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Twitter boycott? No, let’s trust it – the Guardian

January 28, 2012
Below is the unedited version of my article published in the Guardian yesterday — a little bit longer, with the profanity (I tried to slip an “a7a” in the Guardian but failed, damn!) – and most importantly with all the links.

Random dude using Twitter with a random newspaper in Arabic

 

When Twitter announced it was giving itself the ability and right to censor particular tweets or users per country, the immediate reaction among users in the middle east as elsewhere was the same:

#shit. (in Egypt that would be #a7a).

 

Without overplaying its importance (no, it was not a Twitter Revolution, thank you very much) Twitter has nevertheless proven to be an invaluable tool for activists – in brief, to find updated and accurate information and news, to inform and publicize within their country and globally, and to communicate among themselves, particularly in time of crisis. The hashtag #egypt was the most widely used on the social network in 2011, and a Dubai School of Government survey estimates that Egypt had the largest number of active twitter users in any Arab Spring country. Such is the fear of governments from social networks, and Twitter in particular that it has repeatedly been blocked, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.

 

The initial panic was soon replaced by a fair bit of skepticism. Twitter has, after all, proven to be among the most activist of networks. From delaying a scheduled maintenance during the 2009 protests in Iran to quietly fighting a US court order to disclose private information on a number of its activist users, it’s hard to accuse the microblogging platform of clientelism to Middle Eastern governments. The $300 million stake of Saudi businessman Prince AlWaleed Bin Talal in Twitter, which represents a little above 3% of the company, surfaced of course – but were rapidly cast aside by logic (3% hardly qualifies anyone to make massive policy changes in a company) and by observers aware of Bin Talal’s business savvy which rules out such a damaging move.

 

Nevertheless talks about alternatives sparked – from identi.ca to Open-source social network Diaspora, with users comparing their merits and disadvantages being debated. The spirit of Jordan-based microblogging platform Watwet, which closed doors in June 2011 was also briefly summoned before being laid to rest – if censorship is the concern, a website under dictatorial jurisdiction may not be the best idea.

 

Very rapidly though workarounds neutralizing the risk of censorship circulated, the simplest being to change, in the user’s profile, the country of location to one where the blocked tweets were public. Which comes in handy for a large number of users, as many users in the Middle East do not list their country of origin to protect their identities – a discrepancy noted by social media experts and which explains why estimations of user numbers in Arab Spring countries vary wildly.

 

Further doubts on the efficiency of the Twitter censorship were practical ones. Social media expert and University of Maryland sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci pointed out the impossibility for dictatorial regimes to “fight it tweet-by-tweet”, underlining that the usefulness of twitter is largely its network and the multiplicity of sources and routes of information, more than individual tweets and as such cast doubts over the entire censorship usefulness. Tufekci is most supportive of the transparency the move introduces, by effectively informing users of what has been cancelled, rather than the content disappearing with no trace.

 

It is doubtful that users, in the Middle East or beyond, will flock away from Twitter – the strength and breadth of its network makes it near impossible to replace or replicate on the short or medium term. Furthermore it doesn’t appear users would be willing to let go of their favourite platform: even discussions about a one-day warning blackout to take place on Saturday the 28th are lukewarm at best. Most importantly though it doesn’t appear it will be necessary, given the softness of the censorship and its easy circumvention – in fact how it easy it is to circumvent makes it feel as if it was a deliberately easy to access back door, for Twitter to meet the control requirement or “historical or cultural reasons” for content restriction it cited in blog to justify this new policy.

 

And as Twitter appears to be willing to fight for its users freedom of speech, by pledging to report any tweet censored or, as it has done before, to challenge court orders, users are feeling relatively comforted that the network won’t sell them out.

 

And that trust, particularly for activists, is hard to replace.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2012 1:25 am

    Not very convincing.

    I understand that they can and will block user accounts not just individual tweets if so requested in the country requesting it and there are certainly some activist tweeters whose identities are known to their dictatorial governments even without the country being listed on the twitter account.

    Also this idea that they will block offending tweets only in the country where they are being made and not for the rest of the world is terrible. There is so much hype over how important it is to reach the international community. Sure it’s important but it’s more important that activists and ordinary people within a country can communicate with each other. It is blocking that communication that creates a real and possibly life or death situation for citizens standing up against oppressive regimes.

    We shouldn’t have to “trust” Twitter. They need a better plan. Maybe one that puts international law, freedom of speech and human rights above corporate interests and government oppression.

    They should trust that citizens will demand access to Twitter in their countries if their governments try to block it for not censoring activists. Twitter should trust that it’s interests will be protected by the power of the people. Censorship of activists by Twitter to protect itself is throwing the most vulnerable to the lions to protect a large corporation. That’s pretty cowardly of them.

  2. January 30, 2012 12:39 pm

    I think there’s more to it than that. Allow me to clarify a few things that may not have very clear in the article.
    – When i spoke of country i mean that blocked content will not visible to people who are marked as being in that country. So it’s not about where the Tweep is located but where the audience is.
    – content won’t be removed at the simple request, but if there is a solid court order for them to do so. Which will be hard to come by, even in a dictatorship.
    – I agree with you that communicating with people within the country is equally or more important than with people abroad. Hence why there are workarounds (and why they seem to be so simple).
    Actually some people believe that Twitter has more than that in mind – see here, for instance – and that they are deliberately presenting the case to raise outrage so they can say “see? People are upset, so we can’t implement this policy”.

    So hang in there. The story is far from being over..

    • January 31, 2012 5:31 pm

      Thank you for the additional information. How the software that they are proposing to put in place works with their system is certainly a bit confusing to me. But it does sound a bit like people will have to be a bit savvy and know not to list their location if they want to see blocked tweets. I suppose it points to another issue which is that it would seem someone can list any location so there is no way to really verify that people are where they say they are as well as being who they say they are.

      If Twitter is going to accept the laws of oppressive dictatorships then they will surely be accepting whatever kind of “court” order that country deems a proper directive. Even in Canada a court (being any judge hearing a case) can order the media to stop reporting on it and it takes effect immediately and now there are other internet bills in front of our Parliament that would basically allow the government to spy on all your activity. It is a lot of work trying to oppose these moves even in a democratic country. If a country wants to have a way to come up with an order to censor Twitter accounts (and the like) then they can go ahead and make a rule for it, much more easily done in a dictatorship and with their policy Twitter would be giving them a reason and a way to do it. I can see not worrying about the censorship of individual tweets but definitely of whole user accounts being blocked.

      I read that article on Al Jazeera and the impression I’m left with is that it is still about putting corporate interests above human rights. They want to open more global offices. What does that even mean? I thought people in Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc, for example already have access to Twitter if they have access to the internet. Doesn’t it mean that Twitter wants to be able to make business deals to make money off these users? Any way you cut it the Twitter users in those countries lose even if it is simply having to know they can’t list their country if they want to see all tweets. Then you have to ask yourself, once they are in these countries and have shown they are willing to take this approach, won’t there be pressure to come up with better software and systems to censor accounts?

      I don’t want to sound ignorant, but really I am. And I appreciate you probably don’t have all the answers to these questions and don’t have time to answer every comment. I just thought I would throw out these other thoughts I’m still having. I sounds like you will continue to follow this issue and I look forward to more articles on the topic.

      Anyway, I am always suspicious of corporations and don’t believe in trusting them. I would be very glad to see a lot more detail on their plan and a clear explanation from a tech smart person that can explain it to me as well as the rest of the internet confused masses how this would work.

      But even then they are saying censorship is o.k. when what they should be saying is: “Look what a great company we are and how many of your citizens are using our program. There’s a lot of money making potential for you rich business investors and it’s definitely worth helping us to get a foothold in your country despite the fact that you might not like every tweet.” But they never would, would they? Corporations would sell their own mother (if they had one) to make a buck. Have you seen the documentary “The Corporation”? Very interesting.

  3. Maurits Rade permalink
    January 31, 2012 7:11 am

    Dear Mohamed El Dahshan,

    I am sending you this email since I am writing my thesis in Cairo on some related issues, and I appreciate your insightful thoughts. I hope to nuance and elevate the current debate on communication technologies in Revolutions by taking a historical perspective; making an case study analogy between the ongoing Egyptian Revolution and the French Revolution of 1789. In this regard, is there a chance we could meet somewhere this week in Cairo to discuss these issues – if your busy schedule allows it? It would not take long and will hopefully move away from the utopian and dystopian discourse.

    With the utmost respect,

    Maurits Rade (University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands)

    P.S. If you’re interested, I can send you my preliminary thesis outline.

    • January 31, 2012 6:39 pm

      Hope the Egyptian Revolution doesn’t follow the trajectory of the French Revolution transitioning to the Terror and then the reign of Napoleon. That was a rough ride for the French. Just watched a really interesting documentary on Jacques-Louis David, the painter/propagandist that played such a big role in the French Revolution and became notorious for his depiction of the Death of Marat as a martyr, the main author of the Terror in which tens of thousands died, guillotined, massacred by canon or tied up on barges and drowned in a river, or simply dying in prison.

      Having the military pose as the guardians of democracy in Egypt does not bode well.

      I hope your thesis looks at communications at all levels including civic organizations trying to form democratic decision making bodies and their communications with their respective communities as well as the kind of propaganda used by groups trying to seize power and have the eyes of the masses on them. Or maybe you’re looking at communications between the individuals/citizens in a revolution that would be interesting.

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