Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Duty to Tweet?

Frank Pasquale

A group called "Sirens of Solidarity" has recently announced an "Electronic Sit-in In Solidarity with Iranians Protesting against the Rigged 2009 Presidential Elections." Andrew Sullivan has apparently endorsed the use of peer-to-peer surveillance to shame thugs in the Basij. Is Web 2.0 really becoming a "technology of freedom" via social software like Facebook and Twitter? If so, do defenders of liberty have some moral duty to be part of these networks?

Before getting too enthusiastic about the technologies behind these developments, I wanted to post a few words of warning from Trebor Scholz. He's observed that, "In Iran, blogs became a space for its people to discuss alternative interpretations of the Koran," but "there are [also] the astro-turfing attempts of the Iranian government that ordered over 10,000 conservative Basji paramilitary forces to start blogging." Lessons from Egypt are also ambivalent:

After studying the April 6th Youth Movement in Egypt I walked away with a nuanced, conflicting view of the way that Facebook functioned in this specific case. On the one hand, the Egyptian blogger Wael Nawara wrote that "in general, there's this kind of apathy, a sense that there is nothing we can do to change the situation. But with Facebook you realize there are others who think alike and share the same ideals. You can find Islamists there, but it is really dominated by liberal voices. Some of the demonstrations that ensued attracted more than 10,000 people and that mattered!! Protesters were not simply triggered by the Facebook group, of course, but it clearly helped to mobilize activists on short notice."

But then, of course, the FB group was also a convenient tool for the government to map activists and in that sense it severely hurt dissent. Activists need tools for secrecy.

After unpacking the above mentioned examples, it's still unclear to me if positive or adverse effects of these tools dominated in the end. I have more questions than definite answers and I certainly don't have an essentialist stance on the "liberatory possibilities of these corporate social media." I think it's too early to tell.

Even if Twitter blocks such misuses of its data (it has apparently responded to US State Department requests that it schedule maintenance in order to maximize opportunities for dissent in Tehran), we should ask: (1) who owns the underlying physical communications infrastructure? and (2) is anything political activists do on these networks safely private?

Perhaps the twitter protests can be seen in the way that Vaclav Havel modeled the "grocer who refuses to put up a sign" in his essay Power of the Powerless--as open civil disobedience that assumes the risk of persecution. However, we can question the architecture that may make digital samizdat an impossibility. Twitter alone cannot constitute an infrastructure of free expression.

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