI supercomputers – including not only how much you drank last night, or the last protest you attended, but everything your friends did, too, the kind of guilt by association that leads innocent Americans and Europeans to end up on No Fly Lists, and innocent Muslims to suffer Extraordinary Rendition.

Last December the US Department of Justice demanded that Twitter hand over account details – connection records, sessions, IP addresses, email and residential addresses, bank account and credit card details – of Julian Assange and Private Bradley Manning, but also those of Birgitta Jonsdottir, a former volunteer for Wikileaks and now an MP in Iceland, prompting an official complaint from the Icelandic government. As the DoJ is telling the world, anyone’s online work and identity can and will be retrieved wherever they themselves may be in the world.

Too often people disclose way too much information about themselves. However, social media firms are working hard to batter down data protection and privacy laws. Facebook is notorious for abruptly changing its privacy settings to leave profiles and data exposed to the world and its marketing algorithms, while countless apps stream out users’ data in real time.

Facebook also has dedicated lobbyists in Brussels and Washington who attempt to convince government officials to ‘understand our philosophy’and prevent them from passing laws preventing ‘the beneficial sharing of information’.

Facebook meanwhile engages in its own censorship of Christian groups, as is claimed on facebookcensorship.com, at the behest of no one in particular, but governments may still fear Facebook more than its users should. It is blocked in China, whose own state-approved version, Renren, is shortly to float on the US stock market. China’s Market Stalinism shows rampant capitalism prospers at the expense of democracy, and Western tech firms cash in. Google may have abandoned China’s billion-dollar internet market in 2010 as it refused to bow to government censors of its search filters, but this was belated, with Google having submitted to Chinese state censors since 2006, and the company’s ire was only stoked in 2009 when Beijing could or would not prevent hacking attacks on the Gmail accounts of human rights advocates outside China.

However, Bill Gates scoffed that China’s Internet censorship was ‘very limited’ and ‘easy’ to evade, before noting that ignoring a host country’s laws meant ‘you may not end up doing business there’. Gates argues that bringing the Internet to China serves the greater purpose for information sharing – but aiding a totalitarian government to crush dissent is not a step back for two gained on the road to freedom. It is simply a step back, abetting oppression for the sake of profit. Microsoft has censored the China-sourced content of its blog service Windows Live Spaces, and AOL, Skype and Yahoo! are among those that agree. In 2004, Yahoo! gave Chinese police the details of dissident journalist Shi Tao, who ended up being imprisoned for 10 years.

Google, Facebook and Twitter are not evil per se, they are just profitable firms providing a tool that is put to ends good or ill. Perhaps social media doesn’t kill people, it’s governments that kill people, and Western tech firms just follow the law. But whatever else you use Facebook or Twitter for, don’t believe the hype – they’re not your friends. 

Comments on Social Media, Anti-Social Ends

Leave your comment