The politics of social media

“Corporations and politicians worldwide have latched onto social media to advertise their brand and get the message out. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election was supercharged by Facebook and social networking, which became the ultimate tool for gauging public opinion and speaking to the masses. But working with social media can fast go horribly wrong. US Congressman Anthony Weiner’s recent fall from grace was brutal and should be a lesson to all who merge online networking with real-time power chasing. Social media holds power potential for those who play the game correctly. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, hire someone else to do it right. And always keep your pants on.” Paul Barry, The Power Index
Hot on the heels of British plans to shut down social networks to stop rioting, comes news they have already been beaten to it by the US. Demonstrators in San Francisco had planned a protest to condemn the shooting death of Charles Hill. Bay Area Rapid Transit police officers killed Hill on 3 July 3 after they responded to complaints about a drunk man at a station.
A week later protesters shut down three BART stations and planned a second protest last week. This time BART interrupted wireless service for three hours at some BART stations, to “ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.” They claimed they asked providers to stop service, but later admitted they did it themselves as it is allowed to do under its contracts with the providers – Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.
The move prompted hacking group Anonymous to hit back. They have planned Operation BART which they said was “meant to teach BART a lesson about the dangers of censoring people…and is supposed to be an educational experience for the operators.” Yesterday, they defaced BART affiliated websites and released user info for the website mybart.org saying they “are just warmed up.”
Anonymous compared the San Francisco moves to government censorship in the Arab Spring. “In Egypt and Tunisia, we saw people struggling to make their voices heard,” Anonymous said. “We have seen companies such as Telecomix delve into the nastiness of political corruption in an attempt to free those censored individuals from their prisons of silence.”
Whatever the truth of that comparison, the Arab regimes remain suspicious of social networks. This week, an Egyptian has been charged with using Facebook to incite violence. The Egyptian Military Prosecution arrested activist and blogger Asmaa Mahfouz, 26 for defaming the junta and calling for armed rebellion. The court said Mahfouz used Facebook to call for the assassinations of Supreme Council of Armed Forces members and judges. “If justice is not achieved and the justice system fails us, no-one should feel upset or surprised if armed gangs emerge to carry out assassinations,” Mahfouz wrote. “As long as there is no law and there is no justice, anything can happen, and nobody should be upset.”
Mahfouz and others may be helped by the Telecomix site mentioned in the Anonymous post about BART. Telecomix is an international organisation “dedicated to informing the public about internet freedom issues”. Telecomix member Peter Fein likens it to guerrilla informational warfare. “We’re kind of like an inverse Anonymous,” Fein said. “We operate in a very similar way to Anonymous not just IRC (Internet Relay Chat ) but also the non-hierarchical structure. Except they break things and we build them.” When Egyptian authorities cut off the internet and telephones, Telecomix filled a a need for internal communication. “Not for people to be able to talk on Facebook or Twitter to the world, but amongst themselves … so there were a number of tools, mesh technology and so on — that we tried to help people figure out,” Fein said.
The experiences learned in North Africa may need to be re-applied to the Western world. British Prime Minister’s knee jerk “kill switch” proposal for social networks may sound idiotic and undemocratic but that does not mean it will not be tried if he thinks there are votes in it. Cameron’s statement to MPs said they were working with police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services “when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
People will plot violence regardless of the availability of social networks. But as the current Australian Government has shown with its internet censorship plans, moves to limit free speech are justified using tropes such as “not acceptable to civilised society” and protecting “young children”. China too has successfully mastered internet censorship with its Golden Shield (though 30 second Internet response times are throttling innovation). As Electronic Frontiers Foundation says of the Australian proposals, successful technology isn’t necessarily successful policy. “We’re still yet to hear a sensible explanation of what this policy is for, who it will help and why it is worth spending so much taxpayer money on,” said EFF.
Yet it is hardly surprising politicians are so wary of the technology. Most social media widely used today are still in their infancy and remain difficult to understand their use and potential effects. Yet as the Paul Barry quote illuminates, there is a coming of age of online political engagement, According to researchers Jim Macnamara and Gail Kenning (E-electioneering 2010: Trends in Social Media Use in Australian Political Communication) three-quarters of Australia’s federal politicians had a Facebook presence in 2010 while 57 per cent of citizens would like opportunities to comment on policies online and 36 per cent are interested in communication with their MPs online. But old habits die hard. Macnamara and Kenning found most politicians used social media primarily for one-way transmission of political messages, rather than citizen engagement or listening to the electorate. Maybe that will change as the technology matures, but equally likely it will be shackled to ensure powerbrokers keep their pants on.
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