New Internationalist

Getting a grip on social media

Enough of the hyperbolic chit-chat around social media – Facebook and Twitter!

Take these two articles: first, ‘Facebook sparked the Egyptian revolution’:

‘“Yes. I was angry that everybody was saying that we had to take action, but nobody was doing anything. So I wrote on Facebook: “People, I am going to Tahrir Square today.” This was a week before January 25. <…> I wrote that I was going to demand the... rights of my country. I wrote that I was 26 years old...”, the Middle East Media Research Institute quoted her [Asmaa Mahfouz] as saying in a report Thursday.’

And this one: ‘John McCain: Zuckerberg made North Africa revolutions possible’:

‘“This social networking cannot be underestimated in how all of these events, really the driving force in how all of this transformed and took place,” McCain said in his comments.’

The multimedia aspect of medium to high-end smartphones – such as video, camera, audio recording as well as traditional voice and SMS – have made mobile phones globally the most common 21st century communication device. They have helped to amplify our voices and text; video and micro-blogging have helped to mobilize and disseminate information across the world: in the Burmese monks’ uprising, the Mumbai bombings, the G20 summit in London as well as the Iranian protests and, more recently, the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Cameroon.

But to assign magical powers and responsibilities for revolutions to these tools not only ignores the background story of each uprising, but, frankly, is an insult to our intelligence as thinking people.

The hyperbolics also ignore the fact that these same technologies are becoming increasingly more invasive: they’re used to monitor our habits, our movements, our ideas, our friends and our associates. They’re also making huge amounts of wealth for a small group of corporations and individuals such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, AT&T and Vodafone, the world’s largest mobile service provider. We live under an illusion of freedom while these hyper-corporations invade our lives on so many levels; we even celebrate the fact that their reach is constantly growing.

Two recent news stories provide us with examples of the contradictions of social media and of those who control how it is used. The first story is about an operation by the US military to develop spy software which will enable them to create false online personalities:

‘The US military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.

A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an “online persona management service” that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.’

The military say it will be used to monitor Arabic, Urdu, Pashto and Farsi conversations. Seriously, am I supposed to be happy because they won’t be monitoring Hausa, English and Korean or that they won’t be targeting Facebook or Twitter? That sounds odd, as these are the two most commonly used social media sites; if they are going to the trouble and cost of designing the software, why exclude these two sites?

Like many other technologies developed by the military for their own use, this can and no doubt will be replicated by private corporations, NGOs, the Vatican and, well, just about anyone, really.

At the same time as the US military is developing spyware to invade people’s lives, another arm of the US government is developing a ‘panic button’ for use by pro-democracy activists across the world. Once the button (it's an app for smartphones) is pressed, a person’s telephone address book will be wiped off and emergency alerts sent to other activists.

‘“We've been trying to keep below the radar on this, because a lot of the people we are working with are operating in very sensitive environments,” said Michael Posner, assistant U.S. secretary of state for human rights and labor.

The U.S. technology initiative is part of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s push to expand Internet freedoms, pointing out the crucial role that on-line resources such as Twitter and Facebook have had in fueling pro-democracy movements in Iran, Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.’

Notice once again the reference to Twitter and Facebook ‘fuelling’ pro-democracy. So, on the one hand, the US presents itself as the ‘protector’, while on the other it is the ‘attacker’. One wonders if the two hands actually know what the other one is doing!

Technologies are inherently neither good nor bad; innovations are socially and economically driven, and reflect the economic and social power relations of the society which creates them; gender and class differences can and often are magnified by technologies. This is reflected in Facebook’s increasing invasion of our lives. The site is in the process of upgrading its monitoring capabilities to enable more targeted advertising. Even before we speak, Facebook will know what we are thinking and what we want! And if Facebook can use this technology for advertising, what’s to stop others from using it for more sinister activities?

‘Social-networking Web site Facebook Inc. is quietly working on a new advertising system that would let marketers target users with ads based on the massive amounts of information people reveal on the site about themselves. Eventually, it hopes to refine the system to allow it to predict what products and services users might be interested in even before they have specifically mentioned an area.’

Though Twitter is far less invasive, it is no less secure. Witness the US government’s demand that Twitter release information sent by the Icelandic MP to WikiLeaks:

An Icelandic MP posted these two messages to her account:

First she posted: (via @tenpercent)

just got this: Twitter has received legal process requesting information regarding your Twitter account in (relation to wikileaks)

and then this:

usa government wants to know about all my tweets and more since november 1st 2009. do they realize i am a member of parliament in iceland?

The US government then obtained a court order in the US which required Twitter to release account information including IP addresses on conversations on WikiLeaks. Although in this instance Twitter managed to delay giving the information, it is only a matter of time before the US government gets what it wants.

Judge Theresa Buchanan in the Eastern District of Virginia, US ruled that because the government was not seeking the content of the Twitter accounts in question (.pdf), the subjects did not have standing to challenge the government’s request for the records. Content, under the Stored Communications Act, is ‘any information concerning the substance, purport, or meaning of that communication.’

The government is looking for data about the Twitter users’ accounts and how they are used, not the content of tweets or direct messages. It’s the Twitter equivalent of a list of incoming and outgoing phone numbers.

In other words, they are not interested in the content which is visible to everyone, but rather who is behind any particular Twitter handle. We need to see through these technology developments which are seducing us by pretending to be friendly and nurturing spaces where we interact with our friends, make new friends, or mobilize huge numbers of strangers to partake in revolutions for democracy and freedom. When really, they are giant invasive data banks in the business of harvesting information which they then use to either spy on us, make zillions of dollars, or both!

Alternatives to Facebook: Diaspora, Pip.io, One Social Web, Folk Direct – and then, of course, there is the tried and tested alternative…

It’s called REAL LIFE!

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