Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Darker Side of Social Media

As previously established social media isn't all about liking a fan page or tweeting about a delicious meal or uploading a funny looking cat to flickr. The video above is of course satire, but the best satire has more then a few grains of truth in it. I wrote in the London Progressive Journal a view months ago, there I argued that whilst social media has enabled political opposition to get around censorship and outright suppression, the fact that these services (including blogger) were made and more importantly run by private companies means that the ones with the real power have different interests and priorities then there user base. They often build services like facebook and twitter too make some money from advertising off the back of the web traffic all those connections and messages people send back and forth. Throw in a little (or a lot) information selling and you've got quite a big earner for you so long as it remains popular. The fact that these sharing networks were and are so useful to dissidents must of come as a surprise, though no doubt a welcome one.

Not only has interest from political activists increased the use of their services (often in foreign markets that would be difficult to penetrate otherwise) the fact that they were using the services for serious and laudable aims (like exposing brutality and corruption) also had a nice side effect of improving the companies image. Facebook twitter and the blog sites went from hobby dens and narcissistic cries for attention to defenders of truth and freedom. For the activists themselves the deal is pretty good too. The problem with the "Old" media is its actually quite easy to control if you already have power.

Lets say the police or military had launched an unprovoked assault on a strike or environmental protest, and the official line was either the police/military/party militia had acted defensively or the event never actually happened. Now you come into possession of photo's or a video showing that to be a lie, the problem is how to you prove that? You can't give it to a newspaper or a radio station or the six o'clock news. The government either control all the networks outright or the companies won't want to take the risk of provoking the government. But if you were to upload to a website "anonymously" it can be copied, downloaded and share throughout the world and expose the lie.

But of course that's just applicable for those living in nasty dictatorships. Surely we whom are privileged to live in the Liberal West were it is the market not the political party that makes the decisions should be ok right? Of course not, what we call the "free press and media" is more accurately called the privately owned press and media. Its simply naive to believe that a private newspaper (for example) would be any freer from a strict Editorial line then a state owned one. They both have interests beyond there idealistic commitments to integrity and accuracy.

In addition to being susceptible to political arm twisting of either the "Retract this story or face a fine" variety or the much more insidious "help us get in power and we'll return the favour" that appears to be endemic in both the UK and USA; private media is heavily reliant on advertising revenue and keen to avoid lengthy and costly litigation. That means that going to them to expose the bad behaviour of wealthy groups can result in stonewalling. For example its a very old joke that British Newspapers will quite strongly condemn companies or business practices whilst their own paper or the company that owns them either does the same practice or is a client of the very same company. Private Eye's Street of Shame segment (about News paper hypocrisy) is often full of this.

Police protection
While the paper has never mentioned the “fury” aroused by her reward for failure, an editorial made it very clear what it feels about Entwistle. “There was no way BBC Director General George Entwistle could have survived after the Newsnight paedophile scandal.”
In fact there is a precedent Entwistle could have cited had he chosen to hang on. Back in March 2003, the Sun printed a photograph of a man it claimed had been convicted of sex offences against children, under the enormous headline “FACE OF KID BAN PERVERT” – only to find that he was an unrelated and innocent man who had to leave his home and was put under police protection.

With all these hurdles and very high stakes if caught (blacklisting, harassment, imprisonment,torture,death or a combination of) its no wonder most turned to web to get their message out. And here lies the problem, social media has become so large and so effective at leaking information and embarrassing the powerful that increasingly the powerful believe its more effective to buy them out. Previously most repressive governments like Iran and China tried to compete with global social media by setting up there own versions which complied fully with their much stricter laws on content and anonymity (or rather the lack of anonymity) and perhaps more importantly the servers are based within their own borders making them available for searching by the authorities when ever the fancy takes them.

This hasn't been totally successful stories of abuse and corruption continue to leak out of all those nations regardless though I am sure it has help authorities catch a couple of "snitches" and limit information spread. It also had a fundamental flaw in that ironically these efforts to make the internet more opaque were transparent in there intent. The phrase "Great Firewall of China" itself went viral and I'm certain everyone online today has heard of at least one story of online censorship from the People's Republic. So instead what these regimes are doing is trying to buy the cooperation of those companies, and while it isn't guaranteed that every media network mogul will be as callous as the guy in the Onion video, should they decide to take those deals then their isn't a lot anyone can do. Which is why I feel quite strongly that it is important to be aware of this danger and if at all possible (I should point out I have absolutely no programming experience so will be zero help here) develop truly independent alternatives to networking.

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