Since the “Arab Spring” movement of early 2011, many have sought to understand the role played by Internet users and Social media platforms in overturning oppressive and totalitarian regimes. With great thanks to Twitter, Tunisians usefully mobilized social change. Without Facebook, how could Egyptians possibly have accomplished such timely and coordinated public protests? Perspectives often range from the Internet’s potentially disruptive nature to those who believe social media is just as likely to support the authoritarian powers themselves. However, there is a more intrinsic conflict to be explored.
The Arab Awakening, as some have referred to it, sheds light on the inconsistent relationship between social media policy and the goals and needs of modern social movements. Activists require certain prerequisites from social media sites such as anonymity and freedom to shed light on what is often a graphic topic. The contradiction lies within evolving missions, policies, and user agreements instituted by social media firms seeking greater monetization, which in turn negatively effects the goals set forth by activists who rely on these networks as a universal platform.
First, it is important to recognize core causes of the “Arab Spring” such as high unemployment, state repression, and widespread political injustices. Social media certainly played a strong role in the eventual revolutions that took place in the Spring of 2011, however much of the praise remains within the brave men and women of oppressed nations such as Egypt and Tunisia, for they put their own lives on the line in hopes of political freedom and a brighter tomorrow. In it’s natural existence, social media is a self-regulated exchange of information.
There is no legal requirement for any member to join, or, submit a plethora of personal information across the World Wide Web. Joining social media sites such as Twitter or Facebook requires users to confirm their understanding of a “User Agreement” set forth by the respective entity. Then, the company controls this agreement through its variety of computer codes. Code is essentially the law, for it’s the technological boundaries and restraints instituted by IT developers and designers employed by Facebook and Twitter. In a nutshell, they control your cyber existence as long as you choose to participate in their network.
The restrictive nature of Social Media architecture allows the creators (Facebook or Twitter) to have ultimate control over who and what ways of life can be expressed. Social Media contributed to Egypt’s and Tunisia’s collective action in four key ways: (a) by making it easier for disaffected citizens to act publicly in coordination; (b) by creating information cascades which bolstered protesters’ perceptions of the likelihood of success; (c) raising the cost of repression of ruling regimes; and finally (d) dramatically increasing publicity by diffusion of information to regional and global publics. (Youmans W. L. , p. 317)
Understanding the general functions of these will help illustrate conflicts between the goals of fiscal monetization and political activism. So, what are the goals of firms like Facebook and Twitter? Well like any successful business entity, in order to exist, they most remain profitable. These firms focus on increasing their overall user base, avoiding negative public relations, increasing revenue, expanding to new markets around the world, and improving overall user satisfaction. In order to be successful, Twitter and Facebook must constantly change their structure and user agreements to properly monetize the business.
The privatized goals of social media platforms such as profit and return to investors often conflict with an open structure civil activists have come to heavily rely on. For example, take the case of Facebook disallowing users to maintain an anonymous account. Facebook officials claim the site requires the users to supply their “true identities” for better coexistence online. In a May, 2011 New York Times article, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said, “Having two identities for yourself is a lack of integrity…. I believe that people behave better – and society will be better – if people cannot cloak their words or actions in anonymity” (Helft, 2011).
What is troubling is the fact that advertisers would refuse to conduct business with Facebook if the network fails to understand exactly whom it’s communicating with. This leads one to believe that while Zuckerberg claims an ideal cyber existence in which all users maintain a true identity, the bottom line is undoubtedly affected when advertisers are unsure of whom they are targeting.
Now, what are some main goals of political activists? First, there is an obvious need to possess a voice. Social media outlets can easily take a face or an organization, and in the case of Facebook, potentially broadcast it among channels to millions of people around the world. In the case of the “Arab Spring” users could easily forum the daily repressions being experienced by many of their citizens, as well as upload pictures and videos, which allows the world to empathize with their situations. Next, many political activists require impeccable organization.
In countries under authoritarian rule, protests must be early and sizeable, otherwise the regimes in power will quickly sweep matters under the rug; kill the leaders. With the use of social media, two key elements of logistics are accomplished. First, an accurate estimation of real time turn out and interest in protesting. Users will sign up and show commitment to the cause, allowing leaders to plan appropriately. Then, it is important to have a central and effective location selected, thus giving stronger effectiveness of a protest.
In the case of the “Arab Spring” many of these groups, such as the now well-known “We Are All Khaled Said,” accomplished concise and effective organization in the relative secrecy and privacy of their own homes. However, what happens when groups such as “We Are All Khaled Said” collides with the Facebook restrictions on anonymous users? In this case, Facebook deactivated the account in November of 2011, for which a spokeswoman responded, “it was removed because of a violation of our terms and not because of contact from any government” (Coker, Malas, Champion, 2011).
Now, it is widely known that the user was in fact Google executive Wael Ghonim. The activist, a native of Egypt, said he “required an anonymous identity to ensure his personal safety” (Youmans W. L. , p. 319). In countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, whom are under a constant totalitarian rule, any open defiance of the leaders in power will often result in public ridicule, imprisonment, or even death. Thus, it is understandable that Ghonim desired a pseudonymous account, for in fact, he himself was fearful of losing his life or causing harm on the ones he loves.
But, is this really Facebook’s fault? Some researchers would beg to differ. In a 2012 review titled “Social Media and the Activist Toolkit,” author W. L. Youmans writes: Companies must appeal to broad classes of users and advertisers, which both can help activists and lead to policy changes that constrain them. Social media operators are not inherently anti-activist by agenda or driven by ideological impetuses. As the platforms were not designed to cater to activist users, changes in rules and architectures can have negative, unintended consequences for activists. (Youmans, W. L. , p. 317)
When Zuckerberg first created the social networking behemoth, he says, “it was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected” (Facebook CEO, 2012). However, since then, he has taken on many new investors, which have allowed the company to accomplish unimaginable growth. Soon, the corporation will be publicly traded, and thus, forced to provide investors with dividends. This will affect activists for the reason that Facebook continues to tighten up its position on anonymous users in order to make a maximum profit, and satisfy investor needs. Real identities are easier to monetize.
They are needed for online commerce as well as for generating the valuable consumer data the Facebook collects. The point of conflict between social media policy and activist needs can further be explored through YouTube. However, there is a lesson toe be learned for other social media outlets such as Facebook. YouTube, the video sharing giant, has been cited as “a vital platform in the Arab Spring, particularly in Syria, where the absence of professional journalists has created a need for citizen video” (Youmans W. L. , p. 320). Up until the eventual success in the Arab Spring of 2011, Syrian media was always controlled by the state.
This form of bipartisan coverage greatly contributed to the ignorance of oppression being experienced by the Syrian people. Many videos from Syria were extremely graphic, capturing the regime’s use of violence to silence protestors. For this reason, YouTube took down a video of a young boy named Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, who was repeatedly tortured and killed by authorities in Jiza. Shortly following, users trying to view the video found a message saying, “this video has been removed as a violation of YouTube’s policy on shocking and disgusting content” (Melber, 2011).
However, automatic censorship designed YouTube’s “code” design was responsible for this measure. After much attention was brought to the video’s removal, YouTube officials reviewed this footage for themselves. Ultimately, the video was reposted, with company executive Olivia Ma stating: Although such violence violates our community guidelines and terms of service, making it subject to removal, we have a clause in our community guidelines that makes an exception for videos that are educational, documentary, or scientific in nature … So, we will actually adjust our policies in real time to adapt to situations.
The exemption granted to the Arab Uprising allowed activists a stronger voice, for many of the graphic videos posted reached worldwide media outlets, thus bringing on debate to superpowers such as the United States of “What can we do to help? ” Unfortunately, sometimes out of much good can also come evil. This is evident in the case of the “Syrian Electronic Army,” a hacker group devoted to demolishing any online content opposing the Syrian regime.
Using social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook, this online extension of Syria’s totalitarian government tweeted and posted words and images aimed at countering all of the efforts of the political activists previously mentioned. The responses to these actions by social media platform managers was mixed. For example: When the army attempted to drown out opposition messages on Twitter by using automated accounts to bombard users with photographs of Syrian landscapes using the hashtag #Syria, the company responded by removing the account’s tweets from hashtag search results, but did not remove them from their profile pages.
So why would Twitter take such a middle ground form of action? The answer is that it pleases both parties involved. Twitter generates its revenue through advertising, and as a global network, requires the greatest amount of users around the entire world, the Middle East included. By appeasing to calls from Western Activist groups and removing certain “Syrian Electronic Army” content, the corporation satisfies both groups’ needs. After all, the totalitarian leaders in Syria have ultimate power over content that is viewed within their country.
If Twitter were too completely eliminate accounts such as that of the “Syrian Electronic Army” they risk losing an entire country (and most likely it’s close allies) resulting in a reduced user base. As a result, this would negatively effect the company’s advertising revenue the in the Middle East. The final question being raised is the social responsibility of media corporations such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter? By demanding users to provide their true identity, upheld by user agreements and site design, does Facebook willingly admit to endangering the political activists of totalitarian regimes such as Egypt and Syria?
By cautiously scaling the tightrope between pleasing activists and authoritarian governments alike is Twitter choosing a moral view of apathy towards right and wrong, for not taking this action could affect profit? Or, should both Twitter and Facebook take a lesson from YouTube; a case by case policy change, allowing the company to maintain users while also shedding light on significant world oppression? The current truth is that polices of these giant corporations, whom seek profit, conflict with the needs of political activists around the world.
All of these raise significant questions as to how social media sites will conduct themselves in the future, having learned from the past Arab Spring of 2011. The needs for anonymity will always hold true in oppressive and dangerous totalitarian societies. A desire for the world to see graphic content cannot be obstructed by user agreements if the footage sheds light on real life travesty. Finally, by admitting the significant role social media giants play in political reform, these groups may need to consider setting aside the goals of bottom line to help create a better existence for all of their customers (users) around the world.