New Social Networks and Their Effects in the Public Sphere
by Collin Wynter
Social media can be likened to a tool. Tools have a purpose that may be intrinsic to their creation, but creativity allows for unexpected exploitation. Think something as simple as a safety pin to extract a splinter. Electronic systems, on the other hand, are quite a lot more complicated. They have been designed under the purview of connecting the public digitally. Nodes of communication allow for the dissemination of information at speeds and magnitudes bracketed only by the service providers. The type of data transmitted vary, though. Sources of information may be neutral, just providing data; intentional, trying to provide a perspective; or affective, trying to condition behaviour. Therefore, users of the digital space must be conscious of the information they are receiving and its implications. Digital awareness provides a safety mechanism to sort through misinformation online and in a person’s cognition. Allowing the government to determine censorship is tantamount to an attack on individuals’ freedoms. Use of the digital space allows the pubic to counteract totalitarianism. Creating space for the fluidity of ideas unencumbered by Big Brother watching you, presents opportunity for individual liberties to flourish. Considering the implied use of social media as a mechanism for the free flow of speech and ideas, this technology must be protected, regardless of any authoritarian ideology meaning to curtail it for the public’s benefit.
In the follow essay, first the examination of social media censorship in regards to the uprise of digital hate will occur. Is censorship the appropriate method in which to protect individuals from words and expressions? Then, the Chinese method of censorship through data collection and surveillance of its public will be discussed. This is an extreme method of censoring public dissent demonstrates the adage of absolute power corrupting absolutely. And finally, the Arab Spring will provide a shining moment of the need for censorship to discarded for the sake of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Censorship that has been driven via a culture of “digital hate speech” (Ganesh, p 31) has developed partly because of the anonymity on the internet. This provides a challenge to the government and social media providers by creating an arms race for control of the flow of information on their platforms versus the users. The more authority and censorship applied, the better the users manage to maneuver around the security. Specifically, “alt right” (Ganesh, pg 32) groups are being targeted as the purveyors of digital hate speech, while the attack is purportedly on “leftist political ideologies” (Ganesh, pg 34). This one sided perspective on the use of social media is creating a narrative that may drive the population to desire increased levels of censorship for one particular group of individuals. In actuality, many persons behave in negative ways on social media, regardless of the political leanings. Describing digital hate as a “fluid structure” (Ganesh, pg 36) that is difficult to govern, intones the need to control the physical structure itself. This means that if you cannot pre-determine the intrinsic ephemeral quality of information, then control of the physical structure is paramount. Thus, the internet being made up of “materiality of connections” (Ganesh, pg 36) can be administered by a centralized authority. Ganesh defends this concept by stating that digital hate speech is more dire than terrorist groups (Ganesh, pg 36). This narrative implies that the public is incapable of having independent conversations without the need of authoritarian intervention. An individual’s capability to assimilate information, compare and contrast that with other sources, critically examine the statements being presented and then communicate these ideas clearly through dialogue, is somehow unworthy of notice. The use of government to regulate and control freedom of speech will set a dangerous precedence.
The Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian style uses data to control and condition its population via a “social credit system” (Jiang, p 380). The use of “Big Data” and “Big Brother” (Jiang, p 374) are two aspects contributing to this dominance. Big data has three parts. The “technocentric” (Jiang, p 375) focus is presented as a solution to determine how a person should behave normatively. This may in turn remove the self determination of the individual. The “decontextualization” (Jiang, p 376) of the data removes the individual from the conversation. It’s only about data, personal experience does not matter. The “non- reflexive” (Jiang, p 377) surveillance function presents the whole population as a group that may be viewed as a collection of information without taking into account the personal desires of those being monitored. It matters not what the people want, only that they fit into the prescribed data network. “Issues of harm and accountability” (Jiang, pg 377) are of primary concern. False impressions that the public’s privacy must be relinquished for optimal security is tantamount to the continued invasion into personal lives. Specifically, the security of information technology is being leveraged against freedom from interference by the government. This is the Big Brother approach: One in which the state deems itself more capable of making the right decisions for the populace, than the people themselves.
Social media platforms have the capability to provide “sites of counter-hegemonic spheres of debate” (Miladi, pg 37).The “Arab Spring” (Miladi, pg 43) is a primary example. The free expression and social activism applied by the populace to determine the course of government action has been exemplary (Miladi, pg 36). Social media such as Twitter and blogging allowed for the creation of street journalists. The rapid dissemination of on the ground material was able to counter act the false narratives being perpetuated by the authorities and mass media (Miladi, pg 40). So, censorship was circumvented by the accessibility of the social networks (Miladi, pg 41). For safety, unverified social media accounts were being used. Al Jazeera was “uncomfortable to enumerate unverified reports” (Miladi, pg 42), but in the end they acquiesced. The critical nature of the situation required that the truth to be told. Anonymity was required for them to be seen. However, it should be noted that the disruption of the government created a political vacuum with unintended consequences. None of which we will examine in this essay.
Social media is an integrated function of our society. The normative use of the internet must be based on the intent of the user- while some ideologues may try to use authoritarian measures to determine right and wrong use- the outcome will in fact be dependent on the audience perspective. Digital hate speech is being touted as an epidemic of digital poison because of the way information is being perceived by users. People using social media need to learn how to parse information. When encountering actual situations of hate speech, learning how to respond via dialogue and facts is more beneficial than creating limits on free speech. Censorship of speech may lead to silencing the public’s voice when most needed. China’s policies in regards to the control of information demonstrates that cataloguing people as a number reduces the need for a humanistic understanding of the individual. Human beings need the ability to communicate freely and have access to unfiltered information. This was demonstrated by the success of the Arab Spring participants. They were able to eat change through a grass roots movement. The application of social media for the betterment of humankind is not a trade off between right and wrong. It is an understanding that there are positive and negative uses. It is imperative that the rights to determine use stay in the hands of the people.
Ganesh, Bharath. The Ungovernability of Digital Hate Culture. Journal of International Affairs. Vol 71, No 2, pg 30-49. The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York.
Jiang, Min and Fu, King-Wa. Chinese Social Media and Big Data: Big Data, Big Brother, Big Profit? Policy and Internet. Vol 10, No 4, pg 372-392. Policy Studies Organization. 2018.
Miladi, Noureddine. Social Media and Social Change. Digest of the Middle East Studies. Vol 25, No 1, pg 36-51. Policy Studies Organization. Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Doha Qatar. 2016.