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Social Media Empowers Democracy and Oppression

30 May 2018

If you listen to the ways social media sites describe themselves, it’s usually a description of connecting and empowering people. If you haven’t recently read the mission statements of social media sites, Twitter’s published mission statement focuses on “giv[ing] everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers” and Facebook’s is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” While those statements aren’t false, at least at face value, operating at a global scale means that the reality isn’t quite as romantic.

Social media has indeed empowered all kinds of movements. Most users of large social networks connect with others freely without a lot of thought to the network behind them, or its rules. In some ways, social media may be a more approachable version of the largely uncensored IRC chats and other sites from earlier days of the Internet. One of the larger recent movements, the Women’s March, which roughly 1% to 1.6% (3 million to 5 million) of the United States participated in, saw its start on Facebook. Social media is undoubtedly powerful and provides platforms that connect everyone to the world.

However, we now know that well-intentioned humans are not the only users of the networks. Bot armies, available for rent, also inhabit social media to spread all sorts of ideas. They call out racists, they spread information true and false, and they spread confusion. It’s tough for us to tell when users are bots or who really is behind a post. This makes social networks a great way to spread propaganda, which social media sites aren’t always good at removing.

Bots and blatant propaganda aren’t the biggest information problem that social sites face. Due to the fact that larger social networks operate globally, the companies behind them need to comply with local laws, wherever and whatever those laws may be. Though much of the western world’s users enjoy a high degree of free speech (though not entirely on social media), other places don’t have the privilege of using social media to connect freely. Just last year, in 2017, a computer engineer in Vietnam had his house stormed by police due to a poem he published on Facebook criticizing how the country was run. The Harvard Law Review notes that even in countries with strong freedom of speech protections, such as the U.S., social websites likely have the right to censor our speech as part of their own free speech rights.

When social media and governments choose to collaborate to oppress an opinion, as we saw with the Vietnam arrest, users can be powerless to know or fight their efforts. Digital content is the only content that can be completely banned so that nobody can see it. We don’t really know what the internal processes are for censoring content is on social media and it’s hard–if not completely impossible–for us to know that it’s happening. With the case of the computer engineer in Vietnam, the arrest came weeks after Facebook committed to working with Vietnam’s government to prevent content that violated local laws from appearing on the platform. Not only that, but the arrest is not the first and likely not the last, as more than 50 countries have passed laws over the last five years aimed at controlling how their citizens use the Internet.

It doesn’t stop at intentional collaboration between a social site and the government. Independently, social media is being used by governments, with both good and bad motivations. In addition to the obvious; social media being used to reach out to supporters and shape opinion, the Internet provides additional ways to keep an eye on constituents, regardless of motivation. Social platforms provide an easy way for ruling parties to keep tabs on the private opinions of their citizens. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny described the Internet used this way as a “focus group” by the Putin regime. Private opinions expressed on social media can also help reveal how effective local officials are since there isn’t always a direct channel for higher officials to be aware of local politics.

While the utopian idea that all it takes to empower people is to provide open access to the Internet is appealing, we need to be aware that it’s not realistic. While the general idea is true, actually providing that open access is much more difficult in reality. Some governments want their piece of the action and block or censor sites that don’t comply with their rules. Net neutrality and Internet Freedom aim to put in place rules to ensure that Internet Service Providers as well as social websites, respectively, don’t close off content.

Care about an open and neutral Internet? Check out my book, Please Upgrade for Access, at book.thenaterhood.com.

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