Arab Spring, public diplomacy

Corporate Policy, Social Media and Collective Action

Will Youmans, a PhD student at Michigan, and SuperTweeter Jillian York (@jilliancyour), of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have a new piece in Journal of Communication  titled “Social Media and the Activist Toolkit: User Agreements, Corporate Interests, and the Information Infrastructure of Modern Social Movements.” The article looks at four case studies from the Arab world — Facebook’s response to the “We are all Khaled Said” group, YouTube’s handling of gruesome videos from Syria, anti-atheist internet campaigns in Morocco, and the online activities of the pro-regime Syrian Electronic Army — to show the complex relationship between corporations, regimes, and protest movements.

From the abstract:

The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere have been credited in part to the creative use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Yet the information policies of the firms behind social media can inhibit activists and empower authoritarian regimes. Analysis illustrate how prohibitions on anonymity, community policing practices, campaigns from regime loyalists, and counterinsurgency tactics work against democracy advocates. These problems arise from the design and governance challenges facing large-scale, revenue-seeking social media enterprises.

Youmans, who has conducted several studies of Arab media (especially Al Jazeera), and York, one of the most prominent and insightful writers/researchers on issues of online privacy, are particularly well-positioned to write on this topic. The paper makes some interesting insights into how tech corporations’ fundamental desire to increase revenues and users can make for strange bedfellows with authoritarian regimes interested in squashing protest movements that utilize, and sometimes depend on, social media.

One of the important points they make is that “social media provide the tools for organized dissent yet can also constrain collective action.” This happens, they argue, because the code itself “sets the range of usability,” and company policies and user agreements both enable and constrain users. For instance, Facebook eventually took down the Khaled Said page because it violated their ban on pseudonymous users. Yet in authoritarian regimes protesters often risk their lives by going public.

YouTube is an interesting example of how a social media company is trying to confront some of these issues. YouTube bans graphic and “disgusting” videos, which has created problems when citizens have posted gruesome footage of regime violence during the Arab Awakening (and in Iran before that). Yet these videos are also often the only way, or the most effective way, of documenting these abuses for the wider world and fellow citizens in the given countries.

YouTube responded to this conundrum by allowing the videos — usually — under a corporate policy allowing footage that is “educational, documentary, or scientific” in nature. And they have been responsive to community policing of the videos posted to their site. But sometimes videos still get pulled, and even if they are ultimately allowed back online, it may be too late for them to be effective.

At the end of the day, however, social media companies are still businesses, and must make deals with these regimes to gain access to new markets. China is perhaps the best and most discussed example because of its huge population and repressive internet policies. Companies such as Google and Yahoo! have been willing to compromise on their ideals by censoring delicate topics, and sacrifice user privacy and even security, to appease government officials.

Regimes and their supporters take various approaches to social media-driven protest, ranging from shutting down the internet entirely to engaging in internet-based attacks and counter-propaganda campaigns. Recently, for instance, pro-Chinese government hackers have deluged Twitter conversations with the hashtags #Tibet and #Freetibet with spambots.

As the authors conclude:

Although social media firms made some exceptions for reformers during the Arab Spring, their policies and the architecture of their products will increasingly complicate collective action efforts. Nonetheless, pressures by users have and will continue to force adjustments in design and policy.

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About Sean Aday

Sean Aday is an associate professor of media and international affairs at George Washington University. He is also the director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication and director of the Global Communication M.A. Program. His research interests include: media and foreign policy/war, new media and politics, public diplomacy, media effects, and public opinion.

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